Many Mainers know May 1st as May Day. But until recently, few Mainers celebrated May Day — a holiday observed around the world as International Workers’ Day. Americans are more familiar with Labor Day in September, even though May 1st was declared International Workers’ Day to commemorate the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, where police brutally cracked down on workers striking for an eight-hour work day in 1886. Today, as workers continue struggling for their rights, a growing number of Mainers are trying to bring May Day in from the cold.
Last Saturday, folks from all over Maine attended one of three rallies to celebrate May Day, gathering to cheer impassioned speeches on the dignity and rights of workers across Maine and the country. At 10 AM a group gathered outside the Federal Building in Bangor. At 11 AM a larger gathering took place at Capitol Park in Augusta. And at 3 PM the largest rally was held in front of City Hall in Portland. And while each rally featured different speakers who touched upon different topics, there was one demand shared widely at each rally: pass the PRO Act!
Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, is a bill that would empower workers to more easily unionize their workplace. If passed into law, the bill will: 1) Extend the right to organize to more workers, by stopping employers from misclassifying some workers as “independent contractors” or “supervisors” rather than employees; 2) Ban employers from permanently replacing workers on strike with new employees; 3) Override “right to work” laws and allow unions to gather dues from all workers who benefit from negotiated union contracts; 4) Forbid employers from influencing union elections, and ban them from holding mandatory anti-union meetings; 5) Prevent employers from using a worker’s immigration status as leverage when discussing terms of employment; 6) Hold companies and their officers liable with financial penalties if they’re found to have violated workers’ rights.
The bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives on March 9th, and now sits in committee in the Senate. After an intense phone bank drive by Maine DSA and the Maine AFL-CIO, previously undecided Sen. Angus King (I) felt the pressure and made the right choice to support the bill as a co-sponsor.
One down, one to go. Sen. Susan Collins (R) is unlikely to support the bill, but unlikely doesn’t mean “definitely won’t.” And for that reason alone, Maine’s working class is keeping the pressure up, and that passion and pressure was evident at Saturday’s May Day rallies.
“Tell Susan Collins to get her act together!” bellowed Mary Kate O’Sullivan to a cheering audience in Portland. O’Sullivan is a newly unionized RN at Maine Medical Center, and her speech had attendees captivated as she listed out all the obstacles Maine Med nurses faced during their union drive. They were pulled from patients’ bedsides and forced to attend mandatory meetings where management made the case against a union. Their personal phones blew up with text messages from management without their consent. They faced a hostile corps of bosses who hired an anti-union firm in hopes of crushing the nurses’ efforts. O’Sullivan noted these ruthless practices to highlight why the PRO Act is so necessary. “The playing field isn’t equal in a union drive,” she said.
In Augusta MSEA-SEIU President Dean Staffieri was on the same page. The crowd cheered when he brought up the Maine Med nurses’ successful vote to unionize and, like O’Sullivan in Portland, Staffieri used the obstacles that management placed before the nurses to highlight the need for the PRO Act.
The PRO Act would go a long way in helping correct the imbalance in power between employers and organizing workers. But the prospects of the bill passing the Senate are slim as long as the filibuster remains intact, a controversial mechanism that allows a minority of Senators to prevent the full Senate from voting on a bill. To overcome the filibuster, all fifty Democrats plus ten Republicans would have to sign onto the PRO Act. That would already be a tall order given the polarized state of politics, and now it is an even taller order given gig companies like Uber and Lyft spending over one million dollars lobbying congress to vote against the bill.
It’s no surprise then that the left has increased their calls to get rid of the filibuster altogether. “If we must kill the filibuster to get [the PRO Act], then we must,” declared Andrew Coronado at Portland’s rally. Coronado led the ill-fated union drive at Rising Tide Brewery in 2020, and recently helped hand out pamphlets in support of the workers at Portland Museum of Art during their successful union drive. Widening his message, Coronado reminded the crowd, “Progress in the United States comes from the masses though, not the elite. This requires a robust organized labor movement.”
Portland’s rally wasn’t only about the PRO Act. DrewChristopher Joy, Leadership Development Coordinator at Southern Maine Workers’ Center, made sure the crowd knew about issues happening right here in Maine. “Only one quarter of eligible workers who need unemployment get it […] The system exists to help people in what is likely a crisis moment in their lives, but an overwhelming number of people go without that help.” Joy was educating attendees about LD 1571: An Act to Strengthen the Unemployment Insurance System and Better Serve Maine Workers. This bill, currently before the Committee on Labor and Housing, would expand eligibility for unemployment benefits and improve the process for eligible Mainers to access benefits in their time of need.
Along with Dean Staffieri, Augusta speakers included State Rep. Thom Harnett (D), State Sen. Craig Hickman (D), Mohamed Ali Ibrahim of Maine People’s Alliance, and Isreal Mosley who serves on the Kennebec County Democratic Committee’s Subcommittee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Rep. Harnett spoke passionately on the rights of farm workers and his bill LD 151: An Act To Protect Farm Workers by Allowing Them To Organize for the Purpose of Collective Bargaining. Sen. Hickman talked about the connection between civil rights and his own experiences fighting for the right to organize. Isreal Mosley spoke about the need to start the fight for minimum wage at no less than fifteen dollars. And Mohamed Ali Ibrahim addressed the need for major immigration reforms, as undocumented immigrants face heightened risk of being exploited at their workplace.
Each May Day rally urged the Senate to pass the PRO Act, but also urged Mainers not to ignore labor struggles close to home, calling attention to legislation and organizations each of us can tangibly involve ourselves in. From global movements to state and local struggles for workers’ rights, Mainers are joining as volunteers and organizers to build worker power. May Day rallies like the three in Maine last Saturday allow us to come together as working-class folks, account for our losses, celebrate our wins, and sharpen our appetite for more. If we work hard enough, we just might celebrate the PRO Act’s becoming law at next year’s local May Day rally.