New Scontras Center will help educate workers

For years, the state’s labor experts and advocates dreamed of a place where southern Maine workers could learn about labor laws and their rights. A place where people could learn about the history of the labor movement. A place where workers could gain skills that could help them find or keep a job. 

This fall, that center opens at the University of Southern Maine. 

Named for Dr. Charles Scontras, a noted Maine labor historian, author, and educator who died in March 2021, the Charles Scontras Center for Labor and Community Education will be located in Payson Smith Hall on the Portland Campus. It may also have a satellite office at Lewiston-Auburn College.  

While there is a similar center in Orono, at the University of Maine, this will be the first center of its kind in southern Maine.  

“We see enormous value and enormous need for worker education and educational support for working class people about their rights, about the economy, about larger issues that impact their lives,” said Matt Schlobohm, Executive Director of the Maine AFL-CIO. “Now we’re on the cusp of fully coming into being.”

As a center, the Bureau of Labor Education in Orono has technically been a statewide organization, but the nature of its location in northern Maine made it more regionally focused. With the new Scontras Center, the two centers can now cover all of the state together. 

“Our hope and aim is to build a strong statewide labor education system where the University is supporting workers in every corner of Maine,” Schlobohm said. “Having the BLE and the USM Scontras Center will help achieve that goal.”

Proponents worked for years to get a center in central and southern Maine, where an estimated two-thirds of the state’s workforce is located. They came close in 2008, but the center needed state funding and a recession and state budget deficit removed any hope of that.

Then, in 2022, proponents got what they’d been waiting for: a legislative OK. The state Legislature approved $400,000 annually to fund the new center, plus another $100,000 for the original center in Orono. The funds went to the University of Maine System, and the System Board of Trustees approved the new center’s establishment last year. 

Matthew Emmick will lead the new Scontras Center

Last week, the center’s very first director came on board. Mathew Emmick has a master’s degree in Social Justice and Community Development and has worked in the labor movement for 23 years

“I’m excited to be building an organization from the ground up, and I’m excited about the coming together of labor and workers’ rights with the larger community as well as the students and the academic community,” Emmick said. “I think the role of the center that I’m really excited about is looking at how issues that may be seen as just a labor issue often affects the larger community and community issues that may not be seen as labor issues are labor issues.” 

The center expects to fill other positions this summer and fall, including an outreach organizer, a teaching fellow, and administrative staff. 

“At the heart of (the center) is a way to give people knowledge of their rights, of tools of the labor movement that are available to them, and to give them connections if they’re interested in being part of something organized,” said Dr. Michael Hillard, a recently retired USM Economics professor who served as temporary coordinator for the Scontras Center until the new director was hired.

The center is likely to be particularly helpful to New Mainers, who may not know their rights and workplace laws or how to gain apprenticeships in trades that could lift them up economically. It may also be helpful to workers trying to navigate issues around remote work, gig work, understaffing, and fair pay.

“There’s still a need for major progress in the workplace overcoming gender and racial harassment. Wages are too low in too many jobs. We have too many dead end jobs. We have too many jobs without basic economic security because they’re so-called gig work,” Hillard said. 

The center is expected to offer free classes and workshops on labor law and policies, collective bargaining, labor history, labor and the arts, and other issues. It will host public lectures and symposiums. And it will also provide a place for experts, activists, and community leaders to work on policies for improving the lives of workers. 

“I am excited for the way this center can really serve as a space for dialogue around issues and bring people together. Bring the labor community, the larger community, the academic community, the immigrant community — I really see it as a space to bring all those groups together,” Emmick said.