Thursday, March 24, 2011

Mural of Maine's Workers Becomes Political Target


The New York Times

March 23, 2011

Mural of Maine’s Workers Becomes Political Target


Clashes at state capitols over organized labor have become commonplace this year, with protesters throughout the country objecting to proposed limits on collective bargaining and cuts in benefits. Maine’s governor, Paul LePage, has opened a new — and unlikely — front in the battle between some lawmakers and unions: a 36-foot-wide mural in the state’s Department of Labor building in Augusta.

The three-year-old mural has 11 panels showing scenes of Maine workers, including colonial-era shoemaking apprentices, lumberjacks, a “Rosie the Riveter” in a shipyard and a 1986 paper mill strike. Taken together, his administration deems these scenes too one-sided in favor of unions.

A spokeswoman said Mr. LePage, a Republican, ordered the mural removed after several business officials complained about it and after the governor received an anonymous fax saying it was reminiscent of “communist North Korea where they use these murals to brainwash the masses.”

“The Department of Labor is a state agency that works very closely with both employees and employers, and we need to have a décor that represents neutrality,” said Mr. LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett.

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.

“I don’t agree that it’s one-sided,” Ms. Taylor said. “It’s based on historical fact. I’m not sure how you can say history is one-sided.”

Ms. Taylor said she consulted with historians to do the mural, for which she received a $60,000 grant. “It didn’t intend to be pro-business or pro-labor,” she said. “By default, it’s honoring the working man and working woman.”

Mr. LePage has repeatedly clashed with labor unions since his inauguration in January. He is pushing for a higher retirement age for public employees and for “right-to-work” legislation that would allow union members to stop paying dues or fees.

His order to remove the mural has faced criticism. Don Berry, president of the Maine State A.F.L.-C.I.O., called the move “mean-spirited” and said that “99 percent of our business people won’t have any problem with the mural.”

Mike Tipping, a spokesman for the Maine People’s Alliance, a progressive group, said, “People elected Governor LePage, hoping he would create jobs and not get involved in the interior decoration of state offices.”

Mr. LePage has also ordered that the Labor Department’s seven conference rooms be renamed. One is named after César Chávez, the farmworkers’ leader; one after Rose Schneiderman, a leader of the New York Women’s Trade Union League a century ago; and one after Frances Perkins, who became the nation’s first female labor secretary and is buried in Maine.

Charles Scontras, a labor historian at the University of Maine, said: “Totalitarian regimes erase history as well. We manage to do it by indifference or neglect or for ideological reasons.” He voiced surprise that a Franco-American like the governor, whose wife was once a union steward, would take such a move when the mural honored the work that generations of Maine’s Franco-Americans had done in the shoe, textile and paper industries.

“The Department of Labor is owned by the people of the state,” said Ms. Bennett, the spokeswoman. “We need to make sure we’re representing all Mainers.

“The governor understands the value of history,” she added. “That’s why we’re exploring placing the mural in the State of Maine Museum.”

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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