The unprecedented rate of change flowing from the relentless growth of science and technology — about 2.5 million new scientific papers are published each year — and their widespread application to every corner of life has challenged the “adaptive range” of individuals, families, churches, schools, the economy and the political order.

Veteran Maine workers remember work during the “industrial era.” Former textile workers, for example, can recall parading through the gates of Maine’s massive textile structures, which formed a seamless mosaic of life, work and the communities in which they were anchored.

In the 1950s, the Bates Manufacturing Company, like other large textile manufacturers in the state, was an integral part of the civic and charitable works in the community and the cultivation of a “welfare capitalism” — much to the disdain of militant trade unionists — which served to lace workers to the mills. Workers were tethered to the company by the promotion of services and activities provided by the company and in-house literature that identified workers as members of a “family.” Tours for schools, colleges and civic organizations revealed to them the nature and importance of the industry to the community.

A sense of the “Bates Family” can be gleaned by glancing at the Bates News, where workers learned of fellow workers and their romances, engagements, weddings, anniversaries, births, illnesses, funerals, promotions and retirements. They learned of outings, trips, vacations, hobbies, humor, worker poetry, parties, military service, sewing classes, gossip, the performances of hockey, softball, golf, bowling and baseball teams, Boy Scouts from employee families, diamond lapel pins and engraved gold watches for lengthy service to the company, etc. Bates was a virtual community in and of itself. The Bates News reached beyond the employees to the stockholders, customers and friends, reinforcing the sense of community and the “Bates Family.” Bates, however, was not a heaven on earth free of industrial unrest.

Given the centrality and symbiotic linkage of the mills to the lives of workers and their communities, the possibility that they might fade from existence, eroding entrenched patterns of life and work and causing unparalleled economic dislocations and hardship for workers, their families, and the communities themselves, bordered on the unthinkable. It was a time when work was often a lifetime employment and when a skill lasted a lifetime. In contrast to the exponential rise in educational work requirements today, they were minimal in the “industrial age.”

In the 1950s, about half of the state’s nonfarm population earned its livelihood in manufacturing plants producing shoes, textiles, paper and wood products. Only 50 percent of the population could claim a high school education and diploma. In 1976, the role of education as a work requirement on the national level was reflected by the fact that 78 percent of U.S. autoworkers and steel workers in good-paying, mass production jobs were high school dropouts.

Clearly, such workers, did not live in a world in which voice, data, text and images can reach anyone, anywhere, at anytime at the blazing speed of light, one in which the information and communications revolutions and the surge of alternative intelligence and robotics generate unprecedented change, job dislocation, job uncertainty and quickly render existing knowledge and skills obsolete and heighten concerns for job security.

The spectrum of white-collar workers, long living with the delusion that economic insecurity and unemployment were essentially blue-collar phenomena, have painfully recognized they are the new casualties of liberalized trade policies, automation, sweeping demographic changes and the new economic order. They increasingly sense their vulnerability to the new economic gyrations of today as the ability to digitally transmit volumes of information across the planet is made possible as revealed by companies in high-tech areas such as architecture, medical services, computer software, engineering, etc.,

Workers whose knowledge and skills are increasing linked to increased productivity and the creation of wealth, and who may have viewed with indifference the movement of manufacturing abroad for the past few decades are, themselves, increasingly experiencing living on the edge of economic insecurity. As a symptom of the glacial economic shifts, the first glimpse of white-collar workers in Maine in search of trade adjustment assistance long provided by national legislation to assist blue-collar workers could be noted in 2004, as some technology workers sought assistance. Sophisticated educational credentials no longer guarantee employment or job security.

Perhaps the “spiritual” ember of Labor Day — born in the “industrial era” — will billow again as workers of the new economy learn that collective action to secure a measure of dignity, security and a greater share of the wealth they help to create is not a foreign idea that is beneath them.

Charles Scontras is a historian at the University of Maine’s Bureau of Labor Education.

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