FILE - Farm Maine Blueberries

In this Friday, Aug. 24, 2018, photo, a worker rakes wild blueberries at a farm in Union, Maine. 

(The Center Square) – Gov. Janet Mills has vetoed a bill that would have given farm workers in Maine the right to unionize, citing the increased costs to the state's agricultural sector.

The legislation, which was approved by the Maine Legislature, called for allowing people working in agriculture to join unions and organize for the purposes of collective bargaining for wages, hours, working conditions and benefits. Mills had delayed action on the farmworker bill by "laying it aside" after it was approved by lawmakers last year.  

But on Monday Mills vetoed the plan, saying it would negatively impact family-owned farms and the state's agricultural sector which is struggling to survive amid the prolonged pandemic. 

Mills said she was concerned that provisions of the bill would impact small, family owned farms "by saddling them with increased costs at a time when state government should be doing all it can to support Maine farms."

"While this bill is well-intended, I fear its unintended consequence would discourage the growth of farms in Maine," Mills wrote in her veto message to lawmakers. 

The legislation also called for closing loopholes in state and federal labor laws for farm workers, who are not covered by Maine’s minimum wage and overtime regulations.

Mills said she supports protections for farm workers against large farming operations and corporate interests, but argued that Maine's farming community "is different and consists mostly of small, family-oriented operations," many of which employ seasonal, foreign workers who are already covered by federal labor laws. 

Farming associations and agricultural groups had lobbied against approval of the measure, and praised Mills for vetoing it. 

“Legislation that would restrict the ability to plant, care for and harvest our crops would risk the livelihood of Maine farmers and those employees that rely on the jobs Maine farms provide,” the Maine Potato Board said in a statement.

The Maine AFL-CIO criticized Mills' rejection of the bill, saying it would have protected farm workers from wage theft and other labor abuses it says are rampant in the industry.

"This bill would have advanced racial justice and corrected a long-standing injustice," Matt Schlobohm, the labor union's executive director, said in a statement. "The exclusion of farmworkers from basic labor protections is a direct result of a history of discriminatory policy, rooted in racism, that excluded workers of color from basic labor protections."

In her veto statement, Mills said she is willing to work with legislative leaders, farming interests and advocates "to develop a bill that provides appropriate protections" but added that such legislation "should be tailored to the unique circumstances of our agricultural sector, which this bill is not."