Coffee by Design union members and their representative. The coffee shop employees voted to unionize just over a month ago. From left: Jason Shedlock, regional organizer of Laborers’ International Union of North America New England Region Organizing Fund, and Coffee by Design employees Jon Allen, Lauren Gamble, Valen Doe and Zack Treadwell. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Aurelia Blackstock didn’t need much convincing when she was asked in May to help organize a union at Through These Doors, the domestic violence resource center where she works.

Blackstock, 27, believes deeply in collective action. And she wanted a seat at the table so employees could have decision-making power.

“As advocates, we’re here to provide all the information and resources possible so (people) are equipped to make their own best decision for themselves,” Blackstock said. “That’s exactly the same for what I want as a worker … And I would like a protected right to have management hear that.”

Still, it was her first time unionizing and she had some concerns. Blackstock had grown very close with her managers, whom she considered mentors. Would unionization damage those relationships? Would it create a divide in the office? Would it be possible to carry the heavy weight of unionizing while also doing challenging work at a small social services agency?

In the end, Blackstock felt it was worth it, and employees at Through These Doors ultimately voted 15-5 in September to form a union with the National Labor Relations Board.

Through These Doors is one of many small employers in Maine whose workers have formed unions in recent years and there are signs that a domino effect could keep that trend going. Although the state has a long history of organized labor dating back to the late 1800s, it has evolved over the years, and the newest generation of union members has been empowered, in part because so many employers are struggling to find and keep workers.


While overall union membership rates have fallen with closures of big unionized companies, the heart of Maine’s union movement is still beating, in part thanks to employees at small workplaces organizing at higher rates. These new unionized workers still face risks without the support of large collective action, but there are some advantages, too. And workers like Blackstock are coming to believe that the pros offset any cons.

“I believe so strongly that we’re going to be able to and can always work towards repair of relationships if need be,” she said. “Doing what’s best for me and what’s best for my co-workers outweighs any risk.”


Michael Hillard, a labor expert at the University of Maine, sees the state’s labor union movement in three phases.

At their start, unions were concentrated in the trades – manufacturing, mining, transportation – and in larger operations. The first union in Maine, the Knights of Labor, came together in 1882 to address serious workplace concerns.

Unions formed at textile factories, paper mills, aircraft manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, Bath Iron Works and Portsmouth Naval Shipyard – “the biggest blue-collar sectors” at the time, Hillard said. Many still exist today. That trend lasted through the 1950s, when union membership rates peaked nationwide at 35%.


In the 1960s and ’70s, the union movement shifted to public sector employees – teachers, city and state employees. The popularity of unions dropped off in the 1980s, when companies started outsourcing labor from across the world and labor regulations were rolled back. In 1999, around 15% of Maine workers were union members, according to the Maine Department of Labor.

“This is the era in which union busting became virtually unstoppable,” Hillard said. “And then there wasn’t any impetus for workers seeing unionizing as a safe and possible tool to improve their circumstances.”

Since then, union efforts have ebbed and flowed. The earliest data from the National Labor Relations Board, which excludes public sector employees, goes back to 2005. That’s when just one private workplace filed papers to expand its union – an effort that ultimately failed. In 2013, 19 workplaces filed for union elections with the NLRB, though only seven won their elections.

More recently, it has been swinging back upward. More than 25% of all unionization efforts in the NLRB’s full archives to 2000 have happened in the last three years. And most have been in workplaces with fewer than 50 employees.

That includes employees at nonprofits like Through These Doors and Preble Street, local stores in corporate chains like Staples and Starbucks and private schools like John Bapst Memorial High School and Ironwood.

Hillard sees this moment as a changing of the tides.


“What’s happened in recent years is that there’s lots and lots of victories. There’s just a contagiousness of seeing a lot going on that’s boosted an interest in organizing,” he said.


Hillard and Maine labor-rights attorney Jeffrey Young believe some of that growing motivation is in part thanks to the younger generations who are witnessing growing disparities in wealth, stagnant wages and an appreciation for the power of collective action.

“Young people are seeing, besides the fact that they’re being screwed, the enormous benefits unions have been able to negotiate,” Young said. “Younger people may be more ideological and that has driven at least some of the campaigns out there. There’s a much greater willingness than there was in people in my generation to move from one job to another.”

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows record-low union membership rates in Maine and across the country. Just 9.2% of Maine’s workforce – 48,000 employees – were members of a union in 2022, while 11.5% had union representation.

But those low numbers are less a function of fewer people joining unions and more because large union shops are closing down, Hillard said. For example, the Pixelle Androscoggin Mill in Jay, formerly the International Paper production plant, employed 1,500 at its height. After downsizing its workforce for years, the paper mill shuttered in March.


Hillard said small workplaces are filling in those gaps, even though the number of individual union members remains small compared to previous eras.

Jason Shedlock, regional organizer at the Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 327, said he’s seen more interest in unionizing with his shop in the last nine months than he’s ever seen in his 20 years as an organizer.

“Folks like their jobs, but they don’t like the working conditions. Workers are understanding that unions aren’t just for factories anymore … no matter if it’s a five-person unit or a 5,000-person unit,” Shedlock said, adding that he’s seen a domino effect drive the movement in the last year. “Success breeds success.”

The union at Coffee by Design is Local 327’s most recent success.

Lauren Gamble, 28, was feeling frustrated by the workplace conditions at the locally-owned coffee chain with two shops in Portland: stagnant wages; expectations to take on additional responsibilities beyond an employee’s role; and heightened stress from staffing shortages.

Gamble has worked as a barista there for a year and a half but has spent nine years in Portland’s food-service industry. She knew the other 18 employees at Coffee by Design shared her frustration, and in September, she talked with one of her co-workers about trying to find a solution.


“In my mind, it was ‘either I quit, or we unionize. And I would much rather unionize,'” Gamble said.

From there, it all happened rather quickly. One co-worker became two, who became seven. In three weeks, all 18 employees joined the effort. Employees looped in Shedlock with the Local 327 Laborers and the union filed election papers with the national board on Oct. 23.

CBD’s owner, Mary Allen Lindemann, ultimately moved to voluntarily recognize the union. CBD joins other organizations where management offered voluntary recognition, including the owners at Portland’s Cong Tu Bat restaurant in March. Bangor Gas’ parent company, Ullico, approached its employees about unionizing for convenience – other workers across the company’s many subsidiaries were already unionized.

It’s an easier path forward, but it’s not a path that has been historically traveled. Allegations are often launched about “union busting,” or actions by management to prevent employees from unionizing. And being a small union does intensify those risks.

Lindemann declined to comment for this story, citing active contract negotiations.



At Little Dog, a coffee shop in Brunswick, workers unionized in November 2022. They later went on a two-week strike that effectively cost them their jobs once owner Larry Flaherty closed the coffee shop in June.

Starbucks closed its Portland store a month after employees unionized in late 2022. Chipotle shut down its Augusta store in July 2022, the same day as a planned NLRB hearing on the union election process. The company ended up having to pay former employees $240,000 for violating labor laws. And employees from Shalom House, a Portland social services agency, withdrew their union petition earlier this year after what they described as management’s harsh anti-union campaign.

It’s a lot easier to halt operations or single out organizers at a small shop than a large one.

Jess Anderson and Rich Hibbard at Western Maine Transportation said their coworkers have feared a similar fate. Employees there are the latest, and potentially last in 2023, to unionize.

Western Maine Transportation’s employees, who help operate the Lewiston-Auburn CityLink buses, successfully voted to unionize last week with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 714. The union wants to address pay, paid time off benefits and poor maintenance of buses. They believe improving these issues will ease staffing shortages and ultimately improve the CityLink operations for the local community.

But Anderson and Hibbard say since management discovered their intentions to unionize, things have gotten tense. They say management launched a “union busting” campaign that in part hinted at Western Maine Transportation ceasing its work with CityLink if the union election was successful.


Western Maine Transportation would not comment on whether it tried to dissuade employees from unionizing.

“We are disappointed by the outcome of the vote, but we respect the process,” Community Relations Manager Craig Zurhorst said. “We look forward to negotiating a contract in good faith and working alongside Local 714 in the coming year.”

Hibbard has felt concerned about his job security in the company for quite some time, witnessing recurring job turnover as employees were asked to leave the company. And now, after years of building up respect, Hibbard feels he’s lost that and is more anxious than ever. He worries that there is a target on his back.

Anderson knows that is a possibility, but it’s a risk she’s willing to take. She believes workers have more power than ever because of Maine’s growing workforce shortage, a battle that has intensified in the last five years. The shortages are in part due to record-low unemployment rates. Many seasonal and year-round businesses have been scrambling to find workers.

“I already felt like I could lose my job at any point anyway. Might as well go out with a bang,” Anderson said. “I could have gone to a job that was closer to my house, more money, better benefits. But I chose to stay here and fight.”

Gamble, too, knew the current workforce landscape would provide her a strong safety net. Not only could she easily find work elsewhere, but Gamble believes that Coffee by Design can’t afford to get rid of any employees – especially after owner Lindemann had to close the original Congress Street location due to staffing shortages.



That sense of having a close-knit family banding together has been a major driver at these small union shops.

“I know at Chipotle how close the workers felt to one another and really felt like there’s an old labor saying an injury to one is an injury to all,” said Young, who represented the union members in the labor violation case. “They saw one of their brothers or sisters being mistreated and they felt like they, themselves were being mistreated, or could be subject to being mistreated.”

Blackstock was concerned that the union campaign could harm that family feeling, both among other co-workers and leaders. And that did happen temporarily. Things grew tense in May, when management found out about the intent to unionize, and that lasted through August when the union won its election. But thankfully, she said things are starting to calm down.

Rebecca Hobbs, Through These Doors’ co-executive director, said that after hearing “rumors” that workers were considering unionizing, she began sharing information to fully educate workers on Through These Doors’ operations, including budgetary information. She didn’t observe tension in the office following the discovery and emphasized the respect she has for her employees.

Hobbs said she still has a lot to learn about what a union at Through These Doors could entail, but that she wants to support the workers advocating for themselves.

“I’ve been not really sure how a union would benefit employees. I had not heard of (unionizing) in the nonprofit sector,” Hobbs said. “I had known about unionized companies that had shareholders and profit that somebody had to figure out how to distribute. We don’t have profit, we have a flat bottom line. I don’t know how what we have that goes to employees will be redistributed in a way that’ll be beneficial.”

Gamble, Blackstock, Hibbard and Anderson are now preparing to head into their individual contract negotiations with a vision to create sustainable futures for not only themselves, but the communities they love to serve.

Hibbard, Anderson and the other Western Maine Transportation union members will be discussing what they need in a future contract at a pizza party next week.

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