Governor Janet Mills listens as Kara Hay, chief executive officer of PenquisCAP, speaks during a press conference on Nov. 4, 2021 at General Insulation in Brewer. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill that would have allowed Maine farmworkers to organize was defeated Wednesday after progressives in the House of Representative failed to win the supermajority needed to override a veto from Gov. Janet Mills.

The Democratic governor’s veto, which came earlier this month after she held onto the measure passed by lawmakers last year, added to a long list of progressive priorities that have been sunk by Mills on subjects ranging from labor to criminal justice.

The bill from Rep. Thom Harnett, D-Gardiner, would have allowed workers at farms with more than five employees to collectively bargain. It was aimed at closing a loophole in state and federal labor laws. Maine’s minimum wage and overtime laws do not include farmworkers.

The fight over the bill showed the sway of agricultural entities in the state, which argued the bill would put financial burdens on farmers already struggling from long-standing challenges and the pandemic.

Mills specifically noted the challenges facing the dairy industry in Maine in her veto message after a major supplier announced plans to wind down contracts with farms here. It put her at odds with labor unions and Attorney General Aaron Frey, who struck a more worker-focused tone in his testimony before a legislative committee last year.

The bill faced a 67-66 vote in favor of the veto override on Wednesday, which nonetheless fell far short of the two-thirds majority needed in both chambers to override the veto. It was tighter than the initial 73-58 vote in the House last year.

Opposition was led by Republicans, who argued farm workers now have better working conditions than when a federal investigation was launched into a Maine egg farm’s working conditions. They also argued workers are valued by their employers and could damage farmer livelihoods if employees chose to go on strike during the growing season

“Maine farmers just aren’t doing the things that this bill initially was trying to fix,” said Rep. MaryAnne Kinney, R-Knox, a farmer.

Harnett characterized the bill as giving fundamental rights to workers who are the backbone of the state’s food economy.

“Why is it that the people who do the most sacred work in our nation are the most oppressed and the most exploited under our system of law?” said Harnett, a former assistant attorney general who was a migrant worker labor lawyer in New York during the 1980s.