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Laura Fortman is the commissioner of the Maine Department of Labor.

The Maine Department of Labor has been working directly with employers, employees and unions to build a strong economy where every worker can succeed and every business can thrive.  

The industrial revolution dramatically changed work, with people moving from farms to urban settings where working conditions such as poor ventilation, low pay, hazardous machinery and long hours resulted in worker demands for change. Labor unrest grew, and workers took to the streets to demand better working conditions and pay — the foundations of “good jobs.”  

In recognition of the essential contributions of workers, Labor Day was designated as a state holiday in 1891. Since then, the ever-changing economy resulted in workers gaining other mainstays such as Social Security, unemployment insurance and the 40-hour workweek, more women joining the workforce and the civil rights movement spurred further workplace protections. 

Although union organizing and legislative activity has led to significant improvements, workers continue to face obstacles in today’s economy.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated forecasted workforce challenges. Many people are now employed in the “gig” economy, and artificial intelligence looms as a disruptive force in the future of work. It is unclear what the future will be, however, we know that workers’ voices are going to be critical in crafting solutions that allow workers and businesses to thrive. 

Maine’s unemployment rate is at a record low of 2.4 percent. Mainers have numerous options when looking for work, and are continuing to demand safe working conditions and fair compensation. Additionally, respect on the job and a healthy work-life balance have risen as priorities for employees. Nationally, we are seeing increased organizing, strikes and advocacy for better workplaces.

In response, the federal government has crafted a “Good Jobs Initiative.” The U.S. Departments of Commerce and Labor partnered to identify what comprises a good job, creating a framework for workers, businesses, unions, government and others for a shared vision of job quality.

The principles revolve around: recruitment and hiring; benefits; diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility; empowerment and representation; job security and working conditions; organizational culture; pay; and skills and career advancement. 

In Maine, there has been an investment in expanding outreach to those who have typically been left on the sidelines of our workforce, such as those with disabilities, new Mainers/immigrants, veterans, youth, older workers, women, those who were formerly incarcerated and those in recovery. The goal is to increase opportunities to quality jobs for everyone and expand the pool of talented workers employers can connect with. 

The principles also recognize the importance of benefits that support families — including paid leave. This year, Gov. Janet Mills signed an historic budget that includes the creation of a paid family and medical leave program, making Maine the 13th state to establish one. Beginning in 2026, eligible workers in the private and public sector will have up to 12 weeks of paid time off available to them for family or medical reasons. As information becomes available, it will be posted on the department’s website

Workers must also have the tools and support to gain skills that advance their career, either within their organizations or outside them. One way that MDOL works with employers, unions and workers to do this is through mutually beneficial registered apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships. One example is the Maine AFL-CIO’s new Union Construction Academy of Maine. Funded through the Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan, these pre-apprentices are learning valuable construction skills and earning certifications such as OSHA-10 and First-Aid/CPR/AED. The pre-apprentices, many of whom have been women, in re-entry programs, or refugees, then have the option to transition to a union apprenticeship program where they can earn while they learn valuable skills.

The constant amidst all of this change is the need for the voices of ordinary workers to be central in our workplaces and communities, and in our democratic governance. It is those ordinary workers of today, yesterday and tomorrow that we honor this Labor Day.