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Radical Mainers: Honoring the Legacy of Labor Historian Charlie Scontras

The beloved professor, researcher and author gave us a people's history of Maine

by | Mar 29, 2021

It was with profound sadness that we learned of the unexpected passing of Maine labor historian Charlie Scontras last month. A teacher to the very end, Charlie spent his life researching and sharing the history of the collective struggles of Maine workers. He never stopped reminding us about the working-class people who fought and sacrificed for equal rights, better wages, safe working conditions, the eight-hour day and dignity in the workplace.

Without his lifelong devotion to uncovering this “hidden history” of leftist movements and workplace struggles, we certainly would not be able to write this column. Meticulously combing through every little newspaper from the past 200 years, scouring volumes of dusty old books and trade journals, Charlie rescued this rich history at a time when it was largely ignored by most historians.

“Stereotypical images of our state such as the general store, the pot-bellied stove, the cracker barrel, Down East humor, the larger than life lumberjack who walked barefoot in the snow, the iconic lobster fisherman, the life-saving guardian lighthouses, the rocky-bound coast, the sparkling beaches, the village church with its steeple aspiring to the Heavens, the therapeutic powers of the state’s natural beauty which beckons visitors from the metropolises tend to distort Maine history,” Charlie once wrote. “I am glad that my state possesses, features and markets such romantic and wholesome virtues, but their emphasis tends to muffle or veil the catalog of voices and movements of discontent in our state’s history, which reach deep into its past. I sometimes dream that our souvenir and gift stores, which foster the romantic image of the state, would reserve a corner of their shops for literature on ‘Maine Radicals And Other Assorted Deviants.’”

Born to Greek immigrants in 1929 — his father was a shoe repairman and his mother a textile worker in Biddeford — Charlie grew up in the depths of the Great Depression. It was then that he developed his lifelong appreciation for the way radical activism helped usher in New Deal policies that forced companies to more fairly share the vast wealth workers created. Like his father, Charlie began his career as a shoe repairman, which also profoundly shaped his worldview. A few weeks before he died, Charlie fondly recalled those days in the workshop, where he “controlled the cadence” of his work, “not the machine.”

“Coffee was always brewing, donuts available for all who walked into the shop. The workday was punctuated with visits of members of the community,” he said. “Friends would play chess in an area of the shop, some would purchase their newspaper and read it in the shop. I had a ‘Be back soon sign’ I inherited from my dad. When he felt like paying a social visit to a local merchant or taking a nap, up went the ‘Be back soon sign.’”

“Work was never purely a commercial venture,” Charlie said. And like the 19th century independent Maine artisans he would later study, Charlie owned most of his own tools — “a trademark of artisans until tools became too expensive.” After all, he added, “you can’t carry a steam engine in your back pocket.”

This seemingly easygoing work-life disguised a more complicated reality. The larger machinery in Charlie’s shoe shop was owned by the United Shoe Machinery Corporation. Back then, there was little chance anyone could start a shoe-repair shop without leasing those types of machines. In the late ’60s, the Supreme Court declared United Shoe a monopoly and it was forced to end its leasing practices. The company agent came by one day and asked Charlie if he wanted to buy the machinery. The price was high. Charlie declined.

“I watched the machinery dismantled and heading for the junkyard,” he recalled. “They carried away two motors. That brought to an end ‘my sense’ of craftsmanship. When the instruments of production became large and expensive, it contributed to the erosion of the artisan experience and work life and swelled the army of wage earners.”

Charlie too became a wage earner, but found his calling as a University of Maine professor, seeking to understand and document the history of how Maine workers organized and fought back against the tyranny of big business. From 1966 to 2015, Charlie authored more than a dozen books and pamphlets published by the University of Maine’s Bureau of Labor Education. His work spanned from the first strike of Maine fishermen, on Richmond Island in 1636, to the craftsmen who fought to retain their autonomy and dignity during the Industrial Revolution, the first mass unionization efforts of the Gilded Age, the rise of the AFL and IWW, the birth of the CIO and the New Deal, and the challenges brought by the era of deindustrialization. He told the story of how globalization, neoliberal trade policies, union busting, the offshoring of the textile and shoe industry and the decline of paper making severely weakened the power of Maine workers from the 1970s to the present.

In recent years, Charlie became very active on social media, introducing new generations of union members, historians and activists to this history. He wrote about how Mainers organized for workplace safety while workers were being killed, maimed, scalded with steam and ground into factory machinery. He recounted how they fought for the first child-labor laws, back when kids toiled 12 hours a day in the quarries and textile mills. He described how female textile workers struck for equal pay and dignity during an era when they couldn’t even vote, how they suffered the daily humiliation of not even having proper toilets in the workplace. He explained how union workers fought for the secret ballot and the citizen referendum when employers controlled every lever of political power and intimidated workers into voting in their bosses’ interests.

Charlie watched excitedly as shipbuilders won a strike at Bath Iron Works, as nurses and museum workers organized union drives in Portland, as tens of thousands attended the Women’s March, and as racial-justice activists held Black Lives Matter demonstrations in cities to small towns all over Maine. In social-media posts and frequent letters to local newspapers, he drew parallels between contemporary struggles and those waged in the past. He reminded those striving for justice and equality in this state that they are part of a long, proud history of labor activism and political reform. He was always eager to answer a question from a union shipbuilder or history nerd, and would immediately pull up a passage from some obscure newspaper about, say, a strike in 1835.

Charlie understood how capitalism created the disconnection from our work that so many of us feel, and how reactionary movements thrive on this alienation and the anger and despair it breeds. But he always held out hope that worker solidarity would eventually win.

“The modern world requires the organization, regimentation, and synchronization of life and its movements,” he observed in the days before his passing. But as Charlie constantly reminded us, “There have always been rebels against this ‘suffocation’ of the human spirit that has ‘boxed in,’ ‘caged in’ and ‘fenced in’ working people in the name of efficiency and profit.”

Charlie was hard at work on a new book when he passed. The planned work was to trace the development of political ideology as it pertains to the Maine labor movement. His dream was that workers would discover and value the history of collective labor struggles.

“Unfortunately, people have no sense of the evolution of their own institutions,” he once said. “As long as individuals see themselves as autonomous creatures, self-contained and totally disconnected from the larger social and historical context, they’ll never understand who they are. If they look over their shoulder, they’ll see the shadows of people who preceded them and help explain who they are.”

Above all else, Charlie should be remembered for his generosity, the way he nurtured young scholars and activists. He delighted in seeing others take an interest in his life’s work, and was a constant source of aid and encouragement. Charlie was our teacher, our mentor, and our good friend. We can’t put into words how much he will be missed.

Now we must carry on his important work, so future generations of workers and activists will remember and become inspired by the collective struggles of those who came before them. Rest in power, Professor Scontras.

 

Links to Scontras’ books and other writing can be found at the UMaine Bureau of Labor Education’s website

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