Portland’s Irish Workers Taught Us How to Build Community

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, we have a guest blog post from our partner, Janmarie Toker.

Irish_cloverAs an Irish American, St. Patrick’s Day is always an important holiday in my family. It’s a time of celebrating our culture, our heritage, and our resilience. Having grown up in Portland with a large extended Irish family, I hold a particular pride in how our city was built by the Irish longshoremen.

The longshore work was hard and unsteady. The workers braved freezing winters and dangerous conditions. In order to fight for their rights, they joined together to establish the Portland Longshoremen’s Benevolent Society (PLSBS). Through the PLSBS, the Irish workers fought for fair wages and safer conditions. It was thanks to those fair wages that Irish workers were able to provide for their families and grow and prosper. Thousands of Irish families in Portland were able to make ends meet through the work on the docks. The result is what we see now when we look at Munjoy Hill and the West End in Portland. Many of those neighborhoods were built on the backs of Irish dock workers.

I wonder how the outcome would have been different if they didn’t join together to speak up for their rights. What would Portland look like now if our workers back in 1880 continued to receive the minimal pay their employers gave them? How would the large Irish families have survived?

As longshoremen and fishermen, my Irish family and friends did more than build ships and docks — they built communities that acted as families, they fostered traditions of pride and hard work and they left a legacy founded in the importance of generosity.

When looking back at my heritage, I am reminded how when we are united, we are powerful. Workers across the country of all races and backgrounds understand this. Through unions and working together, we can fight for fair wages and safe conditions. And when workers are paid fairly, just like when Portland was built, our whole country prospers and benefits.

So this St. Patrick’s Day, as I gather to celebrate with my family, I reflect on my Irish upbringing that instilled in me the importance of community, the value of working together for a greater good, and the power of the people. Slainte!

About the author: Janmarie Toker is an attorney and partner at the workers’ rights law firm, McTeague Higbee. She can be reached at 207-725-5581 or at jtoker@mcteaguehigbee.com.

Karen Bilodeau

About Karen Bilodeau

Karen is an attorney and partner at the workers' rights law firm McTeague Higbee. A cum laude graduate of the University of Maine School of Law and a magna cum laude Bates College graduate, Karen brings passion and caring to every case she handles. Throughout her career she has found incredible satisfaction in giving clients a voice - and helping get their lives back on track - by standing with them and guiding them through the legal process. Karen is a member of the Maine State Bar Association, the American Association for Justice, the Workers Injury Law & Advocacy Group and the Maine Employment Lawyers Association.