When I was elected to serve the people of Belfast, Belmont and Northport in the state Legislature two years ago, I went to Augusta determined to focus on getting our economy back on track. I was thrilled to be appointed to the Labor, Research, Commerce and Economic Development Committee, where I imagined we would debate policies that help to create jobs, stabilize our economy and put more money in the pockets of middle class families. Unfortunately, that too often has not been the case.
We have seen bill after bill focused on undercutting workers’ rights, targeting the unemployed, and putting corporate bottom lines before the interests of hardworking Maine families.
During the last few weeks, we heard four bills that would put a target on the back of unemployed Mainers, undermine our hardworking Maine loggers and undercut how the state tracks livable wage rates.
Despite great public opposition, the Republican majority on our committee endorsed a bill that would strip farm workers’ collective bargaining rights at the notorious DeCoster Egg Farm in Turner. This bill was then passed by the majority party in the House last month.
At a factory farm such as DeCoster, workers do some of the most difficult, dangerous and dirty work in the state. Why should the Legislature repeal their rights? Repealing workers’ rights will not create a single job. Repealing workers’ rights will not do a single thing to improve Maine’s economy or the working conditions of Mainers.
My family has a long tradition of small-scale farming in Maine. As the granddaughter of a poultry farmer, I helped out on the farm in Belfast growing up. I know firsthand of the tough working conditions of this industry. However, on my grandfather’s farm, he never forced me to go into a collapsed building to collect eggs, nor did he order me to shovel snow off the roof of a chicken house without any safeguards. The collapsed buildings, the lack of safeguards for workers — that is part of Maine’s history in large-scale factory farming. That is why the current laws exist.
Across the country and in Maine, factory farming like that at DeCoster is low-wage, difficult work. All state legislators should be determined to help Maine workers increase their economic prosperity and improve their lives. Bargaining rights is the way workers get a seat at the table. It is our best opportunity to achieve greater economic prosperity and future security. Why would we want to sacrifice Maine workers’ ability to improve themselves? Why would we ever undermine a worker’s negotiating power?
DeCoster and its supporters in the Legislature said these regulations would prevent more businesses from coming to Maine. Clearly, that was not the case.
In November of last year, Moark LLC, a subsidiary of Land O’Lakes, entered into a 10-year lease agreement with DeCoster Egg farms. The DeCoster team wanted to sweeten the deal by removing some basic protections for workers by drafting a bill that originally sought to remove overtime pay, state minimum wage requirements and bargaining rights.
We all welcome Moark LLC to Maine and we are confident they will treat Maine workers with the respect they deserve. We anticipate the better treatment of workers and safer working conditions at the Turner farms under new management.
However, new management doesn’t translate into workers’ rights no longer being relevant. Just because the factory farms are being leased, doesn’t mean workers deserve less protection or fewer rights. Stripping workers of their rights has nothing to do with improving our economy. Hardworking families have always been the backbone of our economy.
We should be advancing policies that strengthen our middle class working families. They are now being left behind. To grow our economy, we should invest in real relief for middle class families and create effective legislation that encourages job creation without sacrificing workers’ rights.
It is essential that we keep this as our primary focus, while guaranteeing all Maine families have access to a quality education, affordable health care and plentiful opportunities to put money back into our communities and our businesses.
Erin Herbig is the Democratic representative for House District 43 which includes Belfast, Belmont and Northport.