There was a sense of grief wafting through Portland last week, following the news that the century-old B&M baked bean plant in East Deering would soon be gone for good.

The building and its waterfront lot just east of I-295 had been sold to an organization developing a campus for the Roux Institute, a computer science graduate school that is part of Northeastern University.

The Roux campus will someday become a local institution of its own, but, understandably, the first thought for many was of what will be lost: the smell of molasses wafting across the harbor, Saturday night suppers of locally produced baked beans and brown bread, and jobs – good, union-jobs with good pay and benefits that supported families.

These were jobs that built community. B&M workers belonged to local churches, coached teams and volunteered for charities. As I looked through the newspaper archive for mentions of Burnham & Morrill Co., I was struck by how many times long-term employment at the plant showed up in retirees’ obituaries. These were jobs that people could be proud of.

And soon those jobs will be gone for good.

But, since this is Labor Day weekend, it’s good to remember that there was nothing inherently “good” about these jobs. The heyday for B&M almost exactly coincides with the rise of organized labor in this country. As the company grew into a well-known national brand, its unionized workforce shared in its prosperity.

It was the people in the jobs, speaking with one voice, who made the jobs “good.” The loss of B&M in Portland is sad – especially for the 80 or so workers who are still employed there (down from more than 400 at its peak) – but the lesson of the plant’s history should make the next step clear.

In the words of Labor Movement martyr Joe Hill, “Don’t mourn. Organize.”

Burnham & Morrill was founded two years after the end of the Civil War in a building on Franklin Street. It moved to what was then a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility on the water in 1913.

It didn’t become a bean bakery for decades after that. B&M products originally included canned fish, meat and vegetables.

Cannery work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was not cushy.

The late Maine labor historian Charles Scontras wrote about the exploitation of the largely female workforce that was common in canneries and the extensive use of child labor, which was allowed in Maine if the material being canned was perishable.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that federal child labor laws put an end to the practice. And it was the 1935 Labor Relations Act that extended the right to organize across most industries. The B&M workers formed their union in 1964.

Organized workers, the post-World War II economic boom and a national taste for baked beans came together to create the kind of jobs that employees at B&M enjoyed. You could get a job out of high school, raise a family and retire with a pension.

That’s over now, but don’t blame the union.

B&M grew to be a valuable company with a unionized workforce. It was sold by its founders’ heirs to the PET corporation in the 1970s, and it has remained a valuable asset as it has changed hands several times since. In 1913, the plant was strategically located next to the harbor and a railroad at a time when everything moved by rail or sea. There are more efficient places to bake beans these days.

But Maine still has a workforce that needs “good” jobs and the answer will not be holding on to companies like B&M. The solution is for workers in health care, retail, hotels, restaurants and other service providers to do what their grandparents did and organize in unions to make the jobs they have now into “good” jobs, ones that will support families – jobs they can be proud of.

They will need some help from the federal government again, which hasn’t modernized labor laws in decades. (For instance, corporations like McDonald’s can avoid collective bargaining by making most of their restaurants independently owned franchises.)

But the labor shortage in so many industries right now gives workers rare leverage – if they can band together.

Economies shift, environments change but “good” jobs don’t have be a thing of the past.


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