LEWISTON – May Day wasn’t about baskets of flowers at the Lewiston-Auburn College Monday. The day reflected on labor movement history and today’s problem of workers’ loss of power.
Inside the college’s Function Room were politically left-leaning brochures, speakers and banners. On one table was a pile of “Capitalism Sucks” T-shirts.
One banner read “Let Cuba Live Committee of Maine.”
Numerous speakers, including Peter Kellman, spoke of the labor movement’s history, and workers’ uprising, achievements and struggles. The U.S. Supreme Court has not been a friend of workers, Kellman said.
Labor history has been left out of public school classrooms, complained labor activist Barry Rodrigue, who teaches labor, literature and the arts at L-A College. Monday’s event was to bring more awareness.
For instance, the eight-hour workday evolved in the United States after the Knights of Labor demonstrated and went on strike in the 1880s. The knights were active throughout the country, and had 30,000 to 40,000 members in Maine. It was the first major industrial labor union in the country, Rodrigue said.
The late 19th century was a time when working 12 or 16 hours a day was common. The workday was only regulated by a lack of light after the sun went down.
The May 1 labor focus is larger in other countries than the United States, and is an outgrowth of the eight-hour-day movement, said Lewiston-born Rodrigue, who worked as a commercial fisherman before becoming a professor. That labor movement came together much like how today’s immigrants are walking off their jobs in protest, he said.
“Workers came together and said we want a humane eight-hour day,” Rodrigue said. “It proliferated around the world as a celebration of workers for their rights and for recognition of what they’ve done.”
Too often in America workers count for nothing, he said. “The bosses, the owners get all the credit.” Labor history has been written out of history books, newspapers and radio stations. The autobiography of labor activist Mother Jones – who in 1903 led a children’s march to protest child labor – ought to be required high school reading, he said.
L-A College student Sue Tefft of Durham agreed, saying during her years as a student, she’s just becoming aware of labor history. “None of this was taught in high school or when I went to college the first time.”
She remembers her father being in a union and involved in strikes. He died last year. She said she wishes she could talk to him about his experience.
It’s important to understand history, Tefft said, “so the same mistakes aren’t repeated, to know our rights, and what people have suffered in order for us to have privileges we have today.”
Learning lessons is relevant with production jobs disappearing, Rodrigue warned. “United States workers are not going to be able to feed families selling hamburgers or working as part-time clerks at Wal-Mart.”
Consumers can’t rely on politicians, need to “pay attention and understand they can do something. They can organize,” he said.
Organizing doesn’t mean just labor unions, it can mean political action, social groups or any kind of community networking. It can mean supporting local endeavors, including a farmers market.
“It isn’t only a matter of providing capital to a bunch of rich people,” Rodrigue said.