Abuse, Health & Safety, Labor, Regulations & Compliance

Labor Chairman Changes Mind on DeCoster Egg Bill

From FreePressOnline.com, Christine Parrish, Feature Writer, 26 May 2011.

Rector: “In good conscience, I can’t support this.”

Last week, Senator Chris Rector (R-Thomaston) led the labor committee in voting 8-5 in favor of taking away the right of DeCoster egg farm employees to unionize, saying it was bad public policy to target one company for special treatment. One Democrat joined the seven Republicans on the committee in the majority “ought to pass” vote; the five other committee members, all Democrats, voted against passage.

Over the weekend, however, Senator Rector changed his mind after finding out more information about recent violations by DeCoster companies.

“After the committee vote, I heard more information about DeCoster and I was unsettled about it,” Rector told The Free Press last Sunday. Rector, who chairs the Legislature’s joint standing Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development, said he concluded he could no longer support the bill.

“I called the Republican leadership and told them I won’t support the legislation,” he said.

The bill, LD 1207, has been tabled in the House, meaning it could come up for floor debate at any time, according to the clerk for the House of Representatives. Rector said it could be indefinitely postponed in the House, but is likely to come up in the Senate.

“I will actively oppose it in the Senate,” said Rector.

Rector said he was baffled that more information hadn’t come out during the public hearing about recent violations by DeCoster companies.

“The opponents didn’t bring it up and the committee was told there had been no violations for the past 10 years,” said Rector.

Jack DeCoster was national news just last year. In 2010, DeCoster, who started his operations as a 16-year-old in Turner, Maine, and now is indirectly one of the largest egg producers in the country, received national attention for a salmonella outbreak that resulted in the recall of half a billion eggs.

Former Maine Attorney General James Tierney, who gave testimony about the DeCoster record in front of the labor committee last month, was a Maine state legislator when he sponsored a 1976 bill to protect DeCoster workers from exploitation.

Tierney, now the director of the National State Attorneys General Program based at Columbia Law School in New York, advised the committee against rolling back any protections for DeCoster workers.

In his April testimony, Tierney wrote:

For at least forty years, DeCoster Egg Farms has been a habitual violator of federal and state laws dealing with labor, immigration, safety, animal cruelty, environment and health. DeCoster’s owners, employees and corporate affiliates have pled guilty to both criminal and civil violations of the law, paid millions in fines and asked for forgiveness on multiple occasions in more than one geographic jurisdiction.

As recently as August 2010, unsanitary conditions at Iowa egg facilities led to the recall of millions of eggs after outbreaks of salmonella which sickened over 1,000 people and for which Austin J “Jack” DeCoster accepted full responsibility, apologized under oath before Congress and again promised reforms.

Earlier in the summer of 2010, the company agreed to the largest animal cruelty fine in the history of our state (Maine).

No one who has followed the habitual offender status of DeCoster and his affiliated companies would be surprised, but the national publicity generated by the 2010 recall resulted in media coverage that brought past cases back into prominence.

The current Republican Governor of Iowa, Terry Bransted, stated publicly last year that DeCoster’s businesses are not welcome in Iowa and “should not be in business.”

DeCoster environmental and worker safety violations in Iowa go back years. In 2000, the list of violations prompted Iowa’s State Attorney General to declare DeCoster a “habitual violator” of Iowa environmental laws.

A household name in Maine, DeCoster has also been synonymous with labor violations that include hiring 11-year-olds and a 9-year-old, recruiting and hiring illegal immigrants and helping them get fake working papers and improper removal of asbestos from barns. And that is just the beginning.

In 2001, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charged employment discrimination at DeCoster Farms of Iowa, citing 11 illegal female workers who had routinely been sexually assaulted, including being raped, by supervisors. DeCoster paid $1.5 million in restitution, but avoided criminal charges.

In 2002, DeCoster Egg Farms of Maine paid $3.2 million to settle a lawsuit by Mexican workers over housing and working conditions.

Labor charges have continued, including OSHA fines in 2008 for forcing workers to collect eggs in a collapsed building at Quality Egg of New England in Maine and in 2010 for other workplace violations.

DeCoster has a reputation for settling out of court.

“I am too troubled about this to vote for it,” said Rector on Sunday, who earlier had said that he thought farmers and agricultural businesses should have an exemption from organized labor because the harvest window could be quite small and a strike could put them out of business.

Rector has now decided that argument doesn’t hold up against workers’ rights when more closely inspected-at least when it comes to DeCoster.

“It is rare that I don’t feel solid with my decisions, but if there was ever a situation where workers should have an opportunity to organize, this is it,” said Rector.

Rep. Dana Dow (R-Waldoboro), the only other midcoast legislator on the labor committee, who had also voted in favor of the bill’s passage, said on Monday that he, too, was having second thoughts, and that there had been discussion about it with others on the committee after it had been reported out with an “ought to pass” endorsement.

“I don’t know at this time what I am going to do,” said Dow, when asked if he planned to oppose the bill. He said he would wait to hear the debate on the House floor before making up his mind.

“I am concerned about it because of the abuse of workers, many of whom don’t speak English,” he said. “I think if the workers’ educational level is too low or they can’t speak English, they can’t protect themselves.”

“To tell you the truth, and I haven’t said this before, if the workers there, if they had a union, they wouldn’t have had the problems they did,” said Dow, stressing that unions weren’t just about salary.

“In this case, I’m talking about safety, safety, safety,” Dow said.

Source: FreePressOnline.com, “Labor Chairman Changes Mind on DeCoster Egg Bill” by Christine Parrish, Feature Writer, 26 May 2011.

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