Maine’s Labor Historian, Charles Scontras (1928-2021): His Contribution / by Chris McKinnon

Historians had long neglected Maine’s diverse working class. That changed in the 1960s when Charles A. Scontras, a young historian at the University of Maine, set out to rescue the State’s laboring classes from what the legendary British Historian E.P. Thompson once called, “the enormous condescension of posterity.” In the 1950s, British and other European social historians sought to broaden the study of history by including the lived experiences of everyday people that traditional historical narratives elided, with narratives of institutions and elites.

Thompson, and other distinguished Marxist historians formed an influential group whose work had a considerable impact on their field. Early labor historians had struggled to account for Labor’s ascent in the 19th Century.  But as a new generation of scholars adapted to the methods and conventions of the new social and labor history, there was an opening to reinvigorate the trade union movement by focusing attention away from leaders of industry and the politicians who served them and by allowing Labor’s story to be told. Labor history, as practiced by Charles Scontras, and more celebrated American labor historians like Herbert G. Gutman and David Montgomery, concentrated on the history from below, the history of organized labor and the working-class movement. 

Dr. Charles Scontras died on March 7th, 2021 at the age of 91.  He was predeceased by his wife, Joanne McKay Scontras and is survived by their children, grandchildren, and many nieces and nephews. He was born in Buffalo, New York, on November 25th, 1929, the son of Greek immigrants. He spent his childhood and adolescence in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, where he attended public schools. He completed a B.S. in Business Administration from the University of New Hampshire and earned an M.Ed., and then M.A. and Ph. D. in History, from the University of Maine, where he went on to serve on the faculty for 36 years. Following a distinguished career as a professor in the Department of History, he retired in 1997 but continued to work as a research associate at the Maine Bureau of Labor Education well into his later years. Along the way, he lectured in history at Westbrook Junior College and was adjunct faculty at Bangor Theological Seminary.

Scontras came by his interest in Labor and Maine’s working class honestly. His mother, Koula “Gloria” Diakakis, worked in the textile mills of nearby Biddeford and his father, Andrew Scontras was a shoe repairman. Prior to his academic career, Charles owned a shoe store and shoe repair business. It was this experience, along with as his identity as a son of laboring parents, that drove his interest in working-class culture. Today he is widely known in Maine as the foremost authority on Maine labor history. “I never appreciated the changes my mother had to go through as an immigrant, how she struggled in that textile mill,” Scontras said, “That’s how I became interested in social reform and the experience of my family. A lot of people think public policy relative to labor was formed and someone picked up a rock and there it was. But … it [was born] of struggle.” “Picture as best you can two immigrants coming here along with 25 million plus other immigrants in that 50 year stretch of time between 1877 and 1927 … picture my mother who knew nothing about the industrial revolution, facing 20th century technology as she worked in the [textile] mills.” “Every time I pass one of the old textile buildings that now get converted into boutiques and professional buildings and restaurants,” he reminisced, “…  my main interest falls back to the people who paraded through those gates.”

Not much was written about organized labor in Maine before the 1960s. Scontras illuminated an area of darkness. He authored a succession of books, pamphlets, and articles, and lectured on Maine’s labor movement for five decades. He devoted his working life to researching, writing, and teaching about Maine’s working class, the organizations it formed, the victories it won and the defeats it suffered. Along the way, he scoured libraries, used bookstores, antique dealers and informal markets in search of “documentation and memorabilia” of Maine’s early labor movement. His oeuvre revealed the hidden conditions that Maine workers faced and the struggles they fought to improve their cultural, social, economic, and political position in a state long dominated by a small wealthy elite and business interests.  A Maine Bureau of Labor Education colleague remembered him as a “tireless advocate for workers and for the preservation of Maine’s history of working-class struggle… He created a body of knowledge that would not otherwise exist and provided a framework for historians to peer deeply into Maine’s past for guidance on the controversies of the present.”

Professor Scontras probed the history and current condition of Maine Labor with unmatched dedication. The core of his work is preserved in 12 volumes of Maine labor history covering the period from 1636 to the present. His op-ed columns appeared in local newspapers and he spoke at union halls, setting the record straight, keeping a tradition of struggle alive in the consciousness of his contemporaries and passing it on to future generations.

His early works, Organized Labor and Labor Politics in Maine, 1880-1890 (1966) and Two Decades of Organized Labor and Labor Politics in Maine 1880-1900 (1969), situated 19th century Maine labor unrest in the context of a “national reawakening” of unions that emerged in the 1880s. Scontras wrote about the difficulty of organizing in Maine, as the “attitude of workers towards organized labor and, consequently, their commitment to labor politics, was in large measure determined by the fact that they were not far removed from the soil.” He explained the hurdles obstructing the Knights of Labor and the Greenback Party from motivating “geographically dispersed unorganized workers in disparate industries.” The desire for progressive reform was there but the means were often wanting. Yet admirable intentions were rewarded when organizing efforts succeeded. Scontras showed that the desire for “humanitarian reform” alone was insufficient to achieve social progress. It was not until that longing was bolstered by “the power of organized labor that it was possible to translate noble ends into deeds.” With the arrival of the AFL in the 1890s, the movement was more narrowly based as it was focused on ‘purely trade interests’ and therefore more disciplined.”

With the publication of Organized Labor in Maine in the 20th Century, the 1st in a series that would offer an encompassing view of Maine labor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Scontras established his reputation as a leader in Maine labor history. The book launched an expansive narrative that dealt with the revival of trade unionism in Maine, the hidden legacy of resistance among Maine workers, sparks of radical unionism, and organized labor’s fight to empower the working-class. “Organized Labor in Maine,” Scontras wrote, “was inextricably linked to the movement to extend and purify democracy by supporting the suffrage initiative and referendum, secret ballots, direct election of senators and the direct primary… part of a larger scholarly undertaking to tell the story of collective efforts of the working men and women to exercise control over their workplaces, improve their standard of living and secure a measure of social justice.”

Reflecting on the manuscript, Scontras said that “Maine has a noisy protest side. Workers sniped away at some injustices and made the difference. It is the story of working men and women and their collective efforts to improve their own lives. Maine has had its radical voices, but one would never know by traditional literature. This changes the image of the state to more realism. Maine was not Shangri-La.” “We’ve always painted a picture of the self-reliant lobster-person who was always immune to collective effort,” he averred, “but the lobster fisherman’s union, the first of its kind in the history of the labor movement, was founded in Vinalhaven in 1905.”

The AFL led the trade union movement, at the turn of the century, but their efforts proved “weak” and “ineffectual.” More militant organizations like the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) soon emerged on the Maine scene. In 1903 in Rockland, the Socialist Trade & Labor Alliance (STLA) organized a strike in the woolen and worsted mills of Skowhegan. The strike ended in failure but the STLA found a home in the IWW. A new era in Maine labor’s evolution was rising.

Figure 2  The Socialist Alternative (1985)

In The Socialist Alternative: Utopian Experiments and the Socialist Party of Maine, 1815-1914, the 2nd book in the series, Scontras excavates Maine’s rendezvous with utopian socialism in the form of the Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth (an experiment with which Eugene Debs briefly flirted), Equality Colony and the Industrial Brotherhood. Trials and errors that were followed by the founding of a “radical political alternative” in the form of the Socialist Party of Maine. Here, Scontras introduces some of Maine history’s most colorful radicals: Norman Wallace Lermond, Maine’s first socialist candidate for Governor, who was influenced by the utopian novelist and author of Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy, and founding members of the Maine Socialist Party, Portland artist, Charles Lewis Fox and the prolific early science fiction novelist, Edward Allan England.  England, the Socialist Party’s candidate for Governor in 1912, was,” as Scontras would have it, “without question Maine’s intellectual socialist.”

In subsequent volumes, Organized Labor in Maine: War, Reaction, Depression, and the Rise of the CIO 1914-1943 (2002) and Labor in Maine: Building the Arsenal of Democracy and Resisting Reaction at Home, 1939-1952 (2006), Scontras examined the experience of Maine labor through World Wars I and II, the reverberation of the Russian Revolution, the ensuing “Red Scare,” and the limits of political dissent in Maine. The Great Depression, the rise of radical voices, the emergence of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and the growth the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) and their impact on Maine workers are woven into the story.

In 1919, as the pro-business Eastern Argus deplored the “seething cauldron of unrest” and “the spirit of dissent” emanating from the “most radical” creed of “Bolshevism, … , “Tom Lyons, granite cutter, labor leader and Maine’s first Commissioner of Labor, voiced the sentiment of many in Labor that the camouflaged story of Bolshevism, IWWism, Sovietism, socialism… [were] part of a well-organized movement to discredit and check the rapid advance of organized labor.” Regrettably, the voice of skepticism was lost in a sea of rhetorical conformism. Maine Labor was cool to the appeal of radical voices, and Scontras made clear that “it could never escape the inevitable linkages made between Bolshevism and organized labor by those intent on weakening or destroying the labor movement.”

The lukewarm response by Maine labor to calls for industrial unionism and independent political action was tempered and conditioned by Samuel Gompers’ American Federation of Labor (AFL). But the calls of more radical solutions persisted. “Scattered leftist voices in Maine continued to resent the reluctance of the AFL to break with its non-partisan political stance.” The venerable AFL founder had his critics. A socialist spokesperson for the paving cutters union in Vinalhaven asked, “does Gompers expect us to believe that we will ever get legislation favorable to labor from a government of businessmen … radical changes to be made by the very people who thrive on the present system?”

By the 1930s, socialists had become a “permanent fixture on Maine’s political landscape” causing establishment political figures, businessmen, industrialists, and reactionary civic organizations to panic. Following the Communist Party’s engagement with the 1933 shoe strike in Norway Maine, the Maine State Labor News reported, “Communistic agencies during the past few years have been especially active in preaching the gospel of Communism wherever shoe and textile strikes occur.” The Maine Federation of Women’s Clubs issued a warning that “we are ripe for communism and destruction.” Overblown reactions, but the presence of communist cadre in Maine “fueled the fears of conservative groups and proved … a constant challenge to the Maine State Federation of Labor (MSFL).” As is often the case, fear turned to repression.

In 1935, Gustav Saderquist, a Clark Island paving cutter, “avowed communist,” alleged reader and distributor of the Daily Worker, was forced to surrender to immigration officials. Represented by International Labor Defense, Saderquist was eventually deported for “being a member of an organization, which advocates the overthrow by force and violence of the government of the United States and of all forms of law.” Some “considered the charges fallacious. [S]ince the Communist Party was a legal party in the U.S., how could it be illegal to be a member of it?” But the reactionary campaign against communism carried on well in the 1940s and ultimately the new Red Scare, Cold War, McCarthyism, and the Taft-Hartley Act gave the Republican Party, American Legion, Chamber of Commerce the weapons they needed to purge communists and socialists from the unions. The radicals resisted but to no avail. Scontras’s histories of the era are packed with detail and suggestive insights for further research.

Dr. Scontras’s interests also lead him into the public domain and occasionally into controversy. In 2007, Maine artists Judy Taylor won a competitive award from the Maine Arts Commission and the Maine Department of Labor for a mural featuring Maine labor history. Taylor collaborated informally with Scontras on the work. In personal communication with the artist, Scontras suggested what might serve as a primary focus for the mural: “Maine,” he said, “is a bit more than the stereotypical romantic images that have become commonplace and marketed by our gift and souvenir shops, Down-East humor, lighthouses, lobster fishermen, … its rock-bound seacoast, … [and] larger than life lumberjacks. While these things do describe Maine, and I am glad that they form part of our heritage, Maine was not Nirvana. The creative role of dissent, protest, conflict, and the demand for social justice in the workplaces of the state, form an integral part of our historical legacy.”

Figure 3  Maine Labor History Mural / Judy Taylor, artist

Taylor’s partnership with Scontras resulted in the scenes that were depicted on the eleven-panel mural. The artist paid tribute to the historian’s contribution by using his likeness in the unplanned eleventh panel that portrays apprenticeship. Scontras is shown teaching an apprentice how to hand sew shoes, a scene harkening back to his youthful days demonstrating his skill at his father’s craft. [It is the 1st panel as it is currently displayed at the Maine State Archives]. Commenting on his likeness, Scontras said, “Apprenticeship has always provided opportunities for workers to learn a skilled trade on the job. At the center of this panel is a shoemaker teaching his craft to a young apprentice. I was a shoe repairer in my youth and was selected by the artist as the model for the mentor in this panel in appreciation for my commitment to labor education.” Taylor called Scontras a “guiding light” in her design and creation of the Mural’s subjects. “If you want to know Maine labor history,” she said, “you have to talk to Charlie.”

Figure 4 Scontras depicted as a cobbler with apprentice

The entire mural with images of Rosie the Riveter at the Bath Iron Works, child laborers, and the Lewiston–Auburn shoe strike of 1937, was displayed in the Department of Labor until Republican Gov. Paul LePage ordered its removal in 2011, citing complaints about the works pro-labor bias and later shifting to a more philosophical rationale focused on depicting business and labor harmony. The governor’s rhetoric betrayed a deep-seeded, anti-labor predisposition and unyielding commitment to capitalist ideology. LePage included in his administrative directive the demand that Department of Labor (DOL) conference rooms honoring Labor Leader & Civil Rights Activist, Cesar Chavez, the first female U.S. Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, Rose Schneidermann of New York’s Women’s Trade Union League, and one of Scontras himself be renamed. In response, to LePage’s transparent and petty suppression of the cultural expression of labor’s contributions, Scontras said “totalitarian regimes erase history as well. We manage to do it by indifference or for ideological reasons.” He voiced “surprise that a Franco-American like the governor whose wife was once a union steward, would take such a move when the mural honored the work that generations of Maine Franco-Americans had done in the shoe, textile and paper industries.” “It’s enough to make you weep,” Scontras said of the mural removal, “I’d prefer to see my name removed than see history removed.” Ultimately, the mural and the conference room names survived. The mural is prominently displayed in the entrance lobby at the Maine State Archive and State Library and the hallowed names of Chavez, Perkins and Schneiderman have been restored to the DOL conference rooms.

Scontras remained engaged on issues of voting rights, pedagogy, the right to organize and more. Reflecting on the upsurge of voter suppression, he reflected, that “today the nation is awash with commentaries on preserving the purity and integrity” of our elections and democracy. “Perhaps the concept of corporations as persons and money as free speech is the real gorilla in the room eroding the purity of democracy and should be the focus of our energy and concern.”

He was active with online correspondence to the end. The day before he died, Scontras posted a piece on Facebook for Women’s History Month about women in the workplace and their struggles over the years for equal pay. “While the struggle of Maine women to fight their way out of the historical shadows of inequality reaches deep into the nineteenth century,” he wrote, “the embers of the struggle continue to billow…” Indeed, in his final days, the nurse’s struggle to form a union at Maine Medical Center was much on his mind. O Maine Medical Center’s hiring of an anti-union consulting firm to defeat the push for “workplace democracy,” he said, that it is but “a more recent example of [a] species of legal opposition which reaches back nearly a half-century.” Scontras saw nothing new in these tactics, just a renewed subversion of worker agency. Who needs the “strike-breaking, club-swinging thugs,” the “labor spies,” and other assorted crude anti-union strategies and tactics anymore, he asked, “to ensure that the sparks of unionism do not billow into a genuine worker countervailing-power of resistance, a demand for democracy in the workplace and a voice in the decisions that directly impact their lives?”

Beyond the workplace, Scontras was concerned about the “racism, xenophobia, bigotry and hate that spark social division and intolerance” to this day, he cautioned against the “shortcomings [of] an education that narrowly focuses on making people marketable.” “Should it be a requirement,” he asked, “that all students enroll in a course that seek[s] to address such questions as a condition for graduation in any public school?  In a nation that is rapidly becoming a microcosm of the races, ethnicities, and cultures of the world, is it not necessary to systematically cultivate a mind-set for a multi-cultural democracy in the interest of social harmony?” Professor Scontras was dedicated to his profession. His students, colleagues, and associates lauded him for his commitment. He is affectionately remembered by them in part for that reason.

But Charles Scontras was far more than an academic and Maine’s premier labor historian. He was a public intellectual who cared deeply about his community and sought through his life’s work to give voice to Maine’s working-class and raise its concerns and aspirations above the exclusionary narratives that dwell on the wants and rationalizations of wealth and privilege. He was recognized for his unflagging commitment to elevating labor’s story. Scontras, like the late Gutman and Montgomery, believed in ‘the empowering quality of history’, for scholars and the working-class itself.

“Professor Scontras told the stories of common Maine people banding together for dignity in the workplace and society, building organizations and forever struggling for basic rights in the workplace,” affirmed Matt Schlobohm, Executive Director of the Maine AFL-CIO. “At a fundamental level, Charlie told the ongoing story of everyday working-class Mainers fighting to become citizens in the workplace, not property. More than any other human being to walk this earth, he chronicled, catalogued, and kept alive the history of Maine workers, our unions, and collective struggles. He taught us our working class and labor history too often neglected in schools or textbooks. We are all eternally grateful and better for Charlie’s work.”

Charles Scontras gave much but his work is unfinished. “One of his dreams was to see the creation of a monument honoring the first strike over working conditions in what would become the United States, a direct labor action which occurred on Richmond Island off the coast of Maine in 1636 by overworked and unpaid Maine fishermen and laborers. It was important to Professor Scontras that they not be forgotten. We must not forget him.