By the 1830s and 1840s, the labor movement had spread throughout the Northeast and Maine workers began taking direct action in the workplace. Although strikes — or “turn-outs,” as they called them in those days — were relatively rare before the Civil War, workers did occasionally withhold their labor to demand better treatment.
One of the earliest recorded strikes over hours of labor in Maine happened in April of 1835, when carpenters working on the Mill Dam in Bangor walked off the job. The men argued that they were entitled to leave work earlier because working on the water entailed greater exposure to the elements. After the master carpenter docked them each a quarter a day for their action, the workers organized a committee that delivered a report to their boss demanding full pay. When he refused, 130 men paraded off the worksite, accompanied by two clarinetists.
Meanwhile, the workers’ committee “occupied a room, with the gravity of a body of Legislators, while the company marched off under their commander,” according to the Bangor Mechanic and Farmer. After receiving a message about the labor unrest, an agent for the Mill Dam Corporation arrived to find “a long regular line of hardy determined men with music playing under the command of a most gentlemanly Captain.”
“The agent, a former military man, removed his hat and saluted the entire length of the line,” the paper reported. He and one of the company’s directors then sent a message to the workers announcing that the master carpenter’s decision to dock their pay had been reversed. The workers’ committee “received [the message] by three long deafening cheers.” The Mechanic and Farmer described the strike as “the most gentle, manly turn-out we have ever heard of.”