Matthew Emmick is executive director of the newly formed Charles Scontras Center for Labor and Community Education at the University of Southern Maine. The goal is to teach Maine residents and workers, beyond USM students, about workers’ rights, how to organize a union, the history of the labor movement in Maine and more. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Buoyed by Maine’s increasing union activity, an effort to open a local institution dedicated to all things labor is ready to launch.

The Charles Scontras Center for Labor and Community Education, set to open this fall, will offer free classes and workshops for community members to learn how to organize and lead a union; to appreciate Maine’s robust labor history; to recognize what individual workers’ rights look like in Maine; and to help immigrants adjust to the state’s workforce system.

Though the center is opening at a time when Maine’s union movement surging, organizers say the initiative has been decades in the making.

“It was a need that people have seen for a long time to have a creative space for workers to come together, to learn, to share their experiences with one another and to partner not only with organized workers, but also unorganized workers in the community,” Maine AFL-CIO’s Sarah Bigney McCabe said. “We’re really just thrilled that this dream has finally become a reality. Bringing it to life has been really exciting.”

The center will target labor education from various angles, starting with trainings, workshops, classes and, perhaps down the line, certificate programs. The topics will span from leadership development to basic workplace rights for workers who are not represented by a union, including information about safety and wage theft.

“How do you build collective power at work or in the community, knowing labor law, labor history, labor institutions, but also getting into other issues like systemic racism, attacks on people for gender … how to be a solution for the climate crisis,” said Michael Hillard, a labor historian, University of Maine professor and coordinator for the center.


While it will be run by the University of Southern Maine, the center is first and foremost a tool for the community. And as a community resource, the center also will be an opportunity to educate new Mainers who might not be familiar with workplace rights.

“The emphasis we have on being really rooted in the surrounding local community is something that is really going to set us apart,” said Matthew Emmick, the center’s executive director. “It’s very important, especially for a group like new Mainers, who are probably overwhelmed from coming to a new country and may not understand all of our systems, who may not understand what their rights are, what’s available to them.”


The Maine AFL-CIO, one of the leaders of the effort, is excited by the opportunity to add more unions to the state’s roster. The Maine AFL-CIO is a federation for 160 unions in Maine, representing 40,000 workers. Last year, there were about 530,000 workers in Maine, of which 61,000 are represented by a union or 11.5% of the state’s workforce.

Hillard believes the center is especially relevant as Maine sees renewed union activity. In 2022, workers at five organizations voted to unionize through elections with the National Labor Relations Board. That includes the union victory at Maine Medical Center that added representation for 1,874 nurses. NLRB election data does not include unions formed when an employer issues voluntary recognition, like unions at the Bangor Daily News and Sexual Assault Support Services of Midcoast Maine.

That’s the latest in a movement that has ebbed and flowed over the years. In the 1940s and ’50s, many of Maine’s prominent industries were unionized, including workers at paper, textile and garment manufacturers. But in the 1980s, under former President Ronald Reagan, union busting took root, and in the 1990s, workers at Maine manufacturers began losing jobs to international suppliers, Hillard said.


He sees the current era as a crossroads for Maine’s union history. Despite news-making strikes, collective action and large union victories, the number of Maine workers who are represented by a union as a percentage of the entire workforce went down by about 3% from 2021 to 2022, according to federal labor data. Hillard is skeptical of that decrease and likens today’s work environment to various periods in the 1900s, when systemic issues impacting workers subsequently led to collective action and reform.

“There are problems that defy individual solution that require collective participation. (An upsurge) wasn’t just measured in the number of workers getting new unions recognized and getting first contracts,” he said. “There’s a much broader sentiment in favor of collective action to solve problems that face large numbers of people at the workplace. That spirit was there in the ’30s and ’40s, in the ’60s and ’70s. And it just returned in the teens and (this decade).”


Even so, Hillard said the center intends to do more than teach workers to organize unions. Rather, he wants the Scontras Center to be a place that offers education on the wider context and subsequently empowers workers. That’s a mission labor movement organizers and experts have been pursuing for nearly two decades. The center needed funding approval from the Maine Legislature. Lawmakers passed a bill in 2008 to fund the center, which was endorsed by former Gov. John Baldacci, but it was eventually tabled because the state couldn’t afford to fund the center during the intensifying Great Recession.

Sponsored by former House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, a renewed bill was approved by both chambers of the Legislature and its appropriations committee in 2022. Fecteau was inspired to revive the bill after witnessing union-organizing efforts across the state. In the last two years, workers have voted to unionize at Starbucks locations in Biddeford and Portland, the now-closed Chipotle in Augusta and Little Dog coffee shop in Brunswick.

“One of the top motivations was seeing what was happening here in Maine and across the country in terms of everyday working people standing up in their workplaces to demand better working conditions and better pay,” Fecteau said. “It seems like a void here in our state was having a center dedicated to labor education.”


Support for the legislation, however, was divided along party lines. None of Maine’s Republican legislators voted in favor of the bill. Rep. Richard Bradstreet, R-Vassalboro, voted against the bill because he was in part concerned the center will solely focus on pro-union matters and that Maine has unaddressed needs that are a higher priority.

“It’s really designed to promote organized labor. … I don’t think that’s the proper position for any state agency to take,” he said. “The unions already have ways to train people and they do a pretty good job of that – apprenticeship programs and all that. So I’m wondering, ‘What more do they really need?’ ”

The University of Maine System has approval to spend $500,000 to create the center, to build programming and to hire three employees, including Emmick.

The center is named after distinguished labor historian Charles Scontras, who died in 2021. Organizers see the center as an extension of his lifelong mission.

“If you ever had a question about labor history in Maine, Charlie could answer it. And and if he couldn’t, he’d find out,” Bigney McCabe said. “He always was ready with a very poignant lesson … that really grounded us in that history and in that movement and why what we’re doing matters.”

The Scontras Center is expected to open this fall, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony planned for mid-September.

Emmick said staff are still building the curriculum and working on outreach to learn what community members say they need. Once the center is launched, Emmick believes the potential for education – and for having an impact – is endless.

“We hope to strengthen both the labor movement and our greater communities by empowering people to stand up for themselves, to improve their workplaces, to have a better life for themselves,” Emmick said.

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