Maine Moves to Limit Use of H-2A Workers in Its Logging Industry

By David North on July 19, 2022

There is a 500-mile plus border between this American state and a foreign nation.

Most of the people on the other side do not speak English, they use a Latin-based language; they are accustomed to lower wages compared to those in the U.S., generally.

U.S. employers, over the decades, have used the immigration laws to hire these people, thus keeping their costs down, and denying jobs to Americans.

Recently, the state government has taken steps to reduce the impact on American workers.

All of this sounds like a description of the struggles of Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) at our southern border, but it is also a portrait of what is happening — with much less fanfare — in rural Maine.

Maine’s border is 611 miles long, compared to the 1,254 miles in Texas. The long, looping Maine border consists of at least two rivers (the St. Croix and the St. John) and some straight lines. Those on the other side are mainly French-speaking Québécois.

The Maine border is a very rural place, there are no cities on it (unlike El Paso/Juarez and Laredo/Nuevo Laredo), and much of it is totally uninhabited. Proportionately, there are more ports of entry on the Maine border than on the Texas one, 24 and 28 respectively, some of the former may be little used.

But the economics of immigration are roughly similar in both places, with the employers making use of various parts of the U.S. immigration system to meet their desires; on the Texas border, it is the widespread use of illegal aliens as well as H-2A farmworkers, and some green card residents of nearby Mexico in areas right next to the border. In Maine, it tends to be the H-2A program, both for potato pickers in the fall, and for year-around logging operations, the subject of today’s article. The logging takes place all over the state, but the potato harvest is concentrated in Aroostook County in its most northern part.

State of Maine Operations. Maine last year passed legislation that banned landowners from “hiring certain non-residents, including workers with H-2A agricultural visas, to transport forest products”, according to a Law360 article.

States rarely, if ever, take such steps.

The industry sued and secured a temporary restraining order against state enforcement of the law pending the outcome of the federal trial. The state’s attorney general has argued that the legislation does not interfere with the federal immigration law; I hope he wins, but think that’s an uphill battle.

The foreign truck drivers are Canadians covered by the H-2A program for unskilled ag workers. Anyone who has seen a driver of an 18-wheeler back into a tight parking space might argue with the “unskilled” label.

It is, of course, refreshing to see a Democratic state government move against the use of foreign workers. It would be nice to see the Teamsters taking a position on this matter, but that has not yet happened, or happened yet.

Texas State Actions. As my colleague Todd Bensman has reported, Texas has used both its power to inspect incoming trucks and its ability to arrest trespassers (who happen to be illegal immigrants) in an effort to at least moderate the flow of illegals over our southern border. The feds have tried to discourage these state-level activities. Texas has summoned up units of the National Guard to staff some of these operations.

Interestingly Governor Abbott (R-Texas) is among the most conservative of the sitting GOP governors, while Governor Janet Mills (D-Maine) is among the most liberal of the Democrats; both are up for re-election this fall.

Years Ago. A few weeks after I became the assistant to the U.S. secretary of Labor for farm labor in the summer of 1965, the issue of Canadian workers in the logging industry and in potatoes came to our attention, a subject that I doubt had received much notice in the past. The department’s leadership, which wanted to expand jobs for American workers, faced two strong pro-employer arguments that I have never seen raised in any foreign worker discussion in the ensuing years:

  • Many of the logging jobs were in parts of Maine that could only be reached by driving through Canada; by definition, some Canadian workers were closer to the job sites (in logging areas) than any Americans.
  • In an effort to use every American worker for the Aroostook County harvest, many of the schools in the area adopted a schedule that revolved around the harvest season. The schools, in those days, opened the fall term in mid-August, so that they could shut down during the potato harvest for a couple of weeks in the following month. Lots of U.S. kids did, in fact, work in the fields.

With arguments like these, the use of Canadian workers in Maine continued that year, and has since, though mechanization has lowered the number of workers needed in potatoes.

I also have a memory of how the U.S. and Canadian officials handled these arrangements; I discovered that there were annual, bi-national meetings on the subject. That year it was in Montreal and in the alternating years it was in Washington. The every-other-year arrangement was made, apparently, so that one side or the other could do a little international travel, at government expense. The issues about wage levels that concerned the then-secretary of Labor, the late W. Willard Wirtz, did not seem to be high on the bureaucrats’ agenda, as they worked through minor adjustments of various kinds. What I did remember was a glorious dinner in Montreal that played the role of a reunion of two sets of government officials who seemed delighted to see each other once again.

I also noted at the time that these gatherings somehow never were held in or near the not-very-inviting, and hard-to-get-to, Aroostook County. Apparently, no fieldwork was needed. All of this opened my eyes to how non-ideological such decision-making can be; and how powerful is the matter of tradition.