Maine Labor Day, democracy and economic justice

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“A Free Ballot and a Fair Count”

— A plea by Democrat State Rep. T.F. Callahan of Lewiston on March 7, 1891.

“The Secret Ballot is the Honest Ballot”

— Banner carried in Labor Day parade in Portland on Sept. 2, 1891.

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In an age when widespread criticism of income inequality and “voter suppression” have become commonplace, Maine’s history offers a glimpse of the long struggle to secure economic justice and the purification and extension of democracy.

The secret ballot vote — the jewel of the democratic process — came to the state after a lengthy struggle for its realization and formed part of the background of the birth of Labor Day in Maine in 1891.

The genesis of Maine Labor Day occurred against the background of labor unrest.

In 1883, Republican Frederick Robie was the first governor to address the Legislature and make reference to labor unrest that dotted the economic landscape. As if to confirm his observation, Maine experienced its greatest period of labor unrest in its history in 1886 following the surge of Knights of Labor movement, Maine’s first major crusade by organized labor, which boasted as many as 27,900 members by 1887.

It was more than coincidence that the period witnessed the birth of the Maine Labor Department in 1887 (then called the Bureau of Industrial and Labor Statistics) and a Labor Committee as part of legislative structure. For the first time one could speak of a major labor movement in the state and to the emergence of the first signs of what could be called a state labor policy relating to a lengthy litany of indignities suffered by workers.

The birth of Maine Labor Day also occurred against efforts to check the unbridled economic inequality of the nation and to purify and extend democracy. There was nothing ambiguous about the ideological position of the Knights of Labor, which declared it was committed to combating “the alarming development and aggression of aggregated wealth” and “to secure to the laborer the fruits of his toil.”

In 1889, Maine’s first labor commissioner, Republican S.W. Matthews, took note of the rise of economic inequality when he summarized the significance of facts presented to audiences, stating that they show “how unequal is the distribution of wealth of this country.” He declared “the immense fortunes, which of late years have so rapidly multiplied and have swallowed up the shares which an equal distribution would give to the masses. The wealth of this country is largely in a few hands.”

The struggle of “wealth against commonwealth” debates whether or not wealth-controlled democracy or democracy-controlled wealth filled the air. The issues of economic concentration and inequality were highlighted by the enactment of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, and by the fact that one percent of the population enjoyed more wealth than the wealth of the remaining 99 percent.

In 1891, Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, was present in the state (a state branch of the American Federation of Labor was organized in 1891) to help baptize the new workers’ holiday. He echoed the theme of corporate power and income inequality when he informed his Maine Labor Day audiences “wealth is a public trust, and the right to have something to say about wages and hours of labor pertains to the workers from whom the wealth comes.”

It was a loud call for recognition of the “human” dimension of economic relationships and economic activity and labor’s rightful claim to the fruits of its labor. It was not fortuitous that the helmsman of the nation’s largest labor organization made wealth the central feature of his presentation.

On labor’s historic day, rank and file celebrants of Labor Day also heard Republican Gov. Edwin Burleigh pay tribute to organized labor and the labor theory of value when he noted, “All wealth is primarily the product of industry, and every step in our material prosperity has been accomplished through the combined and persistent efforts of laboring men and women.”

Such recognition and applause for labor by the state’s highest official was precedent shattering in its nature and symbolic of the problems engendered by industrial growth.

The link between Labor Day and economic justice and democracy was pronounced. The Populist Party of Maine (1891), born in the same year as Maine’s Labor Day, echoed the sentiments of the national organization which declared that “The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these in turn despise the Republic and endanger liberty . . . .

Maine Populists, Grange, Knights of Labor, the State Federation of Labor and others formed part of the mosaic of reformers who sought to restore power to the people and to end the struggle between “wealth and commonwealth.” It was clear that a growing number of voices expressed the view that a certain species of capitalism was incompatible with democracy. The search for a more equitable distribution of wealth was linked to purity of the voting process.

While scattered references to worker complaints of employer intimidation at the voting place can be found in the early 19th century, they appear to have increased in frequency with time.

In 1834, Maine employers were reported to have exerted pressure on their employees to “vote right” and hired only those whose political views coincided with their own. In Portland, the Democrat Eastern Argus was quick to denounce the “the reign of terror” as it described the actions of a merchant in the city who publicly stated that he would not employ a “Shipmaster, Mechanic, or Labor(er) who was opposed to him in politics.”

On the eve of the Civil War, the partisan Eastern Argus reported that Republican employers had warned their employees “if they did not vote the Republican ticket, they would have no further employment for them!”

It was “a queer way,” the Argus noted, “to vindicate the great doctrine of human freedom and the independence of the franchise! Is not that freedom for ‘niggers’ and slavery for white men?”

An employee in the Portland Sugar House echoed the concern of voter intimidation when he reported “EVERY WORKMAN in that establishment who dares to vote the Democratic ticket on Tuesday next, will be discharged from the concern!”

In 1868, a news items from the Eastern Argus and the Lewiston Evening Journal reported “Hundreds in Lewiston, Auburn, Little [Lisbon?] Falls and other towns would gladly vote the [Democrat] ticket were they permitted to do so, but as it has been customary in the past to dispense with the services of those who so vote, they are afraid to go to the polls except to vote the ticket of their superintendents . . . .”

According to the Bangor Daily Commercial, in 1868, reports from Kittery claimed “The Kittery Navy Yard vote factory is being put in order for the Maine election.”

Voter intimidation of granite workers was revealed by a granite cutter who moved to Blue Hill from Hurricane Island. Appreciating his new work environment, he stated “those who work here can feel and act like men, and no one tries to make slaves of them.” He wondered, however, about his freedom to vote as election time approached — “We shall see whether the men are marched up like Chinese gangs to vote at the dictation of some of?ce holder as on Hurricane [Island].”

The Rockland Opinion, no friend of the “Granite Ring” of leading granite quarry owners, referred to efforts to coerce stone cutters to vote in 1875 and 1876, and reported that one owner “discharged everyone who did not vote the Republican ticket.”

Later the paper reported “We believe that every man who is known to have voted the Greenback ticket on Hurricane last year [1878] has been discharged. It is certain that nearly all were discharged as soon as they completed cutting the stones on which they were engaged at election time.”

The paper charged that granite cutters on Dix Island were also discriminated against by denying them the ballot if they expressed sympathy for the Greenback Party. The Portland Eastern Argus also took note of the penalties suffered by granite cutters who voted the Greenback ticket when it reported “ It was a notable fact that every man employed in the quarries near Rockland who voted for Mr. [Thompson] Murch has been discharged since the election.”

Again, in 1877, the paper reported the remarks of a local citizen who offered the following lament: And even there [the ballot-box] poor men have a hard chance, for they have to meet their employers at the polls, keenly watching to see how they vote. They even get up colored ballots, contrary to law, to enable them to spot those who vote against the [granite] Ring, that they may persecute them and punish them for so doing. The hard-headed scoundrels!

The local Knights of Labor argued that if a secret ballot were passed it would prevent employers from depriving their workers “of their rights as citizens, and make them vote according to their sweet will.”

The glaring abuse of the right of the workers to vote by those who controlled their means of livelihood had become commonplace and compelled Democrat Gov. Alonzo Garcelon in 1879 to declare before the Legislature that it was necessary to take action to protect “the freedom and purity of elections.”

Employer sovereignty over the workplace — which had led to a litany of indignities and a catalog of worker grievances — extended to jurisdiction over the right to vote, elect and oust governments. The record reveals that the threat to democracy did not always originate from incendiary calls for revolution by radical voices and organizations, but rather from those citizens who had economic power to demand compliance to their work rules and political views

It was clear that the secret ballot did not arrive with the May?ower. It was not until 1891 when, with the aid of petitions from 10,000 Maine working men and women and others who demanded the political reform and the purification of democracy, could workers vote in secrecy and authentically address the issues spawned by the unbridled growth of industrialism. The first major effort to expand and purify democracy would continue in time with such measures as the initiative and referendum, the direct primary and the recall.

In some haunting way, Labor Day and the secret ballot of 1891 are not far removed from the modern concerns and emphasis on economic inequality, demise of the middle class, court decisions which rule that corporations are persons and money is free speech, and new efforts to probe into voter “fraud” and to disenfranchise voters.

Labor Day, once opposed by those who thought there were holidays enough in this world or who feared the floodgates of revolution would surely be opened should it become a reality, has always symbolized the value and dignity of labor, and has reminded us all that workers are more than units of energy and appendages to business and governmental operations.

Perhaps the celebrants of Labor Day should reflect on its origins and the larger context of its birth which reveals that it is inextricably linked to a long struggle to address the question of economic justice, and the crusade to purify and extend democracy, issues which clearly continue and present themselves in sharp relief today.

Charles A. Scontras is an historian and research associate for the Bureau of Labor Education at the University of Maine at Orono.

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