A woman sips a beverage inside Starbucks Coffee on Middle Street in Portland on Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2022. Workers at the location have announced plans to form a union. Maine hasn't had union-represented restaurant workers in more than 30 years. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — The number of food service workers currently laboring under negotiated union contracts in the United States is tiny. The tally is barely more than 3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Maine, the number is even smaller.

It’s zero, and has been for more than three decades.

That might be changing, however.

On Tuesday, workers at a Portland Starbucks became the third Maine food service group in as many months to announce union plans, joining employees at a Biddeford Starbucks and a Chipotle Mexican Grill in Augusta, in seeking a collective bargaining agreement.

While some labor experts say that Maine’s small size and relatively high amount of union representation — about 14 percent — bode well, history is not on their side.

Since the late 19th century, unions have struggled to organize Vacationland’s hospitality workers, with only limited, sporadic and short-lived success. The courts and Legislature have often been a hindrance.

The Starbucks Coffee logo hangs high above the shop on Middle Street in Portland on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Maine hasn’t had a single, union-contracted food or hotel worker since the Reagan administration.

The late historian Charlie Scontras researched and wrote about Maine’s labor struggles for more than 50 years. Scotras, who died in 2021, was a frequent contributor to the state’s newspaper op-ed pages and wrote six volumes of Maine labor history, covering 1636 to the present.

One of Scontras’ final books, “Maine Labor in the Age of Deindustrialization and Global Markets, 1955-2005,” chronicles unions’ modest successes in organizing Maine hospitality workers.

Scontras begins his history with a quote from a Maine restaurant worker in an 1892 labor report who complains about long hours and difficult working conditions — two things Portland’s Starbucks employees also brought up in their union filing this week, 130 years later.

“My work is extremely hard, for I am compelled to travel up and down stairs two stories,” the 1892 worker said. “I work from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and some Saturdays as late as one o’clock at night before I go home.”

The nation’s first hospitality union, the Hotel and Restaurant Employees’ International Alliance — known today as HERE — organized in 1890. There’s a small bit of evidence, a passing reference in the same labor report, that a few Maine waitresses may have been members of HERE or a similar organization.

But back then, there was no federal right for workers to organize or strike, so union power was severely limited. Most of Maine’s nascent labor organizations, such as the Knights of Labor, collapsed in an 1890s depression.

“It is doubtful that any collective associations among waitresses [or waiters] survived,” Scontras wrote.

By 1919, HERE was attempting to coordinate Maine hospitality workers via union locals in Augusta and Portland. In March 1928, the union’s international president, Edward Flore even spent two weeks organizing in Portland.

A Maine State Labor Federation report that year stated Flore “met with good success,” but both locals collapsed a year later. HERE established another Portland local in 1930, but it soon vanished, as well.

Finally, in 1937, two years after the federal National Labor Relations Act guaranteed workers’ right to organize, HERE finally formed a stable union local in Portland.

“By the following year, 11 restaurants in the city operated under the union banner,” Scontras wrote. “A measure of the solidarity that characterized the period was reflected by the local Teamsters who refused to patronize any restaurant in the city that was not organized.”

But HERE’s success did not last.

In 1954, the Portland local launched an organizational campaign aimed at restaurant workers throughout the rest of the state but ran into legal trouble in their home city.

While attempting to organize the Theodore Lobster House on Commercial Street, a local judge issued an injunction prohibiting HERE’s picketing activities. In 1955, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court upheld the injunction, ruling peaceful picketing at a place of business for the purpose of inducing employees to join a union was illegal because it constituted coercion.

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“The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that the state court ruling violated the federal guarantee of free speech,” Scontras wrote.

But the nation’s highest court refused to hear the case, and the HERE local seems to have disappeared shortly thereafter.

At the time, Maine had no state labor relations act and the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act did not apply to hospitality workers.

The state didn’t enact a minimum wage of $1 per hour until 1959, but restaurant owners were exempt from the new requirement. There was no minimum wage for servers and other restaurant workers until 1967. Even then, employers were not required to pay overtime wages.

Those loopholes were a major force behind another HERE Portland union local being established in 1963, with an initial membership of 52 and the goal of organizing 1,200 workers in the local hospitality industry.

“We work a 54-hour week for as little as $0.25, $0.35, and $0.50 cents an hour,” wrote local HERE organizer John E. Collins, citing other states’ inclusion of restaurant workers in their minimum wage laws, in a 1963 letter. “Are we not as good citizens of our country as they are? Must we receive less pay because we work in Maine?”

In today’s money, 1963’s $0.50 per hour is equal to $4.90 per hour. Portland’s current tipped-worker minimum cash wage, before gratuities, is $6.50 per hour. The state cash minimum is $6.38.

Workers at the Starbucks Coffee on Middle Street in Portland have announced plans to form a union. Maine hasn’t had union-represented restaurant workers in more than 30 years. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

But the 1960s union push was equaled by a strong, anti-union “right-to-work” movement at the same time. Right-to-work bills were repeatedly introduced in the Maine Legislature throughout the decade with support from the Portland chamber of commerce.

By the early 1970s, the unionization movement for hotel and restaurant workers had stagnated. Labor laws pertaining to tipped hospitality workers had been updated but were still not equal to those of other laboring Mainers.

One final Maine restaurant union push, before this years’, began in 1976 at Portland’s Red Coach Grille and Convention Center. There, workers applied for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board.

But the Grille soon fired one of the lead organizers, sparking an official complaint, which delayed the vote.

“The workers were engulfed in a year of unfair labor practices, appeals, labor turnover, and strong opposition by management with the assistance of legal counsel,” Scontras said.

When the vote was finally held in 1978, union organizers failed to win a majority.

By 1981, workers at the Roundhouse Motor Inn in Auburn were the only union-contracted hotel and restaurant workers left in the state. The inn closed in the late 1980s.

Since then, there have been no contracts between restaurant owners and workers anywhere in Maine. That’s a roughly 30-year gap.

The Southern Maine Workers Center opened in Portland in 2006 with the goal of educating and organizing service industry and other low-wage workers. However, it isn’t affiliated with any organized labor union.

As of April, the U.S.  Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated there were around 69,000 Vacationlanders working in the leisure and hospitality industry.

Augusta’s Chipotle Mexican Grill closed down amid calls of union busting. But if both groups of Maine Starbucks employees win contracts, roughly 27 workers will be represented.

That’s only about 0.036 percent of all hospitality workers in Maine, but a start.


Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.