Thompson Murch: Rockland's labor congressman

By Robert Wasserstrom | Sep 26, 2019
Artwork by: Lisa Lyons Thompson. H. Murch cofounded the Granite Cutters International Union in Rockland (1877) and served in Congress representing the Greenback Labor Party.

Few people remember that a Knox County labor leader became Maine’s first progressive congressman. In 1877, Thompson H. Murch cofounded the Granite Cutters International Union in Rockland. He was 39 years old and had been a stonecutter on Dix Island (off South Thomaston) for 18 years. In 1878, he was elected to Congress as a member of the Greenback Labor Party. Greenbackers brought together farmers and workers who opposed monopolies, campaigned for the eight-hour workday and supported women’s suffrage.

GCIU started at four Knox County quarries: Spruce Head, Clark Island, Vinalhaven and Hurricane Island. At the time, 3,500 to 5,000 men worked in Maine’s granite industry, centered around Penobscot Bay. It was dominated by the “Granite Ring,” four well-connected Republican potentates who supplied stone to federal construction projects.

Quarry workers received $2.50 a day (about $6 an hour today). But they often went for weeks without wages and could only spend their money at a company store. They also had to pay for food and rent and, if they worked on the islands, their transportation on a company boat. Workloads were grim: 10 hours a day from Monday to Friday, nine hours on Saturday. When cold weather set in, they were sent home until the following spring.

A few months earlier, the Granite Ring had cut many workers’ pay from $5 a day to $2.50. After a decade of consolidation, quarry bosses felt strong enough to impose this drastic reduction on their unorganized workforce. The first strikes started at two quarries on Spruce Head. One small owner soon restored part of the lost wages. But the Bodwell Granite Co., a major industry and political player, decided “to smash the union out of existence before it should become strong enough” to make more trouble.

When Bodwell quarrymen refused to resume work, they were fired and their jobs shifted to nonunion quarries. For the next 40 years, until cement replaced granite in heavy construction, this grinding conflict over low, unsteady wages and exhausting workloads was replayed endlessly on the Maine coast.

The year 1877 also marked a major turning point in national politics. Republican politicians, weary of propping up Reconstruction governments in the South, handed power there back to ex-Confederate “Redeemers.” Writing off support from most Southern voters, as well as many workers, immigrants and poor farmers elsewhere, Republicans cast their lot instead with Big Money: Northern bankers, steel and railroad barons, Western mine owners and other rising men of property. Working people were on their own.

In Maine, the “lime and granite boys” used Republican power to choke off unionization. Quarrymen suspected of voting against Republican candidates were blacklisted and fired. When workers on the Boston and Maine Railroad struck that year, union leaders were imprisoned for obstructing the mail. State legislators then got busy and passed a “conspiracy law” that outlawed most strikes as riots, subject to violent police suppression. Union organizers labored for years under the threat of prosecution until it was repealed.

In 1878, 13 Greenbackers from around the country entered Congress. As one of the group’s few union members, Murch focused almost entirely on labor rights and winning the eight-hour workday. He served a second term, but by then his party was in decline. Eventually, the labor movement found an uneasy home in the Democratic Party. Even so, the eight-hour workday didn’t become federal law until 1938.

And now, it seems, we’ve come full circle. For the past 40 years, Democrats and Republicans alike have stripped away rights that Murch and his successors fought for decades to secure. Consider this: In the 1950s, one third of America’s private-sector workers were union members; today only 6.4 percent are. New union drives face endless legal hurdles, even though most workers say they’d like to join one.

None of this happened by accident. It takes a big effort to undo 100 years of labor organizing. And money – lots of money. “All of the nation’s unions, taken together, spend about $48 million a year for lobbying in Washington,” writes New York Times labor correspondent Steven Greenhouse, “while corporate America spends $3 billion.”

In this country, we’re taught that our rights are granted by politicians or middle-aged lawyers in black robes. But as Murch and other union leaders knew, rights, like power, are won, not bestowed. Nothing will be fixed in our society until we’ve regained control over basic institutions. That means building a powerful democratic movement, including a revitalized labor movement, from the bottom up. We can’t wait for crumbs to fall from Big Money’s table.

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