Years of alleged wage, immigration, safety, and civil rights violations, environmental sanctions, and other infractions at the DeCoster egg farm in Turner, Maine, have led to a new state law allowing the farm’s approximately 300 long-term migrant workers to unionize. The legislation that went into effect this September was seen as an important step to strengthen protections for DeCoster’s workers, most of whom are Hispanic. But the company’s recent move to split into several divisions could exempt it from a law intended to address the “atrocious” conditions at its 1,300-acre farm.
DeCoster workers have had difficulty organizing in the past, according to Maine State Representative Roland Samson, whose other official occupation is as a union organizer. For one thing, many of the workers speak only Spanish, which has often kept them fairly isolated from the surrounding community. In addition, Samson said, DeCoster management has denied organizers free access to its workers.
The state successfully sued DeCoster in 1992 for illegally preventing social service, legal, and health workers, along with family and friends, from visiting workers and their homes. But the court ruled that DeCoster is primarily in the egg business, not housing, and not legally required to provide workers with housing improvements.
Representative Samson said the latest drive to address conditions at the farm through state law came after an investigative reporter – Greg Davis of the Rumford Times in Maine – invited him and a group of state lawmakers to visit the farm in December 1995. The conditions they observed or were told of by workers included decrepit trailers used to house workers, enforced overtime, illegal deductions for housing and transportation, unsanitary working conditions, insufficient or no medical care, and a climate of intimidation. Many workers are so afraid, the Rumford Times reported, that they turn away from visitors.
“From the first time I visited the trailers at DeCoster,” Samson was quoted in a local newspaper, the Morning Sentinel, “I was determined to do something about it. I knew the key to being successful was to not give up. We vowed to stick to it until we got something done to help these folks.” What bothered him most, he added, was DeCoster’s complete intimidation of its workers. That January, Samson and other legislators called for a state investigation into whether DeCoster’s workers were being fully paid for their work.
Nevertheless, some legislators opposed the measure allowing the workers to unionize. Samson had worried that the “Gingrich mentality in Augusta [Maine’s capital]” would make it difficult to pass labor laws. Once the bill passed, the task became convincing Governor Angus King to sign it into law.
A ‘Master-Servant’ Relationship
When the state sued DeCoster in 1992, the company’s owner, Austin DeCoster, had argued that he had a ‘master-servant’ relationship with employees, according to the Rumford Times’ December 1995 expose. That view of the workers has apparently prevailed. For example, Samson said some workers were fired for taking time off to ask the governor to sign the collective bargaining law. (They were subsequently re-hired.)
Since the legislature began addressing problems at DeCoster, the workers have begun to organize, according to Samson. He and volunteer organizer Jose Soto have collected enough signatures from DeCoster employees to hold a vote on whether to join the agricultural division of the United Paperworkers Union, the same union for which Samson is an organizer. A collective bargaining unit for these workers, Maine Labor Commissioner Valerie Landry told The New York Times, would give a voice to people who have remained silent about workplace problems in the past.
Though the new law ends former state laws that had exempted most Maine farms from overtime requirements and prohibited agricultural workers from organizing, it does not allow workers to strike. Courts ultimately would have to resolve disputes, which seems to leave DeCoster in the same position of holding most of the cards until challenged legally. Along with the collective bargaining law, however, legislation was passed that provides more state oversight to ensure that workers have decent housing, allows government agencies to share information on workplace conditions, and ensures overtime pay to those working over 40 hours a week.
The new law does not name DeCoster but only applies to producers with 500,000 laying hens and 100 employees, which in Maine includes only DeCoster, the nation’s largest producer of brown eggs. Yet DeCoster’s recent move to partition itself leaves questions about whether the law’s teeth will be able to sink into their intended target.
Samson said DeCoster denies that its attempts to form several divisions are for the purpose of avoiding the law. DeCoster management also points out that it has made improvements in housing and other conditions since signing a $2 million settlement with OSHA. Despite the improvements, however, Samson said safety concerns are ongoing, along with issues of adequate pay and demands that workers pay rent.
“The problems continue,” Representative Samson said. “The battle’s going on right now and may last for a long time.”