Maine’s Democratic Governor Just Ran Roughshod Over the Rights of Workers

Farmworkers are among the most exploited workers in the country, and a bill in solid-blue Maine would have finally given them basic labor rights. But the state's Democratic governor just vetoed the bill.

Janet Mills speaking in New York, 2019. (Kevin Hagen / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

During the New Deal era, Congress passed two still well-known pieces of labor legislation: the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Both played a significant role in establishing basic labor protections and empowering ordinary workers — the former notably enshrining the right to join and participate in a union. Not everyone, however, was included. Carve outs for both domestic and farmworkers aided the continued exploitation of two sectors that have remained particularly vulnerable to this day. Blacks were particularly overrepresented within those two groups.

It was exactly this injustice that a recent bill in Maine’s state legislature hoped to address. Several types of agriculture are significant to the local economy, which yields a large output of eggs, potatoes, blueberries, and maple syrup, though people employed across the industry have lacked even basic rights for decades. In introducing the legislation, Democratic representative Thom Harnett noted that farmworkers aren’t even considered employees under state law:

Historically, agricultural workers, or “farm workers”, have been specifically excluded from basic labor laws that protect most workers. Currently, in 2021, Maine farm workers are still not considered “employees” under state law. By way of example, they are not covered by Maine’s laws regarding minimum wage and overtime. This is a basic protection afforded almost every working person in Maine and is particularly important and meaningful to working people who find themselves on the low end of the wage scale. What is even more remarkable is that farm workers are considered essential employees by both the state and federal government yet are not even considered as employees under Maine’s labor laws.

Harnett’s bill, fittingly enough, would have extended rights currently afforded to other workers in the state to organize, join unions, and engage in collective bargaining. Last week, it was vetoed by Democratic governor Janet Mills, whose rationale was a mixture of paternalism and pro-business boilerplate: “I cannot, in good conscience, allow a bill to become law that would subject our farmers to a complicated new set of laws that would require them to hire lawyers just to understand . . . While this bill is well intended, I fear its unintended consequence would discourage the growth of farms in Maine.”

Though the Democratic Party lost seats in the Maine legislature during the last round of elections, it retains majorities in both chambers and has held the governorship since 2018 — making this yet another case of a solidly blue state managing to defeat progressive legislation without any help from Republicans. It’s long been an axiom among national Democrats that the only significant impediment to social democratic reforms consists in the intransigence of right-wing lawmakers. As has regularly been the case throughout many states controlled exclusively or near-exclusively by Democrats, Maine governor Mills’s veto of basic rights for farmworkers is a reminder that plenty of opposition comes from the country’s most powerful liberal representatives as well.