One of Maine’s best-known labor leaders has died.
Charles John “Chick” O’Leary, who served as president of the Maine AFL-CIO for 20 years, passed away at his home in Orono on Friday.
Mr. O’Leary, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in September, was 76.
“He was always a champion of the underdog,” said his wife, Pamela Braley O’Leary.
Mr. O’Leary was born in Bangor on Jan. 25, 1937, the son of Charles J. O’Leary and Doris Foley O’Leary. He grew up in Bangor, graduating from John Bapst High School in 1955.
He came from a working-class background. His grandfather and great-grandfather served as Bangor firefighters.
He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history and government from the University of Maine.
After graduation, he taught high school history, but left the teaching profession to join the federal War on Poverty program in the 1960s. He ran training programs for former welfare recipients and spearheaded the Augusta-Gardiner Community Action Program, a position that included coordinating some of the state’s first Head Start programs.
“Charlie was in the forefront of that movement,” his wife said. “I think that sensitized him to the problems of the disadvantaged and the woes of our society.”
In 1972, he became director for the University of Maine Bureau of Labor Education, and in 1978 he was elected president of the Maine AFL-CIO.
In his role as president, Mr. O’Leary worked for fair wages, health benefits, and safe working conditions.
His daughter, Ann O’Leary, a lawyer from Oakland, Calif., said her father fought hard to make sure that unions in Maine preserved the right to organize – a right that some states tried to take away.
“I think my father had a tremendous impact on the state’s labor movement,” his daughter said. “Workplaces are safer and wages are higher in Maine because of my dad. People are leading a better life because of him.”
She said her father was ahead of his time.
He spoke out in support of gay rights and fought for the rights of displaced homemakers back in the 1980s.
“He was most passionate about equity issues. He believed that everyone deserved a fair shake,” his daughter said.
Her father often traveled and spoke to union members around the state.
He spoke several times to striking workers at the International Paper mill in Jay in 1987. The company ended up firing all its striking workers and replacing them with permanent employees.
“It was a huge loss for the labor movement,” his daughter said.
But he worked with former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell of Maine on legislation that would have prevented companies from replacing striking workers. That legislation failed, Ann O’Leary said.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who is also a Maine gubernatorial candidate, issued a statement after learning that Mr. O’Leary died.
“Our state has lost a great leader,” Michaud said. “I’m forever grateful to have known and worked with Charlie. He gained the confidence of people across Maine because he was committed to whats he did and he truly cared for the well-being of his fellow workers. The contributions he made to the advancement of workers’ rights here in our state are lasting and important.”
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor, 120 Park St., with a reception to follow.
Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: