March 28, 2011

The hallway leading to the Maine Department of Labor in Augusta was jammed with people including artists and union members who showed up to support the continued display of a mural depicting Maine’s working class heritage on March 24. The next day the mural was taken down. photo by Ramona du Houx

In secrecy over the weekend of March 25, 2011 the LePage administration removed a mural at the Department of Labor (DoL) that depicts historic people and events in the evolution of workers rights that changed labor policies for all American workers.

On March 24, 2011 over three hundred concerned citizens, artists, union members and historians converged at the Department of Labor in protest declaring Gov. LePage was censoring them.

Natasha Mayers, a Maine artist, educator and political activist told the audience that a human chain would protect the artwork from removal if LePage tried to take the mural down.

Mayers said, “He is trying to provoke and outrage the working people of Maine. We will be civil about this outrage, we have a right to express ourselves and protect what we value.”

That same day when LePage was told of Mayers intent in his response in his office he said, “I’d laugh at them, the idiots. That’s what I would do. Come on! Get over yourselves!”

The day of the protest corresponded with the 100 year anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City which killed 146 people, mostly women and girls.

One by one all the names of the victims of the fire were read aloud at the rally at the DoL, as a bell tolled for each worker. Maine AFL-CIO spokesperson Sarah Bigney cried as she read the names.

“Many of them were my age,” said Bigney. “I tried not to get emotional but it’s hard when you know this still happens around the world. We wouldn’t have the rights we do in America, if those ladies hadn’t fought for them.”

For months, before the fire, hundreds of Shritwaist Factory workers were on strike for better working conditions. That fire led to laws protecting workers rights, and was witnessed by Frances Perkins, the women President Franklin D. Roosevelt would appoint to be his secretary of labor for twelve years. She remembered the fire and took action for the workers of America giving them, and future generations, a host of workers rights.

Perkins spent her summers in Maine and is buried here. A mural panel with Perkins was taken down a day later.

Other 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. The LePage administration is also renaming conference rooms that have names of historic leaders of American labor. The DoL is considering renaming the rooms to Maine Mountains.

The mural was created by Judy Taylor, who won a 2007 competition overseen by the Maine Arts Commission to commission artwork for the department’s lobby.

Ms. Taylor said, “It’s based on historical fact, it’s honoring the working man and working woman.”

In an editorial in the New York Times on March 28, 2011 they said, “Gov. Paul LePage of Maine has stooped to behavior worthy of the pharaohs’ chiseling historic truth from Egyptian monuments.”

The administration moved the mural because LePage believes its depiction of Maine’s labor history is not welcoming to business.

“It’s the job of the Department of Labor to represent working people not the Department of Commerce, they represent business concerns,” said State Senator Stan Gerzofsky. “This is our proud labor history.”

At the rally Portland firefighter Mike Williams said he hoped the governor would reconsider removing the mural.

“When you see a Fire Exit sign, it’s because of Frances Perkins. I hope that he will realize that there is nothing wrong in recognizing the journey of Maine’s workers… and that he will understand the right place to recognize that journey is in the Maine Department of Labor,” said Williams.

That didn’t happen.

Peter Woodrift, a mechanic who has worked at Bath Iron Works for thirty years, spoke at the rally about how safety laws established with the help of the DoL have improved working conditions. “The first day on the job I was given safety glasses, a hard hat and ear plugs to protect me while working because we have labor laws. BIW takes labor safety laws seriously,” said Woodrift. “These murals defend the labor force.”

That labor force in America had no tangible recourse against unfair business practices until the creation of the Department of Labor.

“One of the demands of the kinds of workers depicted in the murals was to have a Department of Labor to gather facts and statistics to insure they were treated fairly,” said Charles Scontras who helped choose Taylor as the mural artist. “Before the DoL businesses treated the workforce as an impersonal cost of production. With the DoL workers no longer became subjects, they finally had a voice.”

Some say LePage has declared war on workers rights ever since he started to unveil his agenda. He wants to raise the retirement age for public employees and force them to pay more for their pension fund as well as weaken child labor laws. This governor also is pushing for “right-to-work” legislation that would allow union members to stop paying dues but those same workers would retain the same benefits of the paying dues union members.

altThe Republicans first action when they took control of the state legislature was to try and abolish the Labor Committee. LePage, and some Republican lawmakers, have aggressively pushed a platform that is cooperation friendly. LePage says he wants to create jobs but his actions could ultimately hurt the business climate in Maine.

“Labor and commerce working hand in hand works best. Just having commerce work at the expense of the labor force won’t give us a vibrant economy or livable wages,” said Sen. Gerzofsky. “Unions protect union members rights. The Department of Labor is here to protect the workingmen and women who don’t have the benefit of a union.”