November 18, 2019

Maine labor history explored in book by ex-UM professor

ORONO – Charles Scontras is telling the stories of the Maine men and women that history has ignored.

Scontras, a research associate in the Bureau of Labor Education at the University of Maine, uncovers the struggles and successes of the state’s workers in a new book, “Organized Labor in Maine: War, Reaction, Depression and the Rise of the CIO, 1914-1943,” published by the Bureau of Labor Education.

“What historians write about is important, of course. But equally important is what they don’t write about. What they don’t write about simply doesn’t exist, or we are tempted to fill in the historical vacuums with imaginary constructions of our own,” said Scontras, a retired professor of modern society at the university.

“Too often we have been blinded by a romantic view of our past which focuses on such things as the general store, the potbellied stove, Downeast humor and accent, lobster traps, lighthouses and larger than life

lumberjacks. That image, advertised as a staple in our souvenir and gift shops, is not a complete picture of the state and its people. It leaves out struggle and conflict, and the effort of workers and others to change the environment in which they live in order to bring about a society they believe to be more just,” he said.

Scontras, who retired from teaching at UMaine in 1997, has researched and written about Maine labor history for nearly 40 years.

The book is the latest in the bureau’s Labor History series, which includes other titles by Scontras, among them “Organized Labor in Maine: Twentieth Century Origins,” “Collective Efforts Among Maine Workers: Beginnings and Foundations, 1820-1880” and “The Socialist Alternative: Utopian Experiments and the Socialist Party of Maine, 1895-1914.”

The books are available from the University of Maine bookstore in the Memorial Union on the Orono campus, or at

“This is part of a larger story that acknowledges the sacrifices, struggles and contributions of those countless and anonymous workers who paraded through the factories, mills, shops and mines of the state. This volume continues the story of their work, their lives and struggles to win a measure of dignity at the workplace and a greater share of the wealth that their minds and muscles helped to create,” Scontras said.

The book discusses the developments that were of most concern to the labor movement between the World Wars, including Bolshevism and the “Red Scare,” labor reform, the campaign for the eight-hour work day for women, political dissent, the IWW and the Great Depression.

“The conflicts of the Depression era were unprecedented in terms of the size, scope and consequences of such confrontations. Most dramatic of these confrontations were the general strikes in the textile industry in 1934 and in the Lewiston-Auburn shoe industries in 1937. In both cases the National Guard was called out to preserve law and order. In the shoe strike, the wholesale violation of civil liberties prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to state that ‘Maine is at least 100 years behind the time in labor laws,'” Scontras said.

“Because Maine was an agricultural state, labor reformers often found the agricultural interests of the state to be resistant to labor legislation. Farmer-labor parties failed to blossom in Maine, as the interests of farmers and workers were thought to be incompatible on such matters as child labor, working hours, protective tariff and class consciousness. But Maine workers have made their own unique contributions to the labor movement. In 1877, granite cutters along the coast of Knox County met in Rockland to organize the National Granite Cutters’ Union, and the lobster fishermen of Vinalhaven sparked a labor movement which gave birth to the Lobster Fishermen’s International Protection Association in 1907, the first of its kind in the nation,” Scontras said.

He is continuing his research on Maine labor, and hopes to publish pamphlets on various topics of Maine labor history for schools, general citizens and rank and file unionists.

“Maine people ought to know about these struggles which serve as reminders that the world we know did not fall out of the sky ready-made,” Scontras said.

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