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A Long History of Collective Struggle in Maine's Restaurant Industry

Andy O’Brien
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It has been deeply inspiring to witness the efforts of workers at Starbucks in Biddeford and Chipotle in Augusta to organize their workplaces in an industry that is notorious for low wages and a difficult work environment. But as these union drives have shown, corporations will go to extreme lengths to stop employees from organizing, including firing organizers and closing the business in blatant violation of our weak labor laws. 

High staff turnover rates in restaurants also make it difficult to maintain worker power to establish organizing committees and maintain it through the long drawn out process of getting workers to sign union cards, winning the secret ballot election and negotiating a contract as employers often drag their feet until a year passes and they can run a decertification campaign. Employers will also exploit divisions between dining room and kitchen staff. 

As of 2020, the food service industry had one of the lowest unionization rates of any sector in the US — just 1.2 percent, compared to 10.8 percent of all wage and salary workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

That’s why it’s so impressive that food service workers in Maine and across the country are winning union elections against all odds. But this isn’t the first time restaurant workers in Maine have risen up and organized and it certainly won't be the last. 

A History of Struggle

As early as the 1890s, Maine restaurant and hotel workers began organizing and forming worker organization known as “labor and benefit” orders, according to labor historian Charlie Scontras. In 1919, members of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees' International Alliance and Bartenders' International League of America (HERE) established locals in Augusta and Portland. Then in 1928, the Portland local brought HERE’s international president, Edward Flore, and an organizer to the city where they reportedly "met with good success, adding several new houses to the fair list and strengthening the Local.”

Two years later, in 1930, the Portland Central Labor Union, a precursor to the Southern Maine Labor Council, funded an organizer to help establish a HERE local, but it failed to survive "due to the lack of interest in this class of workers."

However, union activity in Maine dramatically increased with the passage of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which created the fundamental right of workers to organize, and the Maine State Federation of Labor (MSFL), a precursor to the Maine AFL-CIO, successfully convinced HERE to send another organizer. The Teamsters in Portland even passed a resolution at that time refusing to patronize non-union restaurants in the city.

The main driving force for organizing efforts in the 1930s was that wages were incredibly low and Maine still didn’t have a minimum wage law. Jesse W. Taylor, Maine’s Commissioner for Labor and Industry, observed in 1939 that many workers in restaurants and other female-dominated industries in Maine earned just $5 a week ($106 adjusted for inflation) for 54 to 64 hours of work. At the very least, Taylor argued that the state should establish a $25-cent per hour minimum wage law for women and minors. 

The Federal Fair Labor Standards Act didn’t cover restaurant workers and Maine was one of the last states in New England to pass a state minimum wage law in 1959, but it still didn’t cover restaurant servers.

Just like today, wage theft and blacklisting were also very common in the restaurant industry. Taylor pointed to one case where a restaurant owner refused to pay a young woman who worked 72 hours in one week because, the employer argued, she was leaving employment

“We had proof she had worked over time. The books at the restaurant can be checked,” said Taylor. “She went in court and testified. It cost the employer $36 in court and she was blacklisted and could not get a job anywhere in the city. Violations have been going on elsewhere. They would like to go to court, but do not dare to.”

Speaking to the MSFL Convention in 1954, Maine’s Labor Commissioner lamented the state’s failure to pass minimum legislation and said that workers didn’t come out and testify in support of it in great numbers because they were probably afraid of losing their jobs.

HERE continued to support union organizing drives throughout the 1950s, but the anti-union legal system unfortunately chilled the momentum. In 1954, workers established HERE Local 390 at Theodore’s Lobster House in Portland (later DiMillo's Lobster House), which led to a court injunction banning picketing of the establishment that was later upheld by the Maine Supreme Court. This blatant suppression of free speech ignited the labor movement to demand a state level Labor Relations Act to protect restaurant, hotel and retail workers, who were not covered under federal labor laws. 

At the 1954 MSFL convention, workers claimed that the Portland Chamber of Commerce had even sent letters "asking all restaurants apparently to keep labor organizations away from their doors." The convention voted to drop Portland from its list of recommended convention sites in 1956 in solidarity with restaurant workers.

One HERE worker organizer in Portland noted that restaurant workers earned as low as 22 cents an hour and that the Eastland Hotel even imposed “fines” on workers that "sometimes completely consumes the weekly pay.” In a letter to a state legislator in 1965, the organizer wrote,

The State of Maine is called “Vacationland.” A vacationland needs tourists and these tourists need accommodations. We, the workers of the Hotel and Restaurant Industry provide the services needed for these accommodations. Yet, we are the most sorely neglected citizens of this state. We work a 54-hour week for as little as $.25, $.35, and $.50 cents an hour.

Are we not as good citizens of our country as they are? Must we receive less pay because we work in Maine? Because of a few who have the financial power ... must we remain 65 years behind the rest of the country?

In the late 1970s there was another resurgence of organizing in the restaurant industry. As one supporter of the unionization effort wrote in Maine Labor News,

Would you like to work for exactly one half the legal minimum wage? Would you like overtime being at 46 rather than 40 hours per week? Would you like to work on a piecework system largely at the mercy of supervisors who play favorites?

Would you like to be sent home without pay because there isn't "enough work" on your shift without compensation? Would you like to have no pension plan, no medical benefits, no paid holidays or sick pay? If you enjoy the terms of such employment you could work for a job as a waitress or waiter anywhere in the state.

Would you like to sink hundreds of dollars into an education at a trade school in culinary arts only to find that you are not making enough money on the Job after graduation to pay for your education?

Would you like to wash dishes, clean motel rooms, scour pots, or bus tables for $2.30 an hour? If you have answered "Yes" to any of these questions, you, too, could qualify for work in the hotel or restaurant business.”

The most successful union drive of the '70s was on August 3, 1977 when servers, bartenders and kitchen staff at the Roundhouse Motor Inn in Auburn voted to form a union with HERE. In the 1980s it was sole unionized restaurant in the state and union workers often patronized it, including holding meetings there during the International Paper Strike of ’87-88. 

However, workers trying to organize the Portland Red Coach Grille and Convention Center in 1976 faced much more difficult odds after the business fired a a lead organizer, setting off a year of unfair labor practices, appeals, staff turnover and rampant union busting that culminating in a defeat for the union. With the anti-union climate of the 1980s and 90s, it wasn’t until the 21st century that restaurant workers briefly began organizing again with the establishment of the Southern Maine Workers Center in the mid 2000s.

But given the increasing passion of restaurant workers to collective action in the 2020s, perhaps we can look forward to patronizing more unionized restaurants and hotels in Maine in the near future!