Recalling Midcoast Maine's Forgotten Labor Past
Unions, radicals & the Granite Ring
Thursday, May 01, 2014 6:28 AM
From Rockport to St. George and the islands of Penobscot Bay, the land is pockmarked with the deep pits of an industry that long ago was the economic engine for the midcoast. While most local histories focus on the many famous buildings and monuments built from our local granite, often little is said about the social movements sparked by the workers who toiled in the lime kilns or went into the bowels of the earth to extract and cut the rock. It's a story that began during the restless and occasionally violent era following the Civil War when workers began organizing en masse to fight for dignity, safe working conditions and fair wages. By the turn of the 19th century, the Rockland area had become a hotbed of progressive populism and labor radicalism that helped ignite a new era of activism and political reform in Maine.
The Paving Cutters Union marching in a parade celebrating Vinalhaven’s 150th Anniversary in 1939, months before the island’s granite quarries were abandoned. - Photo courtesy of the Vinalhaven Historical Society
From Yeomen to Wage Earners
Mainers are often more known for their independent spirit than for collective pursuits, but throughout history, workers and farmers have been known to organize when facing oppression. In the early days of the republic, when veterans of the Revolutionary War settled Maine, local farmers revolted against land payments demanded by wealthy landowners like General Henry Knox who claimed title to vast tracts of land. For many subsistence farmers, the American Revolution was fought in defense of the principles of Jeffersonian Democracy, which favored equal opportunity and individual freedom over aristocratic privilege. But not long after the unrest subsided, the republican values of the independent yeoman farmer came under threat with the emergence of a new economic system.
"The passing of mid-Maine's resistence was but one of the early landmarks in the steady erosion of the republic of roughly equal small producers, the republic sought by the American Revolution," wrote historian Alan Taylor in "Liberty Men and Great Proprietors." "Over the course of the nineteenth century, industrial capitalism increasingly concentrated the wealth it created, widening the gap between the richest and poorest. Most laboring people lost their independence as small producers to become the economic dependents of private corporations."
Wrote Belfast's Republican Journal on July 4, 1835, "The farmers and mechanics of Waldo must appreciate their rights, and suffer not a sentence of the Constitution to become a dead letter, by building up monopolies and privileged orders," expressing the anxiety of many at the time.
As Maine labor historian Charles Scontras noted at a Portland forum last November, in 1800 about 90 percent of Americans lived off the land, but by 1904, one or two firms, usually wed together by a merger, controlled at least half the output of the 78 leading industries.
"If you lived in that transition period, the idea of running your own farm or shop was still very much alive, but wage slavery and wage dependency was perceived to be a new form of serfdom," said Scontras. "Jefferson used to say that god forbid, the industrialism of England would come over here because when you're dependent on someone else for the means of your existence, to that extent you've lost that much autonomy."
In the latter half of the 19th century, known as the "Gilded Age," US industrial capacity exploded with massive growth in manufacturing, mining and railroads. It was the fastest spurt of economic growth in US history, but it was also the era of the "Robber Barons" - Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and Vanderbilt - and the rise of corporate trusts with monopolies in oil, tobacco, and steel. It was a time when the term "plutocracy" - a society ruled and dominated by a small minority of the wealthiest citizens - emerged.
Business elites championed the philosophy of classical liberalism, which stressed individual liberty, limited government and unrestrained capitalism. "Social Darwinism" became a fashionable term to describe the idea that the same biological principles of struggle and competition that took place in the natural world should be practiced in civilized society. But this policy of survival of the fittest resulted in a few very wealthy citizens at the top of the economic pyramid and most at the very bottom.
"Those who argued for any kind of equality in this world collided with this ideological fortress grounded, they would say, in the laws of nature," explained Scontras.
As a sheer concentration of wealth and power at the top took place, there were very few laws to protect the massive wage-earning class that had been created to support America's new industrial economy. Although no official statistics exist, it's been estimated that between 1880 and 1900 tens of thousands of workers were killed each year in work-related accidents and hundreds of thousands more were injured.
As the ranks of unions grew to protect the rights of rank-and-file workers, confrontations between labor and capital became more frequent, with an estimated 500 strikes occurring between 1865 and 1881, followed by 23,000 strikes between 1881 and 1900. Some of the bloodiest labor disputes occurred during this time, such as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and the Haymarket Affair in 1886, as well as Homestead Steel Strike in 1892 and the Pullman Strike in 1894. With no system of laws to deal with disputes between labor and capital, strikes often ended in violence, with armies of police, soldiers and private company militias called in to quell the unrest. Summing up the mood of the Gilded Age, Scontras quotes President Grover Cleveland's address to Congress in 1888:
"As we view the achievements of aggregated capital, we discover the existence of trusts, combinations and monopolies, while the citizen is struggling far in the rear or is trampled to death beneath an iron heel. Corporations, which should be carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people's masters."
Organized Labor Comes to Rockland
"In many ways Rockland was a microcosm of the national labor unrest, political dissent and ideological debate during the tumultuous period of the late 19th century," said Scontras.
By the late 1800s, the islands of Knox County had become major granite producers, in large part due to government contracts for the construction of federal buildings and monuments. The industry was dominated by four powerful businessmen known as the "Granite Ring" - General Davis Tillson on Hurricane Island, Mark St. John on Clark Island, C. A. Dixon on Dix Island, and J.R. Bodwell on Vinalhaven. For workers, it could be difficult and dangerous work.
"Granite cutters ended up spitting blood in their later years," said Scontras. "Much of this could probably be traced to cutting sheds with poor ventilation."
Child labor was also common. Scontras points out that reports from the Maine Department of Education consistently found that a large proportion of school-age children were not in school and a great many of those truant children had likely gone to work. On the islands, boys as young as 13 started working as apprentices in the quarries for 50 cents a day. Coercing employees to buy goods from the "company store" at inflated prices was ubiquitous, Scontras notes.
"One quarry man was asked how often he was paid and he said, 'For someone who hasn't been paid in 15 years, your question is a stunner.' He was living off the company store," said Scontras.
Prior to a successful lobbying effort by unionized workers for a secret ballot, it was also common for employers to pressure and intimidate workers into supporting the bosses' preferred candidate in elections. As Eleanor Motley Richardson wrote in "Hurricane Island - The Town that Disappeared," granite baron Davis Tillson "ruled with an iron hand, and those Yankees who were registered voters were required to vote Republican."
Historian Roger Grindle wrote in his history of the Maine granite industry, "Tombstones and Paving Blocks," "One Vinalhaven observer vouched that another worker who had voted a straight Democratic ticket the previous fall was told by 'one of the company's tools' that he ... could not get another job on the island."
But it was chiefly the issue of wages and the precariousness of their employment, exacerbated by a series of financial crises, that finally drove the granite cutters to organize. In 1877, the first international granite cutters union was founded on Vinalhaven.
As one of the aggrieved workers wrote of the monopoly the Granite Ring held over the local industry, "We are crushed down by the great soul destroying corporation.... These Ring masters came here as poor as Job's turkey and have fattened and feasted on us...."
After the owner of the Vinalhaven granite works, future Maine Governor Joseph Bodwell, ordered management to fire 30 union leaders, there was, writes Grindle, "an uprising the like of which has never before been seen in Maine," with 200 men immediately walking off the job.
Maine Labor Enters Politics
The momentum of the organized granite cutters was so powerful that it resulted in the election in 1878 of Granite Cutters' International Association of America Secretary Thompson Murch, who became one of the first trade unionists elected to Congress. Murch and George Ladd of Augusta were two of the 13 Congressmen elected nationally on the progressive Greenback Party ticket that year, smashing the perception that Maine was a Republican stronghold. Formed by a coalition of union men and indebted farmers, the Greenbackers were an anti-monopoly party dedicated to workers' rights and cutting the money system away from the gold standard in favor of an unbacked currency (the "greenback"). Such a monetary system, they believed, would allow investments in public infrastructure and make it easier for farmers to pay their debts. For Murch, his focus was on improving the lives of the granite workers who elected him."If elected to Congress I will probe to the bottom and lay bare the doings on the islands in this district the last eight years," Murch promised his constituents.
In his first term, Murch introduced the Eight Hour Day law, mandating an eight-hour working day for employees on government contracts. The bill failed; but it continued to be a major policy goal of labor unions for years to come.
Murch's policies were controversial in some circles, and a New York Times profile described the Congressman as "an ignorant stone-cutter who was never heard of until a few months ago, a Communist, a demagogue of the lowest type."
But Murch was adamant that he was not adherent to any particular ideology.
"I claim no interest in Communism, Socialism or any other 'ism' that has for its object the destruction of the powers that be. I only wish for the moral and social elevation of all working classes," he once said.
The Greenback Party died out in the late 1880s, but many local progressives would go on to join the People's Party (the "Populists"), the Socialist Labor Party and later the Socialist Party. During its time, the cutters union had a number of successes in improving the lot of granite workers, including negotiating the work day down from 10 and 12 hours to 8 hours, as well as achieving pay increases and safer working conditions.
The Era of the Knights of Labor
By the 1880s, the Knights of Labor gained a strong foothold with quarry workers and granite cutters of the midcoast. With 800,000 members at its peak in 1886, the Knights' goal was to organize one big union of skilled and unskilled workers that aimed to transcend wage dependency to form a "cooperative commonwealth" where workers could share in the fruits of their labor. The Knights were a radical new force and they were also very influential.
In May of 1885, Knights of Labor Grandmaster Workman Terence V. Powderly delivered a fiery speech before an audience of 1,200 at the Rockland Roller Skating Rink (on the second floor of where Quilt Divas is today). While Oliver Otis, the owner of the Democratic-leaning Rockland Opinion, was so enamored by the Knights that he named his own son after Powderly, the conservative Rockland Free Press (no relation) was not impressed.
"The nineteenth proposition is undisguised socialism, a device of the lazy, incompetent, spendthrift and worthless to live by the brains, industry, and frugality of the virtuous," read one Free Press editorial on the preamble to the Knights' constitution.
In the election of 1886, the midcoast sent three of the four Knights of Labor members elected to the Legislature that year, including Republican House members Thomas Lyons of Vinalhaven and John H. Eells of Camden and Democratic Senator Stephen J. Gushee of Appleton, who was elected to represent Knox County. Lyons would later become the first state Commisioner of Labor drawn from union ranks.
On Rockland's first Labor Day in the 1890s, as a show of labor's strength, 1,150 workers marched down Main Street before partaking in a free dinner at Elmwood Hall.
Congressman Charles Littlefield vs. the AFL
As Scontras recounts in his book "Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor vs. Maine's Congressman Charles E. Littlefield," in1906 Rockland became a flashpoint in a battle between organized labor and the Republican Party. That fall, American Federation of Labor (AFL) president Samuel Gompers led a group of labor activists to defeat Republican Congressman Charles E. Littlefield, one of four Maine representatives. The campaign represented the first time in history that the AFL would exert its muscle in a political election. At the time, President Theodore Roosevelt had vowed to crack down on corporate monopolies, but Littlefield insisted that labor unions should also be included in anti-trust laws. He believed that the power of unions to strike constituted a "conspiracy in the restraint of trade" under the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act.
"Of all of the members of Congress no one stood more conspicuous as an antagonist to the interest of labor and the people than Charles E. Littlefield, of Maine," declared Gompers.
In 1905, when Gompers arrived in the midcoast on vacation, he was reportedly greeted by a "continuous ovation" of lobstermen and quarrymen. Members of the new lobster fishermen's union "cheered, waved flags, and blew horns" from their sloops, while on Hurricane Island "loud cheers" echoed from the island as crowds of workers gathered to catch a glimpse of the labor leader. Throngs of union members followed Gompers' carriage through town, and the band played rousing labor songs.
But not all local progressives were so enchanted by Gompers' leadership; particularly since he didn't endorse their own union member candidate for Congress.
"Born with all the gusto of February weather along the Knox Coast," the Socialist Party of Maine was founded in Rockland in 1900 with the radical platform that capitalism was a hopeless failure and needed to be replaced with a socialist economic system. A naturalist and former Populist Party candidate for Congress, Norman Wallace Lermond of Warren was the party's first candidate for governor in 1900. As one of the co-founders of the Brotherhood of the Co-operative Commonwealth, Lermond helped give birth to Equality Colony in Washington State, a utopian socialist experiment that ultimately ended in failure.
Lermond also founded "Utopian Park" in Warren, which became a gathering point for radical intellectuals to spread the message of socialism. In the following years, in Camden, Lincolnville and Searsport, small Socialist chapters formed and organized speakers who decried the capitalist system of competition and "cut-throatism" in favor of the ideal of cooperation. The Lincolnville Town Band, still in existence today, was founded as a Socialist band to play at such meetings.
Throughout the 1906 campaign, local Socialists blasted Gompers for supporting Democrat Daniel J. McGillicuddy of Lewiston, who they said was not a genuine labor candidate. Socialists distributed leaflets, agitated at campaign events, and sent letters to local papers admonishing the AFL political machine. In the end, Littlefield squeaked to a win by 1,362 votes out of 36,000 cast. Littlefield blamed the slim margin on a backlash toward Republican-backed liquor prohibition policies, which notably hurt all Republicans in the election. The battered Littlefield never ran for re-election again, and the Socialists never garnered much electoral support in Maine. By the 1920s, the party had dissolved.
"I verily believe that there are some voters of Rockland who, if the gates of Heaven were swung wide open for them, and they were cordially invited to enter, would hang back and wait for some cheap political striker to come after them with a team and a bottle of rum," complained failed Rockland mayoral candidate A.L. Carleton in 1895, as Maine historian Charles Scontras documents in his book "The Socialist Alternative: Utopian Experiments and the Socialist Party of Maine, 1895-1914."
Nevertheless, socialist ideas gained more and more support in the following years and decades. The eight-hour work day, universal kindergarten, night school, old-age pensions, direct election of all public officers, union wages for public employees, the citizen referendum, workplace safety requirements, compulsory school attendance for children under 15, and an end to child labor were all Socialist and labor policies that would later be adapted on a state and national level.
A Present that Rhymes with History
Although by the 1950s an estimated one in three workers was a member of a labor union, the most recent Bureau of Labor statistics show just 11.3 percent of workers are in a union, the lowest level since the 1930s. Touched off by President Ronald Reagan's decision to fire striking air traffic controllers in 1981, throughout the 1980s companies used strikebreakers to neuter the power of labor. In Maine, the tactic was used most notably at the International Paper mill in Jay in 1987 and the Marine Colloids plant (now FMC) in Rockland in 1985. Following the bitter strike in Rockland, one Bath Iron Works worker interviewed by the Maine Times called 1985 "national bust a union year."
And with the decline of labor union power has come a wave of outsourcing manufacturing jobs to third-world countries, a massive reduction in income taxes for the wealthiest, big money dominating politics, wage stagnation and general job insecurity. Among developed countries, the US currently has the highest level of income inequality, which has reached its highest peak since the 1920s.
At the same time, there has also been a resurgence of the same politics of limited government, personal responsibility rhetoric, and anti-unionism championed by the business elites of the Gilded Age. It's an ideology that was strikingly displayed when Governor Paul LePage removed a mural documenting Maine's labor history from the Department of Labor in 2011. For Charles Scontras, who was depicted as the shoerepairman in the mural, the act symbolized a broader message that those who don't learn from their past are doomed to repeat it.