Jack DeCoster is no stranger to controversy. His Iowa egg farm was linked to a nationwide outbreak of salmonella last summer, and his operations have a track record of workplace safety, environmental, animal welfare and immigration violations stretching back decades across multiple states.
Since 1997, Maine workers at his operation in Turner have been granted the option to organize if they choose. But so far they haven't. Republican Rep. Dale Crafts of Lisbon says the law unfairly singles out a company that has changed its ways. He points out that DeCoster agricultural workers are the only ones who have this right except under California law.
And now, he says, that could jeopardize a potential sale. He says that's why LD 1207, which would repeal the current law, should pass. "There's an ongoing negotiation on the sale of Quality Eggs of Maine--a division of Land O' Lakes is negotiating with them now. The non-starter of the negotiation is the contractual abilities to unionize," Crafts said.
Crafts says Land O'Lakes owns several farms around the United States but none of them is unionized. He says he only learned about the possible sale three days ago in a telephone call with Chris Grimbalis, a spokesman for Quality Egg of New England, one of several companies that makes up the former DeCoster Egg Farm still owned by Jack DeCoster.
Republican Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, a former selectman in Turner, quickly jumped from losing a potential sale to Land O' Lakes to possible closure of the former DeCoster Egg Farm if LD 1207 doesn't pass.
"This organization pays a lot of taxes, property taxes to our community, and it would be a devastation to have this farm shut down because they couldn't compete in the fair market value in the state of Maine because we have a law in the state of Maine that's different than any other except for the state of California," Timberlake said.
But in a written statement in response to a question from MPBN about the possible purchase of the Turner egg farm, Land O'Lakes spokeswoman Jeanne Forbis said: "Land O'Lakes does not comment on rumors or speculation in the marketplace. Additionally, we have no involvement with legislation being considered in Maine relating to unionization of agricultural workers."
And Chris Grimbalis of Quality Egg of New England declined to confirm that negotiations for the possible sale of the operation to Land O' Lakes are close to being finalized. Instead he said there is interest from the company, but nothing in writing.
"I can say that there's been interest in the past, there's interest in the present and there will probably be interest in the future. I can't discuss any specifics," he said.
Grimbalis says over the years, DeCoster has had interest from other potential buyers but he says the collective bargaining issue has always interfered. He says it's a potential hindrance to any possible sale.
But some lawmakers question the timing of this new development and the reality of a potential deal. Rep. John Tuttle is a Democrat from Sanford. "Why should we trust Jack DeCoster in this latest rumor when we have been lied to for the last 20 years, Mr. Speaker? And how is appealing collective bargaining rights...."
Tuttle was interrupted by the bill's sponsor, Rep. Dale Crafts. "This is not germaine to this bill whatsoever," Crafts said.
Democratic Rep. Robert Hunt called the possible sale "new and unubstantiated information" and said he felt uncomfortable hurting Maine workers for an elusive deal that may or may not happen. For his part, DeCoster spokesman Chris Grimbalis says he's had no discussions with his boss about his possible retirement. And he maintains that his company is not wedded to passage of LD 1207.
"We are not driving 1207," Grimbalis says. "Would it help us? Yes, it would us. But if it passes, it passes. If it doesn't, it doesn't. If it passes, the farm will operate the same way tomorrow as it does today."
The bill to repeal collective bargaining rights for factory farm workers at the former DeCoster operation passed by a vote of 74 to 68. It faces additional votes in both the House and Senate.
A transcript of Susan Sharon's interview with Chris Grimbalis is below:
Susan Sharon: Let me ask you on tape what you can say about the Land O' Lakes situation since it is going to be debated this afternoon.
Chris Grimbalis: "I can talk in general about how it would impact companies that would buy. I could mention the fact that over the years he has had several opportunities to have other companies come in and one of the problems with past interest has been the fact that any other company that comes in would be subject to - didn't want to go the union route.
Susan Sharon: Let me ask you this -
Grimbalis: This is not the first offer that he's had. This is not going to be the last offer that he's gonna have. If they were to make an offer it wouldn't be the first offer that he's had and if nothing comes of it it won't be the last offer that he has, okay? But one thing that we've done here in order to comply with existing law is we've divided our company several different ways to comply with existing law. Other companies would not be willing to do that. So therefore not passing LD 1207 would be a hindrance to anyone who was interested in taking over this operation.
Susan Sharon: So what you're saying is LD 1207 for any potential offer but in terms of a serious offer pending can you characterize what that is?
Grimbalis: I can say there is - I can say what I said. I can say there's been interest in the past, there's interest in the present and there will probably be interest in the future. I can't discuss any specifics.
Susan Sharon: Mr. Grimbalis, how do I characterize the situation with Land O' Lakes?
Grimbalis: There is an interest and that's all I can give you. I can't go on the record about any company's specifics about taking this over.
Susan Sharon: Can you say whether this is something that is ongoing or was it a couple of months ago or is it ongoing?
Grimbalis: It is ongoing.
Susan Sharon: What would it mean for the farm operations if there was some kind of offer from Land O'Lakes or some kind of deal? What would that mean for the Turner operation?
Grimbalis: Our rank and file employees would not see realistically any change at all except for better technology that would enable them to - probably it would be more of technology change than anything else.
Susan Sharon: In terms of Mr. Decoster does he have plans to retire? Is he just getting out of Maine?
Grimbalis: Mr. Decoster has not discussed any plans with me so I can't tell you anything on that.
Susan: In terms of the debate this afternoon is it your understanding that Rep. Crafts is going to talk about the Land O'Lakes interest?
Grimbalis: I don't know if it's going to be brought up in debate this afternoon. We are not driving 1207. Would it help us? Yes, it would us. But if it passes it passes. If it doesn't it doesn't. If it passes the farm will operate the same way tomorrow as it does today.
Susan: Let me ask you one more thing Mr. Grimbalis. Would it be over-stating it if Rep. Crafts and the supporters of the legislation were to say that there is an offer by Land O' Lakes and negotiations by Land O' Lakes for the Turner farm contingent LD 1207 passing, would that be over-stating the case?
Grimbalis: (long silence) I don't have a comment on that question.
Susan Sharon: You can't characterize that for me?
Susan Sharon: But you're saying there is interest from Land O' Lakes but there's nothing in writing.
Grimbalis: I'm saying we've had interest in the past. We have interest in the present and I"m sure there would be interest in the future.
Susan Sharon: Thank you very much.