Andy O’Brien with Governor Mills (Photo: Kevin Couture)
Andy O’Brien with Governor Mills (Photo: Kevin Couture)
Is it irredeemably insular to interview a former managing editor of The Free Press, one who still occasionally writes for this paper? Could we ask the communications director of the Maine AFL-CIO to speak to us about workers’ issues in Maine, but not as an AFL-CIO representative? Given that politician interviews are known to be the most boring, mealy-mouthed form of communication to ever exist, could we find a compelling way to interview a former local representative? Andy O’Brien grew up in Lincolnville, lives in Rockland, researches local White supremacists, is co-creator, with his wife Hanji Chang, of O’Chang Comics, and is generally very funny, so it seemed like we could make it work. Our hour-long Zoom conversation racked up about 9,000 words, which we’ve had to condense to 2,000.

Becca: I like to ask those who grew up in the area why they stayed or returned, what they like about the area, and what they might want to change.

Andy: Originally, when I came back to Maine after college, I was planning to move down to Boston and look for work. But I ended up living and working in Taiwan for six years. I also had a punk band that toured Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, which kept me in Asia longer than I had planned. Then Hanji and I got together. She wanted to study art, but she couldn’t get into art school in Taiwan because her score on the national standardized test wasn’t high enough. So I said, “Well, how about this? I’ll go back to get my master’s degree and you can go to art school in Maine.” So that’s why we came back here. I was sort of figuring out what to do with my life at that point. I was working a lot of low-wage, temp jobs and it was in the middle of the recession. Then I noticed that there was nobody to run against the reactionary Republican state legislator who was representing me in the Maine Legislature. So I decided to run in 2008. I spent all my time, when I wasn’t painting houses and doing landscaping, knocking on doors throughout Knox and Waldo counties, and won that year. I served in the Legislature for two terms. Then I was offered the job at The Free Press in 2012, so that’s how I ended up moving to Rockland. But it was my goal originally to leave Maine and, just by circumstance, I ended up staying here.

Becca: Even to the point where you bought a house on Old County Road.

Andy: Yeah, the thing is I bought a house on Old County Road when I was working at The Free Press, not knowing that I was eventually going to take a job in Augusta (laughs). The problem is in Rockland there were just not many rentals available. We couldn’t find any place to live that allowed us to keep pets, so we essentially bought a house for our cat.

The major problems that I see with the area is that it’s just become so gentrified that working-class people can’t afford to live here anymore. This has been a problem for many years, but it’s gotten worse and worse. And there just doesn’t seem to be much of a political will to do anything about it.

Nate: (interrupts) I’m trying.

Andy: You’re trying. Okay, sorry, I forgot I’m talking to a politician (laughs). But you know, right now, all these business owners are freaking out, because they’re saying there’s a labor shortage. The reality is that we’ve had this seasonal labor shortage in Maine for a very long time and it’s not just related to the pandemic. There’s a wage shortage, actually. But where the hell are people gonna live? I think we live in a very beautiful area, but the gap between the haves and the have-nots is just astronomical. And we have issues with lack of childcare, lack of good wages, and lack of affordable housing. And those are my main issues, along with the fact that most workers don’t have many rights at work, and that’s why I joined the labor movement.

Becca: What would you do to fix it?

Andy: In many ways, affordable housing is a problem everywhere in the country. And there are different ways that people are trying to address it, like community land trusts or building public housing. We need to build a lot of workforce housing and maybe create housing cooperatives. But the bottom line is housing should not be a commodity the way it is; it’s a basic necessity — you need housing, you need food, you need water and health care. There are ways to do it, but it involves sort of decommodifying housing in some way. That’s a bigger project than what Rockland or even the state of Maine can likely do. I think it will take a national movement to solve this problem.

Becca: I think that many people find organizing and unions quite mystifying. Say someone in Rockland or Waldoboro wants to start a union, or just get better working conditions. How should they go about it?

Andy: Well, they should contact the Maine AFL-CIO. We don’t organize unorganized workers, but we can refer them to our affiliate unions. If we get somebody, let’s say, working for some company in Rockland, who reaches out to us and says, “I’ve talked to my co-workers, we want to form a union,” we’ll try to connect them to an organizer who will talk to them about their options. It’s important for workers to do some organizing ahead of time and discreetly talk with their co-workers to figure out if this is something that they’re interested in doing. There’s definitely been an uptick in interest for unions in recent years. Just in the past two years, workers at Maine Medical Center, Preble Street, ACLU of Maine, Planned Parenthood, Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, Portland Museum of Art and Biddeford-Saco Transit all recently organized. There’s a form to fill out for people interested in forming a union at our website:

Becca: What is the likelihood that the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act) is going to pass?

Andy: The PRO Act is the strongest piece of pro-labor legislation since the New Deal and it would really revitalize the labor movement. It would strengthen labor protections, crack down on worker misclassification and fine employers that try to prevent employees from forming unions. We’ve been working on it a lot. We got Angus King to sign on, which we’re really excited about because he’s one of the senators we needed. We haven’t gotten Susan Collins yet. I’m actually very impressed with President Joe Biden’s labor platform. Labor law reform has not been a major priority for presidential administrations for many years. A lot of horrible things that happened in Maine to unions over the past 30 years would be prevented by the PRO Act. In 1985, FMC busted the union there by firing striking workers and hiring scabs to replace them — that would be illegal under the PRO Act. The Jay paper mill strike in Jay, Maine, back in 1987–1988, was another lockout — they permanently replaced the workers. That would be illegal. The [recent] anti-union campaigns that happened at Portland Museum of Art and Maine Med would also be illegal. The PRO Act would make it illegal to hold those captive meetings where the employer sits you down and tells you why a union is so bad and tries to interfere in the election process. I’m actually very encouraged. And after Obama failed to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, now the labor movement is saying, “Look, if you don’t support our cause, we’re not going to support you ever again.”

Becca: What’s been going on since Trump left the White House? What are you seeing in Maine QAnon and the right wing?

Andy: Well, let’s go back to the Capitol insurrection. So there were a number of Mainers that we can prove were in the insurrection on January 6.

Nate: Can you give a ballpark number?

Andy: Maybe a dozen that I know of. A couple of them were in a video tearing down barricades, and remember the video where they’re posing with a Capitol police officer and taking selfies, saying, “Hi, we’re from Maine”? We’ve been able to identify some of them, but they haven’t been arrested yet, although the FBI has been in touch with some of us who have been tracking them. But this spring, a lot of our attention was focused on the anti-mask groups that were showing up and protesting in Belfast, going into Hannaford and other stores and yelling at low-wage employees about mask mandates. A couple of the insurrectionists were involved in that. A lot of those people were really into QAnon, but QAnon has kind of evolved to be less about following Q, who stopped posting six months ago, and more about countless conspiracies involving COVID and false claims that the presidential election was stolen. In Maine, a lot of the energy that coalesced in the anti-masker demonstrations last winter has been winding down with the lifting of mask mandates. Some of them branched off and formed their own groups, almost like social organizations — with fascist conspiratorial beliefs. The gateway drug for a lot of them was anti-vaccine conspiracies.

They’re always getting their [social media] accounts deleted. So it’s been harder for them to organize, but they still try to insert themselves into other controversial issues.

Becca: Do you want to talk about straight White male despair? It’s part of what you watch play out as relates to the rise in White supremacists.

Andy: Absolutely. It’s a huge problem. You know, for a number of years we’ve seen the death rate go up for middle-aged White men. I think it’s essentially that they grew up thinking that there would be more for them out in the world. Many are downwardly mobile, lonely and isolated. As a result, they become self-destructive and suicidal. They abuse drugs and alcohol, or they may even get violent. That’s a real base I think of the Trump movement. You see it all the time, those big trucks go by with all these bumper stickers trying to provoke people, and they’re just angry: “Fuck Mills raaahhh!” They lash out because they don’t have a constructive narrative. I should stress that the hardcore base of the Trumpian right are generally well-off and often own businesses, but working-class White men are also unfortunately often lured in by racist demagoguery. Too many White men perceive historically disadvantaged people — like women, LGBTQ people and people of color — to be getting a leg up in society and getting special privileges over them because they’re more visible now. The voices of marginalized people are being heard. They’re becoming more prominent on social media, on TV and in films, and many White men feel like, “Nobody listens to us anymore. We don’t matter.” That affects them psychologically. But they don’t understand that most of those other people have a lot more in common with them than the plutocratic right-wingers that they’re voting for. That’s one of the reasons why I’m involved in the labor movement — it’s critical that we organize a multiracial, multi-gendered labor movement. When people are exposed to other workers who are different from them they will feel less threatened and hopefully feel a sense of solidarity with them.

Nate: There’s historically been a tension, sometimes at least, between labor and environmental regulation. Do you have any general thoughts on that?

Andy: This is a difficult question for me, to be honest (laughs). I think that there are commonalities that we can embrace. Right now we are working on a lot of labor-climate issues with the environmental movement. We know we need to transition off fossil fuels, but it needs to be a just transition. We need to make sure that the renewable energy jobs that are created have high labor standards, create good paying jobs, and respect workers’ rights. We’ve been working on a lot of legislation that applies these standards to renewable energy and affordable housing projects. I think that the only way we’re really going to build a political movement to tackle climate change is if we build a working-class movement to do it, addressing economic inequality and racial justice. If we have regressive policies that tax working people more and create low-paying jobs, I don’t think that that’s going to be successful. Climate solutions need to build equality and worker power in the process.