Maine’s Labor Movement Is a Lesson for Progressives
Thursday, December 29, 2016 12:10 PM
Following the shocking upset victory of President-elect Donald Trump last month, it’s easy to despair when pondering what the future will be like for the average American worker. Soon Republicans will attempt to carry out their agenda to eliminate health care coverage and cut Social Security for working people while lavishing more tax breaks on the wealthiest 1 percent.
Bath Iron Works employees rally in 2015. (Photo by Sarah Bigney)
The National Labor Relations Board will be stacked with anti-union appointees and the Supreme Court will soon have a conservative majority with the power to gut collective bargaining rights for public workers. The likely new Secretary of Labor, a fast food CEO, will work to ensure that a low-wage workforce continues to support his industry. And with 17 of Trump’s top cabinet picks having more money than a third of all American households combined, it’s pretty obvious that the U.S. has officially become a plutocracy: a government ruled by and for the wealthy.
But in some ways, we’ve been here before. And the latest work by longtime Maine labor historian Charles Scontras, “Time-Line of Selected Highlights of Maine Labor History: 1636-2015,” serves as a timely reminder that nothing was ever given to the American worker. It took years of organizing, agitating, breaking unjust laws, getting beaten and arrested and enduring countless setbacks to achieve the rights and standard of living we take for granted today.
The “Spirit of ’76” and the Resistance to Tyranny
For an American living in 2016, it’s almost impossible to fathom the level of working-class militancy that swept across the country throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a time of rapid economic transition and social upheaval as the factory gradually displaced small farms and workshops. As Scontras notes, in 1800 about 90 percent of Americans lived off the land, but by 1904, one or two firms, usually wed together by a merger, controlled at least half the output of the 78 leading industries. But even in the early 1800s, independent farmers, artisans and mechanics realized that the private corporation was fast becoming a new kind of feudal lord and threatening their autonomy.
Early working-class resistance was rooted in a belief in the principles of Jeffersonian Democracy, which favored equal opportunity and individual freedom over aristocratic privilege. Scontras documents the rise of Maine labor associations dedicated to promoting the true “producers” — farmers, mechanics, artisans and fishermen — who lived by their labor, unlike the bankers, merchants, lawyers, land speculators and “‘parasitical wealthy employers whose control over production rested solely on ownership of capital.”
And as industrial capitalism began to dominate the landscape, the average Maine worker lived a bleak existence with few rights and protections. Young children toiled in textile mills and quarries from dawn until night and could expect to hear the sound of the bull whip if they became distracted or engaged in horseplay. Employers often deducted wages for no reason and textile workers, loggers and quarrymen were forced to spend most of their hard-earned money at the company store. The secret ballot didn’t exist and Maine workers could be fired for not voting for the bosses’ preferred candidate.
The government turned a blind eye to rampant workplace injuries and deaths. Textile mills were described as “prison factories” and “death traps” for their lack of safety standards. Scontras describes how workers were maimed by circular saws, caught their hair or limbs in machinery, were blown apart by dynamite, fell to their deaths, got scalded by steam, crushed by trees, poisoned by toxic chemicals and suffered countless work-related diseases that were never documented. There was no worker’s compensation system or survivor’s benefits for most workers. During the first six years after passage of the workmen’s compensation law in 1915, Scontras, notes that 98,383 workers were injured and 362 died from workplace-related injuries.
Enter the Maine Radicals
But during the Gilded Age, as wealth and income inequality soared, Maine workers finally got organized and participated in 176 strikes between 1881 and 1900, according to Scontras. Employers and politicians reacted forcefully to the wave of worker militancy by jailing union organizers on “conspiracy” charges, spying on workers, forcing them to sign pledges not to join a union and sending out police and even the National Guard to break up strikes. But even in the midst of such oppression, utopian thinkers began to dream of creating a society based on cooperation and solidarity rather than cut-throat competition.
What particularly stands out in Scontras’ labor timeline is the role of radical unions and third parties in influencing progressive reforms over the past 150 years. In the 1870s it was the anti-monopoly Greenback Labor Party, which pushed for agrarian and pro-labor policies. In the 1880s, the Knights of Labor, whose membership included roughly 42 percent of Maine’s workers, strived to transcend capitalism by establishing a cooperative commonwealth. The Maine Populist Party called for the graduated income tax, monetary and land reform, direct election of US senators and an eight-hour workday before it was swallowed up by the Democratic Party in the mid- 1890s. Then in the early 1900s and again in the 1930s, Maine socialists fought for old-age pensions, women’s suffrage, aid to the poor, worker housing, unemployment insurance and a 40-hour work week.
While many of these parties and organizations were often branded as spoilers and radicals, they also forced the elite political class to eventually compromise and pass many of their demands, including the first child labor law (1847); a 10-hour work day law (1887); creating the state Bureau of Industrial and Labor Statistics and the Maine Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Labor (1887); the secret ballot (1891); the first Labor Day (1891); the citizen referendum (1908); direct election of US senators (1913); the income tax (1913); worker’s compensation (1915); the right of women to vote (1920); the National Housing Act (1934); Social Security (1935); unemployment insurance (1935); a federal minimum wage (1938); national welfare (1939); Maine’s equal pay for women law (1949); and Medicare and Medicaid (1965).
But after several decades of deindustrialization brought on by international competition, automation and anti-union government policies, the once powerful manufacturing unions have been eviscerated. What began with the offshoring of textile jobs in the 1950s and 60s accelerated in the 1980s with the shoe factories, followed by the long decline of the paper industry. According to the AFL-CIO, Maine lost nearly 33,000 manufacturing jobs from 1994 to 2015 following the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and China entering the World Trade Organization. During that time, the number of Maine workers belonging to unions has plunged from its peak of 35 percent in 1954 to just over 11 percent in 2015, as only one in 12 Mainers now works in manufacturing.
And as union influence has waned, so has its political power. In the 1980s and ’90s, the leadership of the Democratic Party shifted sharply from its blue-collar base to a more Wall Street-friendly donor class. As a result, working-class economic policies took a backseat to free-trade agreements, banking deregulation and welfare cuts. With the declining power of collective bargaining, worker wages have stagnated to such a level that they are actually lower than they were in the 1970s if adjusted for the cost of living, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
At the same time, EPI estimates that inflation-adjusted CEO pay increased by almost 1,000 percent from 1978 to 2014, and the ratio between average CEO compensation and worker pay is now 303-to-1, compared to 20-to-1 in 1965. It’s no coincidence that the gap between the rich and everyone else is the widest it’s been since the 1920s, when union membership was even lower than today.
In 2016, organized labor faces monumental challenges in organizing an increasingly precarious, atomized and itinerant workforce. But unions have always been under siege and it’s not the first time in history they’ve been knocked down. On the eve of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the number of unionized Maine workers had been driven down to just over 6 percent due to a wave of anti-Communist hysteria and an unprecedented business offensive against organized labor. But just a few years later, unions came roaring back to life in the middle of the Great Depression.
As conservative politicians work to destroy all of the gains working people have made over the past 100 years, reinvigorating the labor movement will be a crucial step to putting a check on raw corporate power and restoring democracy. And in this second Gilded Age, it will be critical for activist movements to once again articulate bold, alternative visions of the more egalitarian society they want to live in and fight for rather than simply focusing on what is immediately “practical” in the current reactionary political climate.
As former Maine AFL-CIO president Charles O’Leary once said, “History shows that the struggle of working men and women for fair wages and a decent way of life for themselves and their families never ends.… Organized labor has always had a struggle and always will have.”