BRUNSWICK – Six months ago, Gov. LePage ordered the removal of a labor history mural from the lobby of the Department of Labor. Until then, the mural was largely unknown to most Mainers, including Gov. LePage himself.
The mural’s removal, however, spurred an outcry unlike any I have ever seen. For months now, stories have appeared not just here in Maine, but in the national media.
A hearing in federal court is likely to take place soon to finally resolve whether the mural is the artist’s speech protected by the First Amendment or “government speech” unprotected by our nation’s Constitution.
So why all the fuss? Does the mural really matter? I say yes. In the words of the Spanish philosopher George Santayana, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
The 13 panels of the labor history mural not only teach us about our past, they remind us of our mistakes and inspire us for the future.
Since the mural is currently hidden away, I would like to highlight the actual people and themes depicted in this piece.
We see a young apprentice learning from a cobbler. Maine’s shoe industry was so productive in the 1900s that thousands of French Canadians came to work in Maine, bringing their families and transforming our culture. Today, Franco-Americans represent the single largest ethnic group in Maine.
We see the plight of child laborers. Not long ago Maine had a large number of children working long hours for little pay in unsafe conditions. Coincidentally, at the same time the mural was removed, legislation was introduced to loosen our child labor laws. Could we forget so easily?
The next panels depict workers in major industries in Maine — textile workers, foresters, and steel workers.
These industries created Maine. We can see their legacy in the mills throughout the state, the large swaths of undeveloped forest, and in the great shipbuilders at BIW.
We also see the formation of the secret ballot and Maine’s first Labor Day in 1884 — a day honoring workers which we all now celebrate. There is a panel featuring women striking for better conditions. One need only remember the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire where 146 women burnt to death locked inside their factory to understand the importance of this panel.
Another panel highlights Frances Perkins from Damariscotta — Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s labor secretary.
Not only was Frances Perkins the first female labor secretary, but she basically created Social Security, unemployment benefits, welfare for the poor, the federal mininum wage, overtime and the 40-hour work week.
It would be hard to find another Mainer — indeed any American — who has had more influence on workers in this country than she did. That’s why the Department of Labor in Washington bears her name.
The next panel depicts Maine women entering into shipbuilding work during World War II. During this time, women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers to replace the men were fighting overseas. Without their efforts, the war would have been prolonged if not lost.
We see a picture of the Jay paper mill strike from 1987. This strike shaped labor history for the last 25 years here and nationally when 1,200 paper mill employees struck against International Paper. For more than 15 months, the strikers held their ground but ultimately capitulated to IP’s terms. Since then, management has gained the upper hand in labor relations in Maine.
Lastly, we see a picture of the future of labor in Maine — a handoff of a symbolical hammer from one generation to the next. Is there importance to our history? Where are we going next?
So that, my friends, is the offensive piece of art that was taken down from our Department of Labor. A history of our state and of our people. The story of our grandparents and their grandparents.
I view that story as important. I want our daughters to realize that even a girl from Maine can make an incredible difference. I want our sons to respect the industries where their grandparents toiled.
I want all Mainers to understand our history, learn from our mistakes, and use our past to guide us to a more perfect future.
Perhaps that vision is offensive to some. Perhaps some believe our history is best forgotten, hidden away in some dark closet.
I strongly disagree. And that is why I continue to fight to restore the mural. That is why the mural matters.
– Special to the Press Herald