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Students, union leaders claim exploitation during May Day rally in Portland

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
University of Southern Maine gender studies and philosophy major Katherine Hulit speaks about student debt on the soap box at a May Day rally in Portland's Congress Square Tuesday May 1, 2012.
By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — Demonstrators evoked the memory of influential labor organizer Cesar Chavez and melded a unified front between students and union workers during a May Day event held Tuesday in Portland.

Nearly 100 turned out in the rain for the rally, which was organized by members of OccupyMaine and the associated Occupy University of Southern Maine, as well as the Maine AFL-CIO and Local 340 of the Teamsters union. Also handing out promotional booklets were members of the Industrial Workers of the World.

“May Day is a celebration and a struggle for workers’ rights around the world,” said John Newton of the Maine AFL-CIO during Tuesday’s rally, his words echoed in rhythm by supporters taking part in Occupy’s “human microphone.” “We face a worldwide economy that’s not working for the workers of the world,” he said.

The event marked the second high-profile appearance by OccupyMaine in a week, following the group’s April 25 Monument Square recognition of “Trillion Dollar Day,” the day when American student loan debt topped $1 trillion.

On Tuesday, cash-strapped university students were joined by sympathizers from organized labor, who rallied around the notion that large corporations and the richest Americans are hoarding the country’s wealth to the detriment of young people and the working class.

“We’ve got corporations running amok,” called out Alan Churchill, vice president of Teamsters Local 340 and president of the Southern Maine Labor Council, from atop the event’s stacked-pallet “soapbox.” “They’re running workers into the ground.”

Students planned a walkout at 10:30 a.m. at USM to start the May Day recognition, followed by a rally at the Portland campus and subsequent march to Congress Square to meet up with OccupyMaine members and local labor leaders. There, the collected demonstrators held signs, welcomed topical speakers and chanted pro-union slogans.

“Workers make it happen in this country,” Doug Bowen, a demonstrator from New Hampshire who returned to Portland on Tuesday after taking part in the Trillion Dollar Day rally last week, told the BDN. “Without the workers, the ‘1 percent’ [most wealthy Americans] would be nothing. Yet, conditions for workers are getting worse and worse. They’re losing jobs, they’re losing wages, and they’re losing benefits.”

Speakers on Tuesday argued that corporate leaders around the country are using the bankruptcy process to push for financial concessions from unions, then selling their lower-cost corporations for higher profits.

University of Southern Maine student Katherine Hulit said that, like labor unions, students must organize to fight tuition increases and lending practices that saddle them with heavy debt loads.

“As students, we are the class of people growingly being exploited by the banks and government,” she said from the soapbox, citing a movement of Quebec students who are banding together in protest of higher education costs in the Canadian province. “As students, we must learn from the labor unions and organize.”

Sara Hight, 17, of Biddeford said she skipped high school for the day to take part in the demonstration.

“I just think it’s really important to come out here and represent our voices when they’re not being heard,” she said.

Ralph Carmona, a 2011 Portland mayoral candidate, told attendees United Farm Workers co-founder Cesar Chavez is “our hero.”

Carmona called the contemporary consolidation of wealth by major corporations the “Great Economic Concentration,” and said “we will face that again by organizing for justice” like early labor leaders.

“If we learn from Chavez, we will know there is strength in our despair, and from that we will endure,” he said from the soapbox.

Not lost on the group were comments made by Gov. Paul LePage last week at a town hall meeting in Newport, where he said middle managers in state government are “about as corrupt as you can be.” LePage later added in a letter to state employees meant to clarify his remarks that union leaders are urging members to ignore the governor’s initiatives and “ride it out” until his term’s over.

Churchill said he and other union leaders fight tirelessly for fair wages, benefits and vacation time.

“If that’s considered ‘corrupt,’ that’s OK,” Churchill said after he stepped down from the soapbox Tuesday. “I’ll take that every day.”

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