Bill blocking unions at Decoster egg farm gets Senate approval

By Steve Mistler, Sun Journal
Posted March 23, 2012, at 5:52 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — After more than a year of twists and turns, a bill that strips workers’ right to unionize at a Turner-based egg farm and its subsidiaries is poised for passage.

The Maine Senate on Thursday voted 18-17 to pass LD 1207. The mostly party line vote advances an amended version of the bill that has already cleared the House of Representatives.

Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, was the only Republican to oppose the measure.

Critics said the amended version was designed to soften a potentially unpopular proposal that will benefit an operation formerly managed by Jack DeCoster.

DeCoster’s checkered history of workplace violations had drawn controversy to LD 1207, prompting lawmakers to carry over the bill from last year. The company is now operated by a subsidiary of Land O’Lakes, Moark LLC. Proponents of the bill say the new management has eliminated the need for collective bargaining rights.

The rights were installed by the Legislature in 1997 after lawmakers determined that workers at the facility deserved the same unionizing rights as workers at industrial workplaces.

Republicans in the House of Representatives have already voted to pass LD 1207. The bill remained tabled in the Senate for several weeks, partially because several GOP senators were still wary of supporting it.

On Thursday, Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, introduced the amendment that would direct the Department of Labor to review labor relations between employees at large agricultural facilities and their employers after five years.

Langley said that he shared concerns about work conditions at the facility. His amendment, he said, would ensure that the state would have a chance to evaluate the facility.

The amendment and new management was enough to persuade Republicans who initially opposed the bill.

Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, said he recently visited the facility and saw much different workplace conditions than he did when DeCoster was overseeing operations. Saviello said he originally planned to vote against the bill.

“Jack DeCoster is gone,” Saviello said. “I’m very glad he’s gone and no longer in the state.”

Democrats and union advocates dismissed those arguments, saying Land O’Lakes entered the current 10-year lease agreement knowing that workers had the right to unionize.

Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham, called the bill a corporate giveaway.

“Why in the world are we doing this? … There’s no union there,” Bartlett said. “As long as management continues to treat their workers well there will be no incentive to unionize.”

Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, said collective bargaining rights created uncertainty for the business owner. Mason, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the 1997 law was “far outside the norm” for other states.

The bill was introduced last year, several months before rumors circulated that Land O’Lakes was in negotiations with DeCoster. The original bill would have removed agricultural workers’ right to earn overtime. It was later scaled back to strip collective bargaining rights.

Federal law limits unionizing rights for agricultural employees. However, with the increase in industrial scale agricultural operations, nine states have passed laws allowing certain agricultural employees to unionize.

California, where Land O’Lakes and Moark LLC currently operate, has adopted such a law.

Workers in Turner attempted to unionize after the 1997 law was passed, but the effort failed.

Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, said the law had done little to improve workplace conditions at the facility.

“For all the protection that you thought that you gave, you gave none,” Plowman said.

She said Land O’Lakes was too well-known to jeopardize its reputation.

“This company doesn’t need a stick over its head,” she said.

Lawmakers who supported the law’s repeal said it unfairly targets one business. Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner, also said Jack DeCoster has every intention of selling the business to Moark.

The bill was opposed by unions and worker advocates. Matt Schlobohm, of the AFL-CIO, has said workers at the facility “do low-paying, difficult, dangerous and dirty work” and should have the right to form a union to better themselves if they so choose.

DeCoster in November turned over the operations to Moark. Jeanne Forbis, a spokeswoman for Moark, told the Sun Journal that the senior managers were dismissed when Moark inked the deal with DeCoster. Forbis could not say how many managers were let go.

The Land O’Lakes subsidiary will be the sole operator of egg production, processing and warehousing operations at the farms.

Moark will have the option of buying the facilities after 10 years. Lease or sale prices and other financial details have not been released.

Moark operates egg farms in California, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Ohio and Massachusetts.

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http://bangordailynews.com/2012/03/23/politics/bill-to-strip-decoster-workers-right-to-unionize-gets-senate-approval/ printed on August 23, 2014