PORTLAND — A vocal group of about 60 protesters gathered in Congress Square on Tuesday afternoon to celebrate May Day and workers’ rights.

Huddled under a colorful sea of umbrellas, protesters chanted “we are the 99 percent” and “workers united will never be defeated” as labor leaders, retired teachers and others stood atop a wooden soap box to speak about labor issues, student debt and health care.

The rally was organized by members of Occupy Maine, Occupy USM and the Maine AFL-CIO, and co-sponsored by the Southern Maine Labor Council and the Southern Maine Workers’ Center.

Similar May Day protests were held in cities across the United States. They were some of the most visible protests by anti-Wall Street groups since Occupy encampments were dismantled beginning last fall.

Alan Churchill, vice president of Teamsters Local Union 340 in South Portland, accused corporations of abusing the bankruptcy process to void labor contracts of workers, including at the Hostess bakery in Biddeford, which employs about 370 people.

“Corporations are running amok. They’re running our workers into the ground,” he said.

In mid-April, Hostess asked a federal bankruptcy judge for permission to reject its collective bargaining agreements with its unions. The unions say they will strike if that happens, but the company says a strike will force it to liquidate, causing its brands and its 18,500 jobs to disappear.

Sarah Franklin, a retired school teacher from Portland, said she was a union member for her entire 44-year career.

“Without the union, I would not have been paid a living wage. Without the union, I would not have been able to educate my son,” she said.

Earlier Tuesday, a small group of University of Southern Maine students staged a walkout to draw attention to the issue of student debt. About 20 students, professors and supporters stood in the lobby of Luther Bonney Hall to speak as students made their way to classes.

Philosophy professor Jason Read opened the event by talking about the history of May Day and the effect of rising tuition costs on students. He said high student loan debt becomes a source of anxiety, forces people to work more and stands in the way of people buying their first homes.

“That debt becomes harder and harder to pay off,” he said.

Katherine Hulit, 27, a USM senior from Falmouth, said she and other demonstrators showed their power by skipping school and work for the day.

“As the 99 percent, we need to show the 1 percent how much they really need us,” she said. “This is part of something much, much bigger.”

 

Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: gg[email protected]

Twitter: grahamgillian