State lawmakers failed Wednesday to override Gov. Janet Mills’ veto of a bill that would have allowed farmworkers to form unions.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Thom Harnett, D-Gardiner, would have allowed workers at farms with five or more employees to unionize and collectively bargain wages and working conditions, even if those workers are seasonal or part-time.

Harnett referred frequently during a floor debate Wednesday to the closing lines of the Pledge of Allegiance, emphasizing “liberty and justice for all.” He pushed back against criticism that the bill would harm small farms in Maine, saying it gives farmworkers the right to discuss pay and working conditions without fear of losing their jobs.

“This is not an attack on Maine farms,” Harnett said. “These are hardly radical concepts. But the chief executive’s veto effectively denies those very rights to farmworkers and keeps in place a system of laws that has historically given those rights to some and not all.”

Rep. Jeff Evangelos, I-Friendship, said he understands how labor intensive farming is, because he grows his own food. Last May, while working a 10-hour day to prepare for a rainstorm, he ended up in the hospital for dehydration and other injuries. He said he was fortunate to have insurance.

“We know that people are going to get sick and hurt doing this kind of work,” said Evangelos, who acknowledges that most small farms do right by their employees. “There’s going to be a lot of good people in Maine, but there’s always a few that aren’t.”

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Evangelos said farmworkers ought to have a say in their working conditions.

“I don’t see the irreparable harm in allowing people to sit down and talk,” Evangelos said.

Mills vetoed the bill on Jan. 7, saying it would require many small farms to engage in a complicated and costly process of collective bargaining. She noted how farmers, whose longstanding financial struggles have been exacerbated by the pandemic, are now contending with droughts and soil that may be contaminated with PFAS pollutants, known as forever chemicals.

“Maine’s farms are confronting a series of significant challenges, some of which are longstanding in nature while others have been worsened by the pandemic, but all of which present dire threats to the livelihoods of our farmers,” Mills said, noting she generally supports collective bargaining. “While this bill is well-intended, I fear its unintended consequence would discourage the growth of farms in Maine.”

The Maine AFL-CIO criticized the veto, arguing that the bill would have allowed Maine farmworkers to push back against wage theft, sexual harassment and other abuses they face.

Farmworkers, the union said, are barred by law from forming unions and bargaining collectively, a prohibition that the AFL-CIO said is rooted in racism and excludes workers of color from labor protections.

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“We are greatly dismayed that Gov. Mills vetoed legislation to grant farmworkers the fundamental human right to join together and form unions for fair treatment and a better life,” Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, said in a statement. “This bill would have advanced racial justice and corrected a long-standing injustice.”

During the floor debate, several Republicans who own farms or represent farmers spoke against overriding the veto.

Rep. MaryAnn Kinney, R-Knox, said the bill appeared to be aimed at the labor issues that arise in large-scale corporate farms that don’t exist in Maine. Kinney described her farm employees as family, with one worker having been there for over 30 years. And she gives them time off when needed, with few exceptions, she said.

Kinney said Maine has a short growing season and farmers can ill afford to have workers refuse to work on hot days, which is the only time she can harvest hay.

“We can’t have them walk away in the middle of putting in that crop,” Kinney said. “That would be detrimental to our production. So we need to make sure our farms are protected, and they are. Maine farmers just aren’t doing the things this bill was trying to fix. We fixed these problems over the years.”

CONCERN FOR FARMERS

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Rep. Randall Hall, R-Wilton, said hundreds of farms have closed in recent years and those that remain are already struggling with rising costs for fuel, livestock feed and fertilizer – costs that are passed on to consumers.

“It will drive even more farms out of business, increase unemployment and make basic food items unaffordable for families already struggling to put food on the table and heat their homes,” he said.

The House voted 67-66 in support of overturning the veto – well-short of the two-thirds majority needed to force a vote in the Senate.

Thursday’s session was only the second time lawmakers have met in person this year. All of their committee work is being conducted remotely through video conferencing.

Harnett said in an interview that he was “disappointed but not surprised” the veto was sustained.

While several opponents argued that farmworkers are already protected under the law, Harnett said that’s not the case, saying they’re exempt from state minimum wage and overtime laws. Migrant workers, who may struggle with English, are more likely to be exploited and less likely to speak out, he said.

“Maine suffers from this delusion that we’re different from the rest of the country, that everyone here is good-hearted and a wonderful employer,” he said. “Wonderful employers need not be concerned. The reality is you can be fired for talking about the conditions at your workplace and that firing is legal.

“This notion that we are somehow different is not only silly, it’s dangerous,” he said.

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