ORONO – An item from the attic of Maine labor history: In 1848, a movement for the reduction of the hours of labor culminated in a petition drive for the 10-hour day.

The select committee investigating the matter agreed with the disciples of reform that 10 hours a day would yield an increase in production, greater than the production of the current workday, which required workers to labor “as long as they can see.”

The committee also took note of the realities of the disparities in social power and argued that it mattered little if workers were freed from subservience to government only to discover that they were subservient to their employers.

The man whose time is totally consumed by the requirement of his employer, they said, “becomes the mere tool of his employer, following his lead and acting as he directs, however erroneous his opinion might be.”

The committee added, “Those who enjoyed power that wealth almost always imparts” often exercised it “without any regard for the comfort, happiness or prosperity of those less favored.”

Wealth, the select committee noted, too often tends to “beget an overbearing disposition,” and men too often “impose onerous duties upon those less independent, forgetting that they are subject of the same wants, both physical and intellectual as themselves.”

For workers, showing deference to those of means was viewed as antithetical to the “Spirit of ’76” with its message of independence and equality.

Labor’s call for the reduction of the hours of labor was linked to the calls for free, universal, public education. Workers were generally sensitive to any circumstances, situations or practices that eroded the promise of independence and equality.

For example, they attacked the “unequal distribution of knowledge” that accounted for the “disparity of influence” exercised by some at the expense of the many and that gave rise to “aristocratic distinctions.”

The “general distribution of knowledge” was also considered basic and essential to a republican form of government and a bulwark against ignorance, which was the “very ground work of tyranny and despotism.”

Without sufficient leisure and education to prepare for citizenship, the republic itself was in danger of failure. And without equal education, the inequality growing out of the disparities in income and wealth, which proved hostile to the vision of a society of independent and roughly equal citizens, would expand and become entrenched. As a song of the campaign said:

We will have the Ten Hours Bill,

That we will, that we will;

Else the land shall ne’re be still,

Never still, never still.

A 10-hour law was enacted, but it permitted workers to exercise their “freedom” to sign contracts that allowed them to labor for more than 10 hours. The law became a “dead letter,” for workers were compelled to sign such contracts or face the consequence of not doing so. The marks that served as their signatures left little question of the lack of bargaining power among the poorly educated workers and a meaningless definition and exercise of “freedom.”

Over the years, it was the labor movement and its struggles that challenged and checked private economic power, a power that history had demonstrated could be as arbitrary and capricious.

The catalog of indignities suffered by workers in an environment of limited government, unbridled economic activity, individual freedom of contract and a larger-than-life view of personal responsibility, is long and painful to read.

It was organized labor that made capitalism more equitable and helped to create the modern middle class by demanding a greater share of the wealth it helped to produce.

It was from the collective efforts of workers that democracy was extended to the workplace, transforming workers from “subjects” to “citizens,” and enabled them to share in the power of decision-making that impacted their lives and their communities.

It was organized labor, too, that insisted on a measure of dignity and security at the workplace rather than workers being treated as an impersonal cost of production, only to appear on the ledgers along with taxes, insurance, rent, etc., and whose “value” was determined by the inexorable “laws” of the marketplace.

Labor advocates shouted that the workers were more than units of energy, more than fodder for production and profit, more than depreciated “living” machines.

The flaws of organized labor are to be admitted (where is the institution totally innocent of flaws and criticism?), but its historical value as a check against private power and a vehicle of progressive reform is undeniable.

Charles Scontras of Cape Elizabeth is a historian and research associate at the Bureau of Labor Education of the University of Maine.