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History of labor activism at Portland Co. provides lesson for modern day workers

The Portland Press Herald ran an article this week about the history of labor activism at the Portland Co. during the nineteenth century. The Portland Co. was renowned for building locomotives and there is an ongoing debate over whether to preserve its former site as a historic landmark.

The article in the Press Herald discussed the efforts of workers at Portland Co. to force the company to institute a 10-hour workday, instead of the 12-to-16 hour workdays common during that time. These workers organized to press management for a 10-hour workday and went on strike as a result. They also urged the company to abolish the “store order” form of payment, which was a system where the company paid workers in credit at the company store. This system lessened the pay of workers and created a sense of bondage to the company. The workers’ efforts did not bear fruit right away but eventually the Portland Co. instituted a 10-hour workday and did away with the “store order” system.

Today, organized labor is on the decline. Only a small percentage of the American workforce is unionized. In 1983, the union membership rate in the United States was over 20% but in 2014 the union membership rate was only a little over 11%, and it was just 6.6% for private-sector workers. At the same time that organized labor has declined, many workers have come to believe that employers should offer more benefits such as paid family leave. Workers’ wages are also stagnating. Many employers use tactics such as misclassifying workers as exempt from overtime or as “independent contractors” in order to depress wages. Other employers pay merely the federal minimum wage which has gradually fallen, when adjusted for inflation, over the past 40 years.  If more workers today organized into unions, like the workers at Portland Co., could they get employers to provide additional benefits and higher wages? Unless more workers come together to form unions, we may never know.

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