From Starbucks to Maine Medical Center and the University of Maine, more and more working people have been organizing unions to collectively bargain for fair wages and benefits, safe working conditions and a better life. Joining a union is the most effective way to achieve pay equity, job security, fair scheduling, better vacation time, protections from favoritism and more. This is a right we in the labor movement cherish, along with labor laws like the minimum wage, overtime, workplace safety standards, workers compensation and unemployment.

For too long, our government has denied farmworkers the right to unionize and excluded them from overtime eligibility.

In the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced several reforms to put people back to work, encourage unionization and provide economic security for working people. New Deal policies like Social Security, the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act transformed the lives of millions of Americans.

However, certain members of Congress demanded the exclusion of farmworkers and domestic laborers – many of whom were African Americans in the South – from receiving the benefits of these policies. Although they used race-neutral language to make these exceptions, they resulted in hundreds of thousands of Black workers being excluded from basic labor protections like the minimum wage, overtime and a right to collective bargaining.

Farmworkers perform one of the most essential functions in our society. While their back-breaking labor puts food on our tables, still they are treated like second-class citizens. In addition to struggling with some of the lowest wages in the country, they are often brutally exploited. One 2020 report found that farm employers stole $76 million in wages from 154,000 workers over 20 years.

Agriculture also ranks among the most dangerous sectors with one of the highest fatal injury rates. Workers are vulnerable to sexual abuse, extreme heat waves, toxic pesticides and accidents with heavy machinery.


Whether it’s raking blueberries or working in the seafood, poultry, dairy or egg industries, power imbalances related to immigration status and language barriers are a regular part of the lives of agricultural workers in Maine. Migrant workers in Maine have complained of substandard worker housing. In one case, wreath makers reported that they were fired after raising concerns about a labor contractor who sexually harassed them.

These workers deserve better. They deserve dignity, safe working conditions and fair wages to support their families for the valuable work they do. That’s why we applaud House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross for introducing two bills that will go a long way to addressing these injustices. L.D. 525 would give farmworkers the right to organize and join a union to negotiate fair wages, reasonable schedules, safe working conditions, humane housing accommodations and protections against employer intimidation. L.D. 398 would provide overtime and wage protections for farmworkers, phased in gradually over the next few years to give agricultural businesses time to adjust.

These aren’t radical policies. Nine states – Kansas, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Hawaii, California, Arizona and Wisconsin – already grant farmworkers the right to organize and eight states have enacted overtime pay for workers in the agricultural sector. This is also a racial justice issue; the agricultural sector still employs more Latino, American Indian and Black immigrant Mainers than other industries.

We were very disappointed that Gov. Janet Mills last year vetoed a bill that would have allowed farmworkers to have collective bargaining rights, and we urge her to reconsider her position with respect and consideration for all of the working people and their families who harvest our food and contribute to our economy through their work on Maine farms. They deserve the rights so many of the rest of us enjoy.

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