The first half of Charles A. Scontras’ “Organized Labor in Maine: Twentieth Century Origins” highlights the development of unions in Maine at the turn of the twentieth century. Unions were battling to survive amid various obstacles, including a depression, resistance by employers and slow acceptance by workers.
The depression of the 1890’s had a negative effect on the newly forming unionized state of Maine. A sharp reduction in the work force led to membership plummeting. Many of the companies reported a twenty-five to sixty percent cut in employees. The employers also cut the remaining workers’ pay some by thirty percent.
The pay reduction, in turn, forced families to put their children to work. The ages of the new workers ranged between five and fourteen years of age. The unions then took action, initiating a bill that would only allow a child twelve years of age or older to work in the factories.
In 1899, companies started to invest capital into their factories, throughout the state. This action created jobs. The stimulated growth of business allowed the unions to prosper and start fighting for higher wages, shorter hours, and better working conditions. An early milestone came in 1904, when the carpenters of the central unions won the nine-hour workday. This coup helped legitimize the unions’ role as a player in worker rights.
In the spring of that year, the American Federation of Labor took notice of Maine and sent John J. Keegan as special organizer. In 1906, Keegan mustered the delegates from thoughout Maine to meet in Augusta. This group of delegates formed the state organization.
Churches became instrumental in the growth of unions. The churches’ backing helped unions gain the support of the towns and cities. More people started to buy union-produced merchandise. The new strength of the unions was feared by many.
Some companies made statements that showed fear of the unions. “We do not propose to be dictated to as to how we shall conduct our business or what men we shall hire,” said W.V. Trelfell, agent of the shop at Saco and Pettie Machine Company. David Parry, President of the National Association of Manufacturers told the association, “The greatest danger lies in the recognition of the union.”
Word Count: 371