Federal judge blocks Maine law aimed at Canadian log truck drivers

A federal judge has blocked a state law that sought to restrict how Canadian logging truck drivers operate in Maine.

But the president of the Maine Senate, who authored the new law, strongly disagrees with the decision and is vowing to continue pressing the federal government to enforce labor laws in the logging industry.

Last spring, state lawmakers passed a bill that would prohibit forest landowners or trucking companies from using immigrant laborers to haul logs that are harvested in Maine to a mill or other locations in the state. The new law was sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson, a professional logger who has long accused Maine’s timber companies of depriving Maine workers of jobs in the state’s forests by illegally hiring Canadian laborers for less money.

But the Maine Forest Products Council, trucking company Pepin Lumber and a Canadian driver sued in federal court. And a federal judge agreed late last week by temporarily blocking the state from enforcing the law.

In granting the preliminary injunction against the law, U.S. District Court Judge John Woodcock said while Maine state officials may have legitimate concerns about the use of foreign laborers under the H-2A visa program, the law passed by the Legislature “is not a constitutional means of addressing these concerns.” Additionally, Woodcock said the state is attempting to supersede federal immigration law.

“Although the court understands the state’s interest in protecting Maine workers and ensuring that employers do not hire foreign workers where there are United States workers able and willing to do the job, Congress already considered the interests of the United States workforce against an employer’s need for workers and it has balanced those interests in developing the H -2A program as part of its national immigration and naturalization policy,” Woodcock wrote.

The Maine Forest Products Council and other plaintiffs argued that Maine not only exceeded its legal authority but also violated the “equal protection” provisions of the Maine and U.S. constitutions. Patrick Strauch, who is executive director of the forest industry trade group, could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon. But earlier this month, Strauch said landowners and trucking companies apply for so-called “bonded” laborers from Canada because they can’t find enough Americans to fill the jobs.

“Employment, particularly of drivers, is tight right now and when wood needs to move, we need to have the capacity to move it,” Strauch said in an interview. “So it’s not an issue of stealing jobs from anybody. It’s about getting the work done.”

Jackson strongly disagreed and voiced continuing frustration with the federal government’s failure to address what he said are blatant labor violations.

Jackson said Woodcock and Strauch’s organization “completely missed the whole point” of the bill he sponsored, which went into law without the signature of Gov. Janet Mills. Jackson said he wasn’t trying to stop companies from applying for H2-A visas to allow Canadian truckers to haul wood into and out of Maine — just not to points within the state.

“What this law did was enforce the federal law of point-to-point hauling in Maine, which happens nowhere else in the United States,” Jackson said Tuesday. “Nowhere else do Mexicans or Canadians do point-to-point hauling in the United States.”

When Jackson talked about point-to-point, he is referring to log truck driver picking up a load from the Maine woods and hauling it to a lumber or paper mill within the state. Jackson argued that federal law requires those “point-to-point” hauling jobs should be reserved for American citizens.

Jackson also said it was “bogus” for Strauch’s group to claim his bill would have prevented any Canadian truckers in the logging industry in Maine. Those H2-A truckers would just be limited to hauling wood back and forth the Maine-Canada border.

For Jackson, this is just the latest skirmish in a decades-long battle.

The Allagash Democrat got into politics after leading an effort to temporarily block forest-road border crossings in the late-1990s to protest jobs in the Maine woods going to Canadian workers. He’s tried to get Republican and Democratic administrations, both in Augusta and Washington, to crack down on what he says are blatant violations of labor laws. And he said the failure to enforce the laws is not only depriving Maine workers of jobs but also suppressing the wages of those who do work because Canadian laborers are paid less.

“I’m not going to give up,” Jackson said. “That’s where I come from. That’s the people who elected me. And not only that, they’re on the right side of this. No other state allows this in any occupation. It’s only Maine, it’s only in logging that federal law is allowed to be violated.”

Jackson recently provided what he says is evidence of federal labor law violations to a Department of Homeland Security investigator. And last fall, he met in Maine with the secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor to discuss his concerns. But he’s not holding his breath for results.

“I feel strongly about just suing the Department of Labor for failure to act,” Jackson said.

Strauch, meanwhile, acknowledged this is a generational issue but added the focus now should be on working together to rebuild an industry that has been hit hard by lost markets.

“I think it’s time to kind of move toward solving the problem of strengthening the markets that we’ve lost so that we can keep everybody fully functional and build careers here in Maine,” Strauch said. “That’s what we’re all about.”

The state had never enforced Jackson’s law because of the pending lawsuit. But the Senate President said Maine’s Attorney General, Aaron Frey, personally heard from about a dozen woods workers who said they were given more hauling jobs last year because landowners or trucking companies began following the requirements laid out in the law in anticipation of it going into effect. Jackson said that proved helped prove his point that too many Canadian truckers are hauling loads that should, rightfully, be given to Maine workers.

Woodcock handed down only a temporary suspension of the law, so additional court action is expected. Frey’s office declined to comment on Tuesday.