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Michelle Dunphy of Old Town is the Maine House Majority Leader.
In 1907, a 17-year-old French Canadian girl named Mamie Bilodeau led 225 workers at the Skowhegan Textile Mill in a strike. Fed up with low wages, sexual harassment from overseers and fines being placed on them, the workers, who were primarily women and children, began a strike that would go on for several months. Despite facing strong opposition, Mamie and her co-workers ended up gaining the support of the Industrial Workers of the World and, in the end, they achieved their demands and gained representation on an arbitration committee.
Maine’s history is full of stories like these. As a union steward for Communications Workers of America, Local 1400 and House majority leader in the Maine Legislature, I know I stand on the shoulders of brave individuals like Bilodeau who advanced labor rights in Maine and women’s rights through collective action. Bilodeau and her colleagues proved that, by having each other’s back, we can improve the conditions for entire communities.
Today, just about 115 years after the Skowhegan Textile Mill Strike, workers in Maine are still organizing to achieve better wages, respect in the workplace and greater ability to negotiate the terms of their employment. For most of us, the pandemic has dramatically altered our working conditions. Some have lost colleagues to COVID-19 or become seriously ill themselves. Staff shortages have doubled or tripled many people’s typical workload.
On top of all that, the pandemic has taken a particularly hard toll on female workers. Jobs that are predominantly held by women, such as nursing and teaching, have been on the frontline of navigating the changing course of COVID-19. And, as balancing parenting and caretaking roles with a career has become more challenging, women have disproportionately been pushed out of the workforce.
This year in Augusta, Democrats in the Legislature have stood strong with Maine workers. We have sponsored and passed dozens of bills to put more money into the pockets of everyday Mainers and empower workers to organize. Just in 2021, we passed bills to raise MaineCare wage rates for direct care workers, provide financial support to family caregivers and strengthen nurse training programs by setting up a loan repayment program for nursing educators.
To help more people enter and stay in Maine’s workforce, we passed measures to put historic funding into the expansion of affordable housing, expand English language acquisition programs and direct state government departments to provide more training and transportation options for workers. To support the individuals who work in Maine’s schools, we passed bills to prevent the COVID-19 pandemic from negatively affecting teachers’ retirement and sick leave benefits, support teachers by improving collective bargaining negotiations with public employers and include career and technical education teachers in the minimum $40,000 salary initiative.
These bills are just the tip of the iceberg of what legislative Democrats have accomplished for Maine workers this year. But of course, there is a lot more work ahead of us. A commission is studying the feasibility of developing a statewide paid family and medical leave program for Maine workers, and soon legislators will be reconvening in January to consider many more bills aimed to support the workers who power our state’s economy.
From the nurses at Maine Medical Center in Portland to the workers at Bates College in Lewiston, 2021 has been a year of working Mainers realizing their worth and taking action to improve the conditions for themselves and others. The bills we passed this year are thanks to the workers, union members and everyday Mainers who advocated for them, submitted testimony at public hearings, wrote to their legislators and organized within their communities.
When we stand up for Maine workers, we are also standing up for the families they provide for, the businesses they patronize, the Main Streets they spend time on and our state’s overall economic well-being. Just as Bilodeau had her co-workers’ backs at the Skowhegan Textile Mill, I am proud that my Democratic colleagues and I are committed to having the backs of working families in the Legislature.