Former Labor commissioner speaks out about LePage labor policies

BY RAMONA DU HOUX

March 25th, 2011 

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Laura Fortman speaks out against LePage labor policies photo by Ramona du Houx

Gov. Paul LePage has ordered state workers to remove from the Department of Labor a 36-foot mural depicting the state’s labor history. Some of the panels of the mural illustrate important events that changed workplace conditions like the 1937 shoe mill strike in Auburn and Lewiston and Rosie the Riveter – who actually worked at the Bath Iron Works. One panel shows Frances Perkins, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of labor. She was the first woman to be a U.S. Cabinet secretary and severed for twelve years.

The LePage administration is also renaming conference rooms that have names of historic leaders of American labor. Four of the rooms are named for women including Marion Martin, the state labor commissioner who is credited with forming the National Federation of Republican Women and Secretary Perkins.

Adriane Bennett, a spokesperson for LePage, said that the mural and the conference-room names were, “not in keeping with the department’s pro-business goals.”

Some at a gathering in Portland asked: What kind of business would come to a state that hides its proud American labor heritage? At that event honoring Women’s History Month Laura Fortman spoke out against the removal of murals that were commissioned while she was Commissioner at the Maine Department of Labor.

“Until now I haven’t said anything about the new administration,” said Fortman. “But the headlines of the day, call for action.”

Fortman was due to address the Emerge Maine celebration at Angela Adams’ store in Portland on the day the state woke up to read about Gov. LaPage’s intent to dismantle the murals.

“The timing of the announcement just happens to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, which killed 146 trapped women,” said Fortman.

Months before the fire women employees at the factory had been protesting for better working conditions.

“Frances Perkins witnessed women throwing themselves out of the factory windows, trying to save themselves,” said Fortman. “That experience never left her. She went on to establish workplace safety laws, child safety laws, a minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and our social security system. She gave workers the right to unionize.”

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Members of Emerge Maine and Angela Adams (r)

Perkins was a major player in Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Fortman spoke of how taking down the murals is an attempt to turn back time.

“He is attacking workers rights. He wants to abolish unions and get rid of child labor laws,” said Fortman.

Proposed legislation if passed will permit employers to hire teens and schedule them for unlimited hours during the school year and during summer vacation.

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree said, “Not only is this an attack on the proud heritage of Maine and our nation, it undermines our creative economy. We have thousands of talented artists all across the state contributing to our economy and cultural heritage.”

Congresswoman Pingree also inspired the Emerge Maine group to get more politically involved and join her in the halls of government.

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Congresswoman Pingree talks to Emerge about the importance of good labor policies and the creative economy photo by Ramona du Houx

Perkins is a great American honored in Washington, D.C. The building housing the U.S. Department of Labor in Washington is named the Frances Perkins Building. A portrait of Perkins is prominently displayed inside along with other portraits and murals of great American labor leaders.

Perkins also had deep ties with Maine. She was born in Boston, and spent summers in Maine with her grandparents and eventually inherited their Newcastle home, where the Frances Perkins Center, was established in 2009.

“She’s always been a role model for me,” said Fortman. “Her story will continue to inspire thousands of women. Taking down the mural can’t change that.”

Emerge Maine is a political leadership training program for Democratic women in the state. For more information please go to their website