One of several iconic silk banners carried and paraded through the streets of Portland in 1841 by the local “mechanicks” (as artisan and others who labored with their hands were known) read: “Our labor and skill are indispensable to the advancement of civilization.” The words emblazoned on the banner carried a generic sense of the importance with which artisans viewed themselves and their status in society.
Maine’s “mechanicks” and farmers perceived themselves as the “bone and sinews” of society, true “producers” of the wealth enjoyed by its members, and pioneers of physical progress. They were not the “lower classes” or “lower order” of society. They were members of the “producing” class. They belonged to the class that did useful work and lived by its own labor and not the labor of others.
In their view, the “producers” contrasted sharply with the “nonproducing” class of bankers, lawyers, merchants, land speculators and parasitical wealthy employers whose control over production rested solely on ownership of capital.
A local, ringing declaration of the “producers” ideology was offered in 1831 in the columns of The Mechanic: Farmer, and Working-Men’s Advocate, which wondered about the value of the treasures of the wealthy employer:
“Will his rusty dollars prostrate the forests, or sow the seed — navigate the deep sea, or turn the spinning jenny — without the aid of the muscles and sinews of the animal mechanics? Not by ‘two chalks.’ Here then begins the entire dependence of opulent indolence upon the industry of the mechanic, the artist, the farmer, the every-day laborer.”
These expressions of their intrinsic value to the community led Maine artisans into political activity to resist changes characterized by increasing social, economic and political inequality. Not far removed in time from Concord and Lexington and their revolutionary heritage, the “producers” of social wealth challenged everything they believed to be a violation of the promise of the Declaration of Independence — independence, freedom and equality.
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Their image of society was one of small producers who were free, independent and relatively equal in economic status and politically as citizens. They perceived that a new “aristocracy” was emerging that threatened them as both citizens and producers, violated the promise the Declaration of Independence and threatened the foundations of the republic itself.
Such views became commonplace as the nation witnessed unbridled industrial growth and conflict. Between 1881 and 1900 the nation counted at least 23,000 strikes. Maine counted at least 176 strikes in that period and at least 21 strikes in 1886, its largest strike year up to that point. Federal or state troops were called out in more than 500 labor disputes across the country between 1877 and 1903.
The issues of economic concentration and inequality were highlighted by the fact that, in 1890, 1 percent of the population enjoyed more wealth than the wealth of the rest. Maine’s labor commissioner, S.W. Matthews, echoed the view “the wealth of this country is largely in a few hands.”
On christening the birth of Labor Day in Maine in 1891, Republican Gov. Edwin Burleigh could not fail to note the labor theory of value when he commented, “All wealth is primarily the product of industry, and every step in our material prosperity has been accomplished through the combined and persistent efforts of laboring men and women.” While in Maine to support the celebrants of “Labor’s Holiday,” Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, remarked that “wealth is a public trust, and the right to have something to say about wages and hours of labor pertains to the workers from whom the wealth comes.”
Yes, an economic transformation of the nation has occurred. The information and communications revolutions, artificial intelligence and robotics, seismic occupational shifts, changing markets, the increasingly diverse workforce in terms of race, ethnicity and gender, the nonstop application of science and technology to the workplace that quickly render obsolete what all workers know and do, are all part of the modern mix affecting labor.
Yet, such unprecedented changes do not make obsolete the dignity and value of labor nor make obsolete the universal truth emblazon on the labor banner of 1841: “Our labor and skill are indispensable to the advancement of civilization.”
Perhaps a renaissance of the “producers” ideology is in order this Labor Day to serve as a countervailing message to those who view workers, even in this digital age, as simply “units of energy” or “impersonal costs” in providing the goods and services of this world.
Charles A. Scontras is an historian and research associate at the Bureau of Labor Education at the University of Maine in Orono.
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