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Stories from Maine: Remembering an icon of labor

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Stories from Maine: Remembering an icon of labor


The Baltimore-built American Liberty Ship S. S. John W. Brown at the Maine State Pier in Portland in August of 2007. Associated Press file photo

Today, labor unions are well established in the Midcoast. But it was not so long ago that one man helped lead the fight to bring organized labor to Bath.

Although John William Brown was born at Somersworth, Prince Edward Island, in 1870 he was – like his Massachusetts-born father – a true American. By 1903, John married Eva May Fanion in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the couple soon moved to a farm on the Barley Neck Road in Woolwich.

John W. Brown Image courtesy of the S.S. John W. Brown website

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When Brown took a job at Bath Iron Works as a “joiner” he found himself interested in issues of labor and old-age pensions.

By April of 1920, Brown spoke publicly, encouraging a group of retail clerks to unionize, reasoning that “anybody going anywhere in America is organized” he said. “Even the criminals are organizing.”

When shipyard administrators got word that one of their employees was trying to unionize, they took immediate action. Shortly after his talk, Brown discovered he no longer had a job and he could “no longer find a hall” in which to meet and lecture.

Brown was not alone in his efforts to unionize the shipyard, a strong pro-labor movement was growing across the United States and a number of men in Bath were also leading the local charge.

Aside from organizing, Brown also worried for the elderly who were too old to work and had no other means of support during the Great Depression.

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By February of 1930, Brown formed an “Old Age Pension League,” in Bath and was immediately voted in as president. The League then set out to pass “an old-age pension law” at the state level.

Within two years, Brown’s name was formally entered as a candidate in the Republican Party for the Maine State Legislature and his “pension plan” was at the center of his progressive platform.

Though Brown was not successful in winning the nomination, an old-age pension plan would be established by law in 1936 as Social Security, a centerpiece of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”

Brown was still busy with efforts to organize in Bath and he was writing a column in the “Yard Bird” newspaper. And, in August of 1933, Brown served as keynote speaker for over 300 at “the first general meeting of ship fitters,” who then signed with Brown and joined the Union.

By October of 1934, organized labor at BIW “was issued a charter” but still lacked an official collective bargaining agreement. But that would change in 1935 when President Roosevelt signed the Wagner Act into law.

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On April 21, 1937, a group of “mostly women” shoe workers in Lewiston were attacked by police as the peaceful marchers protested, and Gov. Lewis Barrows was forced to call in the Maine National Guard to “restore order.”

Soon the Yard Birds at Bath grew beyond 500 as “two decades of bitter rivalry” grew feverish between the factions of the AFL and CIO, and local leaders worried about more potential violence. But, John W. Brown publicly urged his membership to “mark time” as he called for peace and cooperation.

By February of 1939, Brown was elected as a national organizer of Local 4, while the local sought official “certification as a bargaining agency.” But fear of job losses forced many to vote against organizing until the opening of World War II saw much of Brown’s work realized when nearly 20,000 shipyard workers finally unionized.

Back in Woolwich, now 70 years of age, John W. Brown still advised Local 4, but now he was mostly retired and spent his days puttering around his “large farm.” There, John’s wife Eva had “… a large number of furred and feathered friends” she fed daily. But, one errant critter was constantly “ravaging the garden,” forcing Brown’s hand.

On June 19th of 1941, Brown sat down on his back porch with a loaded shotgun resting between his knees, while he awaited the elusive critter. Suddenly, the gun went off, fatally wounding Brown in the head.

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That evening, BIW union representatives notified workers of Brown’s death over the loud speaker. “He was … an outstanding American,” the voice declared, “John W. Brown will remain an immortal in the ranks of American Labor.”

Three days later, with union members as pall bearers, John W. Brown was laid to rest in the family plot at the Riverview Cemetery, at Day’s Ferry, in Woolwich.

On Aug. 16 of 2007, a World War II Liberty museum-ship tied-up at the Maine State Pier. The ship had come to visit the home state of her namesake, Maine’s own John W. Brown, whose work still lives on today as one of our most organized Stories From Maine.

Lori-Suzanne Dell is a Brunswick author and historian. She has published four books and runs the “Stories from Maine” Facebook page.

 

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Maine

Maine foundation makes donation, helps Boy Scouts make a splash at Camp Roosevelt

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Maine foundation makes donation, helps Boy Scouts make a splash at Camp Roosevelt


EDDINGTON, Maine (WABI) – Camp Roosevelt hosts hundreds of Boy Scouts each summer for the Katahdin Area Council’s summer camp.

The Maine Masonic Charitable Foundation helped campers this year make a splash.

The foundation fully funded this year’s waterfront program for the summer camp.

The $20,000 donation provided funds for the camp to make improvements and allow their lifeguard staff to get crucial training.

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The waterfront program teaches kids water safety and fun through swimming, boating, and paddleboarding.

Camp organizers say with the help of donations kids get to learn skills and experience nature at a more affordable cost.

“Getting the kids out here to stay out here, sleep overnight, listening to the various animals they’ll hear. It’s not uncommon to hear loons. We’ve had some loons come right up to our waterfront as well, and that’s what kids need to do more than being inside all the time,” said Chuck Major, scout executive of the Katahdin Area Council.

“A lot of Masons are actually scouts in their former lives. They were either Eagle Scouts or just you know, participated in the boy scouts growing up, and they recognize how important it was to them to you know, formulate the men that they are today. So they always want to give back in anything that has to do with youth or veterans is usually a very easy sell. Masons want to support that in any way they can,” said Susan Scacchi, executive director of the Maine Masonic Charitable Foundation.

Scacchi encourages any youth-oriented programs that need assistance to reach out to her.

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You can learn more here.



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Maine’s fire marshal resigning after one year on the job

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Maine’s fire marshal resigning after one year on the job


AUGUSTA, Maine (WMTW) – Richard McCarthy has resigned after just over a year as state fire marshal. He took on the role while the office was grappling with long-standing issues.

The commissioner of Public Safety says McCarthy is stepping down in good standing. However, his resignation comes amid complaints of low morale and a toxic work environment within the department in recent years, including a complaint filed with Maine’s labor board.

In 2023, before McCarthy became fire marshal, members of the Maine State Law Enforcement Association filed multiple complaints against the fire marshal’s office. They alleged that shift swap and travel pay policies were changed without notice.

The Maine Labor Relations Board found that the fire marshal’s office violated employees’ rights.

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A spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety said McCarthy made significant strides in improving morale within the department and increased accountability for actions that promoted a toxic work environment.

McCarthy’s last day is Aug. 30, and a nationwide search for his replacement has begun.



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Sen. Collins advances millions for Maine National Guard in appropriations bill

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Sen. Collins advances millions for Maine National Guard in appropriations bill


BANGOR, Maine (WABI) – Senator Susan Collins is advancing nearly $53 million for the Maine National Guard in an appropriations bill.

The funding would go toward several projects.

$50 million dollars is for building a hangar at the Air National Guard base in Bangor that could accommodate future generation aircraft.

$800,000 will help support the planning and design of a new aircraft maintenance and ground equipment facility at the Bangor base.

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$1 million would support updates to the Woodville Training Center range complex.

The bill awaits consideration from the full Senate and House.



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