September 3, 2007
Labor Day Is the Story of Workers — Then and Now
by Maine Labor Commissioner, Laura Fortman
Labor Day celebrates Maine’s workers. This holiday dates from the late 19th century, when the country was changing from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy and labor unions began organizing and advocating for America’s workers.
The first Labor Day parade took place on September 5, 1882, when 10,000 workers demanding better working conditions took unpaid leave to march through the streets of New York. Congress officially legalized the holiday in 1894, after a turbulent labor strike at the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago and the inadequate federal response drew national attention to the issue of worker rights.
Maine, too, has a rich, tumultuous labor history. At statehood in 1820, Maine’s workforce was predominantly agricultural. Less than seven percent of our workers were employed in commerce, called service and transportation now, and just over 11 percent were in manufacturing. During the nineteenth century’s dramatic economic change, and despite the state workforce’s enduring reputation as the hardest workers in the nation, working people were not necessarily well treated or sufficiently compensated. According to Maine’s preeminent labor historian, Dr. Charles Scontras, most industrial workers were not earning enough money to meet their cost of living, and labor unrest grew in the decades up to and immediately following the Civil War.
In 1888, the Maine State Bureau of Industrial and Labor Statistics (now known as the Maine Department of Labor) engaged Flora Haines to assess the conditions for women working in the state’s shops and factories. The Bureau’s annual report that year includes comments like this one, from a cotton mill cloth inspector: “Scores of women with families to raise and support have but barely enough for their work to keep hunger from their doors.”
While wages were a primary concern for most workers, safety and other working conditions were also inadequate, if not downright dangerous.
A 92 year old Lewiston man who worked as a boy in the Pepperell Mill is quoted in the Museum L-A’s current exhibit, “Portraits and Voices—Workers of Seven Mills,” in which he recalls when another boy took his place on a machine and lost a finger when he accidentally ran it between the rolls. “If they had had OSHA in those days, they would have made the company change lots of machines.”
Early labor reforms regulating child labor, safety, wages and hours occurred at the state level and directly because of the tremendous sacrifices of Maine’s workers, individually and collectively, along with the support of lawmakers, cooperative businesses and responsive government. Progress came slowly but surely over the next century.
Labor Day 2007, finds Maine’s workforce in transition. Like the 1800’s, the economy is changing the character of the job market and the nature of the workforce. Nonetheless, Maine’s workers still want basic respect, a safe workplace, fair pay and benefits, opportunity for job advancement and a chance to make life better for themselves and their children.
Today presents a tough reality for Mainers who have lost the jobs they thought they’d be retiring from. The layoffs in the papermaking industry this summer are just the most recent and sad example. We acknowledge the challenges facing our workforce and respond both compassionately and pragmatically.
Technology is transforming the way work is done. Nearly half of the jobs in Maine that will be created by 2014 will require a college degree or a training certificate. We’ve introduced Lifelong Learning Accounts, allowing employers and employees to collaborate on paying for continuing education. The legislature just approved the Competitive Skills Scholarship Fund, which helps our lower income workers pay for tuition, books, equipment, and support services to complete a degree or certificate program. Governor John Baldacci signed this bill, and another, establishing the Opportunity Maine tax credit for college graduates who work in Maine while paying back their student loans.
The Maine Department of Labor helps laid-off workers with training through federal programs such as Trade Adjustment Assistance, National Emergency Grants, and the Workforce Investment Act. By partnering with organized labor and businesses, we’re keeping Maine’s workers in our hearts and minds.
Without our workers, we have no economy. As the state, national, and global economies evolve, we commit to ensuring that the entire workforce has education and skills, a livable wage, and protections for its health and safety. This is the best way to honor Maine’s workers.
Laura Fortman is Commissioner of the Maine Department of Labor and Chair of Governor Baldacci’s Workforce Cabinet