Nine pizza workers recently walked out of a Portland pizza shop because of onerous working conditions; Bull Moose is planning to sell its stores to its employees in an ESOP, and Bates College has filed with the National Labor Relations Board to interfere in an attempt by workers to unionize. These were all stories in the Portland Press Herald on Jan. 4. Before March 7, 2021, I could always count on my friend Charlie to make insightful, pointed comments on these situations and thousands of others over the years. We are a couple of months away from the anniversary of the death of eminent Maine labor historian Charles Scontras, who passed too soon from this earth last March.

A public hearing will he held Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. on a bill to create the Dr. Charles A. Scontras Labor Center at the University of Southern Maine. The longtime Maine labor historian is depicted at left, teaching an apprentice how to hand-sew shoes, in one of the 11 panels of Judy Taylor’s mural of Maine labor history. He died last March 7. Imbrogno Photography photo courtesy of Judy Taylor Studio

I am not sure when I first encountered Charlie, but it was probably sometime around 1987 during the Local 14 Jay International Paper strike, where I and so many others in Maine’s labor movement began to understand the bitter struggle between labor and capital. Charlie, who by this time had been teaching at the University of Maine for over two decades and had already published several volumes of Maine labor history, was ever present wherever there was a struggle for workers‘ rights. When he found out that I was a card-carrying member of the Portland Longshoremen’s Benevolent Association, chartered by the state of Maine in 1880, he urged me to document and preserve the history of my local union. Some of us did do that, and most of our union’s early history from 1880 to 1923 now resides at the Maine Historical Society in Portland.

Charlie’s exuberant passion for labor history and social justice influenced me and countless others who continue to agitate and organize around these issues. Charlie and I were both sons of immigrants, and he always reminded me how the work we do is done on the shoulders of other working men and women who came before us.

Charlie began his career far from the hallowed halls of academia; he worked in a shoe shop in southern Maine. He was the inspiration for the Maine Labor Mural, which now hangs in the entrance of the Maine State Museum. The mural’s artist, Judy Taylor, referred to Charlie’s involvement in the project as “her guiding light,” and he is actually depicted as a cobbler in one of the 11 panels. Charlie would often say to me, “Vince” – he is the only person who called me that – “we have an obligation to future generations to save and document this important history.”

Well, now we have a real opportunity to do just that. L.D. 1816 (An Act to Promote Labor Education through the University of Maine System), sponsored by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, has a public hearing Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. before the Education and Culture Affairs Committee. This bill will strengthen labor education in Maine by increasing the capacity of Maine’s Bureau of Labor Education and creating the Dr. Charles A. Scontras Labor Center at the University of Southern Maine.

If the bill is passed, the center will offer labor education for students, unions and, most importantly,  the community at large. It will host regular trainings and workshops, policy seminars, working-class oral history projects, conferences, symposia and speakers.  It will also offer films that address issues of concern to Maine’s working people, such as labor law and workers’ rights, discrimination, labor history, quality of work life and lots more. I, for one, cannot think of a more fitting honor for my friend Charlie and his life’s work.

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