Labor leaders and workers gathered on the Eastern Promenade in Portland on Labor Day to call on state and federal elected officials to immediately pass legislation to protect workers, boost unemployment benefits for struggling Mainers and address racial disparities in both the health and economic crises caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

During the event organized by the Southern Maine Workers’ Center, Maine AFL-CIO and Southern Maine Labor Council, speakers also called on Congress get back to work to provide federal aid to cash-strapped state and local governments, provide hazard pay to front-line workers and save the U.S. Postal Service. It also highlighted the need for rent relief and eviction moratoriums.

“While our elected officials are on vacations, Maine’s workers are risking their lives in unsafe working conditions or struggling to make ends meet with the loss of federal unemployment funding,” said event organizer Arlo Hennessey of the Southern Maine Workers’ Center. “While we wait on federal action, thousands of people are still dying from COVID-19, disproportionately Black, Indigenous and people of color. With this action we call for immediate action to address racial injustice and the pandemic’s impact on working class people.”

The event took the place of the traditional Labor Day breakfast and parade held in Portland to celebrate workers and unions and call attention to issues that impact them. This year, the press conference and caravan were streamed live on social media for those who could not attend in person.

Cynthia Phinney, president of the Maine AFL-CIO, which represents 160 labor organizations and about 40,000 workers across Maine, spoke to a small crowd and called attention to “the crisis exploding before our eyes.”

“The equities that have been simmering and scalding the lives of low-income workers, Black and brown communities, and those unable to find work while business as usual has hummed along for those at the top, has risen to a boil as the pandemic has required that business as usual to come to a pause,” Phinney said. “We gather today to call on our United States senators, Sen. (Susan) Collins and Sen. (Angus) King, to end their break and pass emergency legislation for direct relief to the unemployed or the underemployed, including but not limited to expansion of the family CARES Act, passage of the Heroes and RESTART acts. They need to reverse executive orders that are making the crisis worse for communities and families, and … specifically to reimplement the additional $600 a week of unemployment insurance for the duration of the pandemic.”

Congress has been deadlocked for months on a new coronavirus relief package. As the U.S. Senate returns to session Tuesday, some governors and state lawmakers are again urging action on proposals that could provide hundreds of billions of additional dollars to state and local governments, according to The Associated Press. Congress approved $150 billion for states and local governments in March. That money was targeted to cover coronavirus-related costs, not to offset declining revenue resulting from the recession.

Ben Freedman, a Portland firefighter and vice president of IAFF Local 740, said the situation with municipal and state budgets will become dire without help from the federal government. More than 30 city employees in Portland have been laid off and more could be furloughed, he said, noting that previous federal aid packages have been aimed at the private sector.

“It’s time for Mitch McConnell and the Senate to remember cities have employees, too,” he said, referring to the Senate majority leader. “We urge you to contact Sen. Collins and Sen. King to tell them to get back to work , support working Mainers and pass state and local support today.”

The event also turned a spotlight on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Black communities and people of color in Maine, which has had the widest disparity in the U.S. By June, Black residents were contracting the virus at 20 times the rate of their white neighbors, despite making up 1.4 percent of the state’s population.

“The labor struggle and the anti-racism struggle are inextricable. The pandemic impact on Maine’s communities of color has made that fact unavoidable,” Michael Kebebe, a policy analyst for the ACLU of Maine, said in remarks read by Hennessey.

After the press conference, the Ideal Maine Social Aid & Sanctuary Band played funeral music as a funeral procession for the workers who organizers say “needlessly died of COVID-19” traveled from the Eastern Promenade down Congress Street to the Western Promenade. A pickup truck carrying a person dressed as the grim reaper and oversized puppet of Sen. Collins led the caravan of more than two dozen cars. A sign on the side of the truck read “They vacation while we die!”

As the First Parish Unitarian Universalist church bells tolled, the procession paused for five minutes to honor lives lost to COVID-19, police brutality and the housing crisis.

Gov. Janet Mills, who did not attend the event, on Monday released a statement in honor of Labor Day.

“Today, let us pay tribute to the generations of hardworking men and woman who, standing in solidarity, fought day in and day out to deliver safer working conditions, higher wages, better health care, and countless other opportunities and protections for themselves and others,” Mills said. “Unions formed the backbone of our nation – the middle class – and it is their courage, conviction, and strength that has improved the lives and livelihoods of thousands of men and women across this country. Today, let us continue to recognize that when working people thrive, Maine thrives; America thrives.”


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