Remembering Charlie O’Leary

By guest blogger, Jim Case, attorney of counsel at McTeague Higbee

Remembering Charlie O'Leary (pic)The passing of Charlie O’Leary merits serious reflection on the contributions he made to Maine labor unions and to all working men and women in Maine. Most importantly, we should reflect on the values which inspired Charlie in this life’s work.

Charlie spent his life working on behalf of organized labor and working people in Maine; as president of the Maine AFL-CIO for 20 years and before that as director of the University of Maine Bureau of Labor Education and earlier yet as the Maine AFL-CIO’s director of training programs. His commitment to the working people of Maine was exceeded only by his love for and commitment to his family.

Charlie took the helm at Maine AFL-CIO at a time when organized labor was under assault. President Reagan’s firing of our country’s air traffic controllers opened the door for employers in the private sector to follow suit and hire permanent replacement workers for striking union workers and dramatically undermined collective bargaining efforts. We witnessed the new intransigence in management negotiating strategies in Maine particularly in our paper industry. The tragic recruitment of permanent replacement workers during the strike at the paper mill in Jay left deep scars that may never be healed.

Likewise, trade policies that encouraged the transfer of manufacturing jobs overseas diminished the industrial base of organized labor and cost members.

Charlie recognized these challenges and fought on. He strengthened the Maine AFL-CIO through an affiliation with the Maine State Employees Association, SEIU. And he continued and expanded the Maine AFL-CIO’s role in managing worker training programs.

He also launched Maine AFL-CIO sponsored housing programs throughout Maine. Under his leadership, housing complexes were erected to provide homes for retired workers and their families.

Charlie’s voice was strong and clear and recognized throughout Maine. In our mills; in business gatherings; in the State House in Augusta; and in the Capitol in Washington D.C. And there was never any doubt as to on whose behalf Charlie was speaking or as to the integrity of his voice.

Despite challenges to labor on the state, national, and international levels, Charlie O’Leary’s tenure as president was successful because of his great intellect, his hard work, and his effective personality and wit. Perhaps his greatest strength was his well-demonstrated respect for the worth and dignity of all working people and his overwhelming commitment to the principle that through organizing and bargaining collectively, workers had their best, and perhaps only, opportunity to preserve their dignity and respect on the job, and to gain the wages, benefits, and safe working conditions vital to them and their families.

Charlie’s deep respect for the value and dignity of all workers and his abiding commitment to the essential role of collective bargaining as the path to social and economic justice for Maine workers were recognized in all quarters in Maine.

The standing which Charlie enjoyed in all segments of Maine derived from his recognized adherence to his core beliefs.

Remembering Charlie, we can all benefit from recommitting to our own core values and renewing our efforts to protect and extend workers’ dignity and their rights to organize and democratically pursue their interests in the collective bargaining process.

To the extent we do, we will ensure Charlie O’Leary’s legacy.