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Labor Day and Our Shrinking Maine Economy

Hiram Polk, Eastport, Maine cannery worker

The first Labor Day parade took place on September 5, 1882, in New York City.  In the late 1800’s, many Americans – including children – labored in physically demanding , dangerous jobs, 12 hours a day, seven days a week, often for very little pay.  In Maine, they worked on farms, in factories, on ships and in quarries, and conditions were often harsh and unsafe.

That first march included cigarmakers, dressmakers, printers, shoemakers, bricklayers and other tradespeople, holding signs for “Less Work and More Pay,” an eight-hour workday, and an end to the use of convict labor. They risked their very livelihoods to march, and while they were met with cheering crowds, it would be decades before real labor reform occurred in this country.

Today we face challenges those early laborers could not have imagined. Here in Maine, one of them is our shrinking workforce. Our state’s population is expected to grow by a meager less than half of one percent a year before it peaks in 2020, and begins to decline. Even if we kept every college aged “kid” here, our population would still be on the wane, and a declining population spells trouble. Without a growing workforce, investments will dry up, jobs will vanish, and fewer of us will be left to pick up the slack.

I agree with our state economist and others who have identified migration as essential to the survival of Maine. 

Given our aging demographics, the only way for Maine to grow is for us to welcome people from other states and from abroad. Take what’s happening in Portland. A recent report by that city and the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce states that immigrants there make up only 4.6 percent of the population (as opposed to nearly 15 percent nationally,) but account for over 5 percent of the working-age population, and 6 percent of the workers in science and technology jobs. A higher percentage of Portland’s foreign-born residents hold college degrees, and they have a higher rate of starting businesses. All told, immigrants in Portland added $1.6 billion to the local economy, according to the report.

Yes, there are costs associated with integrating new Mainers, especially those who may speak different languages or need help with housing, but it’s time to focus on the advantages.  When it comes to hardworking people from other places who want to make Maine their home, our welcome mat needs to be out.


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