For the first time in a long time this newspaper’s Labor Day edition won’t have a column by University of Maine labor historian Charles Scontras.

He passed away this March at the age of 91, but he left behind a rich trove of research and writing, chronicling the struggles and victories of working men and women in our state, a history that started long before Maine was a state on the United States was a country.

Child workers at the Bates Mill in Lewiston posed for this photo in 1909. It wasn’t good-hearted employers who ended child labor, but decades of labor activism. Library of Congress, Photo by Lewis Hine

Scontras, the son of Greek immigrants and onetime shoe repair person, was a professor at the University of Maine for 36 years and held positions in the modern society, history and political science departments. He retired in 1997 and continued to serve as a research associate at the Bureau of Labor Education at the university.

And he was always ready to tell the story of workers in Maine to the people outside the academic bubble.

In 2018, Scontras wrote a column for the Press Herald about the 1891 Labor Day, its first celebration as an official holiday in Maine.

Rather than a sleepy long weekend that marks an unofficial end to summer, that first Labor Day was celebrated with parades featuring horses, floats, bands and marchers grouped behind the colorful banners of labor organizations.

But while they celebrated, the workers were aware of a “spirit of unrest,” Scontras told us.

In the period between 1881 and 1900 there had been 176 strikes in Maine. Workers labored in multistoried buildings without fire escapes. They could be forced to sign waivers of liability for workplace accidents or made to work for nothing to repay debts to the company store.

Shortly before the first Labor Day, the Maine Legislature passed a conspiracy law designed to make it risky to organize a union and refused to pass an anti-blacklist measure, letting employers share information about “troublemakers” who should be denied a chance to make a living.

The struggle was long and the outcome was far from certain. That they fought at all is a testament to their character and something to celebrate.

Scontras wrote: “These few examples, drawn from the catalog of indignities suffered by Maine workers, remind us that the true value of workers is not determined by the unbridled and supposedly immutable laws of the marketplace.”

Scontras reminded us that things like an eight-hour day or a safe workplace were not the employers’ idea. They were won by men and women who fought for them at great risk and whose names rarely make the history books. Instead of being a source of pride and inspiration to new generations of workers, these heroes are usually forgotten, and their accomplishments taken for granted.

But, Scontras did not forget and he did not let us forget, either. Without his guidance it will be up to the rest of us to apply the lessons of the past to the challenges we face today.

Charlie Scontras did his job, now the rest of us have to do ours.


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