Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a news conference at General Insulation in Brewer on Nov. 4, 2021. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills on Friday vetoed a bill to allow Maine farmworkers to organize and collectively bargain, saying she feared it would discourage the growth of farms.

It marked another standoff between the Democratic governor and a more progressive faction in her party. After Mills vetoed more than a dozen measures in 2021 affecting policy areas from labor to criminal justice, she delayed action for months on the farmworker bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Thom Harnett, D-Gardiner, after it passed the Legislature in mid-July.

Harnett’s bill would allow workers at Maine farms that employ five or more people to collectively bargain, also governing mediation processes and enforcement terms. It was aimed at closing exceptions in state and federal labor law for farmworkers, who are generally not covered by Maine’s minimum wage and overtime laws.

In her veto letter, Mills noted continued struggles for the state’s dairy industry, which has seen more than 100 farms close in just under a decade. She said while farmworkers need strong labor protections in states where factory farms are dominant, Maine generally relies on family farms that are less able to absorb new costs and comply with laws like this.

“While this bill is well-intended, I fear its unintended consequence would discourage the growth of farms in Maine,” the governor wrote.

Labor groups aligned with Harnett, a retired assistant attorney general who worked under Mills when she was the state’s top attorney. He was also a migrant worker aid lawyer in New York in the 1980s, saying in April testimony that these types of exemptions from labor laws perpetuate institutional racism. On Friday, he said Mills’ veto letter places all of the burden on workers.

“While I’m disappointed for myself as a legislator, that pales in comparison to the disappointment I have for the hardworking men and women who toil long hours to feed us,” Harnett said.

Farm interests vocally opposed the measure, including the Maine Potato Board and the Maine Farm Bureau, arguing that the COVID-19 pandemic was a bad time to change the industry’s relationship with workers.

“Legislation that would restrict the ability to plant, care for and harvest our crops would risk the livelihood of Maine farmers and those employees that rely on the jobs Maine farms provide,” Don Flannery, the executive director of the potato industry group, said in a statement.

Mills’ veto likely dooms the bill, as two-thirds of those voting in both legislative chambers would have to override it for the measure to survive. It only passed by a one-vote margin in the Senate this summer and by a 73-58 vote in the House.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...