ORONO – Organized workers in Maine and the nation were longtime veterans of ideological opposition when, in 1903, a young National Association of Manufacturers coined the phrase “open shop.”

The group’s president, David Parry, announced that the principles and demands of organized labor were incompatible with the “individualistic social order,” and that “the greatest danger” to it “lies in the recognition of the union.”

His message was carried in the columns of the local press and adopted by the Maine members of NAM. Local “citizens’ alliances” that heralded the open-shop message were laced together into the Citizens’ Industrial Association of America, whose first leader was also president of NAM.

In 1920, American employers adopted the “American Plan,” which supported the open shop and condemned the “un-American” closed shop. In 1920, the Associated Industries of Maine, the first statewide organization of manufacturers, was formed to abort a movement for the eight-hour workday.

Emblazoned on its letterhead, which read like a “who’s who” of Maine industry, were the words, “We stand squarely for the American open shop.” Local manufacturing centers that sought to attract industry reflected that sentiment and boasted they were “union-free.”

In 1921, the national Chamber of Commerce joined the crusade for the open shop and free labor, a sentiment that was echoed by local branches of the organization. In 1937, the American Civil Liberties Union noted the pervasive opposition of the press, pulpit and public officials to organized labor, enumerated the violations of the civil rights of workers, and wrote that “Maine is at least 100 years behind the times in its labor laws.”

The contemporary “right to work” movement (National Right to Work Committee, 1955) is a descendant of the open shop and the “American Plan” of earlier years. In the 1940s, ’60s and ’70s, “right to work” crusades were launched and defeated in Maine.

The 1970s witnessed the rise of antiunion consultants employed to ensure a “union-free environment.” By 1979, such legal consultants had become a major industry in the nation.

A measure of the new legal thicket that paralyzed labor’s search for redress through the National Labor Relations Board was reflected in the fact that between 1967 and 1977, the number of unfair-labor practice cases in Maine rose from 42 to 132, a 214 percent increase, giving Maine the dubious honor of ranking among the seven highest states in that category. (In 1984, one Portland attorney captured the flavor of the new legal barricades faced by labor when he boasted that, “I think union busting is a valid concept, and I think being a union buster is an honorable profession.”)

Legislative skirmishes involving “right to work” efforts resurfaced in Maine in 1999 and 2007 and offered additional reminders of the persistence of the phoenix-like ideological message which promised no respite for organized labor.

The issue of “right to work” had long been an integral component of public union negotiations. However, it was not until Gov. John Baldacci’s Democratic administration in 2003 that advocates of public unionism for state employees were able to secure “fair share” contributions from all new hires. Two years later, a new contract required all state employees to join the union or pay dues. (The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a worker cannot be forced to join a union, NLRB v. General Motors Corp., 1963).

In 2011, the “right to work” movement, with the blessings of Republican Gov. LePage, has once again emerged with full legislative force in Maine.

As in the past, “right to work” advocates place “freedom of choice” and voluntary unionism above the right of employers and unions to negotiate contracts containing security clauses that require all workers to pay for the cost of negotiations (“right to work” legislation would make such contracts illegal).

The “right to work” movement appears inextricably linked to calls for a “favorable business climate” and business “flexibility,” phrases that imply little or no union restraint upon management decisions in the new global marketplace.

Apprehension abounds in labor circles that such calls — grafted to the current political climate of austerity — are, and will continue to be, utilized to disguise the efforts of labor’s ideological opponents to strike another blow to the collective power of workers to protect and enhance their interests, and simultaneously weaken the Democratic Party, which some perceive to be synonymous with organized labor.

Labor Day celebrants will be reminded that the resurgence of the “right to work” movement, which has deep roots in history, forms a cardinal component of the new offensive against organized labor.

– Special to the Press Herald