FARMINGTON — Cynthia Phinney believes her history of working in a shoe shop played a significant role in why she became involved in labor unions.

“I saw what happened to me and my co-workers when the drive for profit led the company to move jobs to places where they could pay workers a fraction of what they would need to live here to have any kind of life at all,” she said.

Phinney, 58, lives in Livermore Falls with her husband, Paul Wilson.

She had worked for 12½ years as a hand sewer before signing on with Central Maine Power.

She was elected on Oct. 23 to be president of the Maine AFL-CIO, the state’s largest labor federation.

Phinney is the first woman to be elected to the position but not the first woman to hold it. Gwen Gatcomb served as interim president of the Maine AFL-CIO after Charles O’Leary stepped down in January 1999.


The state federation is made up of 160 local unions representing over 40,000 workers across the state.

Phinney grew up in Wisconsin and came to Maine in 1976 to study French at the University of Maine at Fort Kent. She loved studying French, but it wasn’t what she wanted to do for a living.

In 1991, she started at CMP as a customer service representative on the phone and then became a meter reader in the Farmington office. The position has evolved into a service journey worker. She serves northern Franklin County and reads meters but also inspects new services and tests meters.

She joined the labor union while at CMP.

“I wanted to be involved in something that contributed to the community. Electricity is important,” she said. “The other reason I wanted to be part of a union is I think they are an important part of making things go well for workers.”

In 1998, she was hired as a full-time organizer by her union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1837, and took a leave from CMP but maintained her employee status.


Phinney was a full-time organizer for seven years and an elected business manager for two terms, six years total.

She returned to CMP in 2011.

Even before she was in the local union she had been to everything the AFL-CIO had sponsored.

“It matters that workers have a say in how things go, whether on the job or at the Legislature, and unions are simply workers organized to do that,” she said. “The Maine AFL-CIO brings unions together to be even more effective at having that say, in exerting their power at the table.”

Her mother’s sister was a union organizer. Phinney’s father was a manager in a factory. He once made himself unpopular with other managers during some economic hard times when he suggested that the managers themselves might take a pay cut to help out.

“Those are the kinds of values I grew up with,” Phinney said.


She is working in a male-dominated world and has no problem with it. The unions affiliated with AFL-CIO have an approximate gender makeup of two-thirds men and one-third women, but it varies with the type of workers it represents.

“I grew up in the era where we had great big blocks we could build stuff out of, but only the boys were allowed to use them. That seemed wrong to me even as a kindergartner,” she said.

Phinney likes being involved in a union, she said, because an economic system is very big, but it is designed by people, and the way it is working now is that the cards are stacked against most of the people who participate in it, she said.

“I like working to make it actually serve more of those people,” she said. “People don’t actually realize there is no democracy guaranteed in a workplace, so the boss is in charge unless there is a union to work together to change that balance.”

Phinney will retire from CMP on Dec. 1.

“We are proud to see Cynthia rise to this level of leadership, and I’m sure the skills and experience she built while at CMP will serve her well in her new position,” Sara J. Burns, president and chief executive officer of CMP, said in a prepared statement. “We wish Cynthia all the best as she takes on this new challenge.”


As president of the federation, Phinney will lead the work the organization does.

“We are essentially a coalition of 160 small labor organizations,” she said. “Even though we are diverse, we work together on the issues we have in common, whether it is legislative issues that affect workers or a particularly challenging contract negotiation that a local union wants help with.”

The AFL-CIO is very involved in trying to get a referendum initiative on the ballot in 2016 to raise the minimum wage to $9 in 2017 and $1 a year after that until it reaches $12 by 2020.

“It’s inspiring what people can do when they get together and work on a common purpose, and certainly making a good living and having good conditions on a job is a purpose that unites a lot of people,” Phinney said.

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