With headlines announcing successful efforts by workers to win unions at Amazon, Starbucks, and elsewhere, it is vital for us to remember when Maine workers fought back. April 13 marks the end of an important, though largely forgotten, episode in the conflict between employers and workers for human dignity which occurred in central Maine.

On that date in 1907, Skowhegan’s Somerset Reporter announced “much rejoicing” as a more than 11-week-long strike had been settled. For the first time in history, male and female workers organized under the banner of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) had overcome differences to win their demands against an employer.

The IWW is unique because it seeks to organize all workers in a company or industry into the same union, regardless of race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, or skill. Though this practice is more common today, at the time it was common only for highly skilled white male workers to belong to unions. This remarkable display of unity should be remembered by everyone who works for a wage or salary and serve as a guide for the possibility of collective working-class action.

In the early 1900s, many towns had bustling mills which produced woven wool and other items for the national textile markets. One of the largest employers in Kennebec County at the time, the Marston Worsted Mills, employed over 225, primarily to weave and process wool.

Worker protest was common during this period though often unsuccessful, as working conditions were unsafe, pay was low, and company owners had nearly universal power to fire, harass, and fine workers for any reason. Work life was highly segregated; men worked as weavers and women as sewers and these groups rarely acted together.

In 1904, the male weavers at Marston went on strike over unsafe working conditions but failed to gain control over the windows above the factory floor. Two years later, in the spring of 1906, dozens of women and girls employed as sewers went on strike as well. Their issue was a system of fines which cost workers huge sums of money for work deemed poor by overseers. They too returned to work days later defeated.


However, later that year, the two groups came together to form a local branch of the Industrial Workers of the World, a revolutionary union which had only been formed a year prior in Chicago. United in a union for the first time, Marston’s weavers and sewers began to act collectively, setting up a showdown with bosses, which exploded just a few months later.

Unlike male-dominated craft unions, the IWW built strong ties in the community through banquets, balls, concerts and other social events. When 17- year-old Mamie Bilodeau, an IWW leader and sewer, was fired, both the company and union prepared for a strike. Two weeks later, when other union members were unexpectedly fired, the entire workforce walked off the job, shutting it down for over 11 weeks.

Mainstream unions, like those in the American Federation of Labor, had no interest in organizing all workers into one union. In fact, the AFL-backed United Textile Workers sided with the company owners and promised to send union members to act as strikebreakers to defeat the IWW, which they viewed as illegitimate. Despite this, central Maine workers refused to “scab” or take the job of those on strike.

Workers demanded the end of the fining system described above, the firing of the finishing room supervisor, who was known for sexually harassing the women and girls who worked under him, a system for addressing grievances, and the rehiring of their fired coworkers. In the end, the striking workers prevailed and the company settled in the strikers favor on almost all issues. Tellingly, the company refused to fire the cruel overseer, Charles North.

The 1907 Skowhegan textile strike should be remembered for the boldness of the women, men, girls and boys, who collectively stood up against their employer and for human dignity and worker’s rights. A mural painted by Gordon Carlisle will soon be placed in Skowhegan which will honor the strikers. It is vital that we remember those workers who, like those at Amazon and Starbucks today, fought not only for themselves but for the rights of all working people.

Thomas MacMillan, of Portland, is a Ph.D. student and teaching assistant at the Department of History, at Concordia University in Montreal.

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