June 22, 2018
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Scrubbing Labor’s History

Courtesy of Judy Taylor Fine Art
Courtesy of Judy Taylor Fine Art
Panel 7: The 1937 Strike : Scenes from an unsuccessful strike attempt to create better conditions for women workers. Panel 8: Francis Perkins : FDR's Labor Secretary, and untiring labor activist, a Maine Labor icon. Panel 9: Rosie the Riveter : Maine's version of WWII women workers participated as ship-builders.


In his nightmarish, futuristic novel “1984,” George Orwell foresaw how those who would control us first control media, language and history. The novel’s protagonist, Winston Smith, works at the ironically named Ministry of Truth, rewriting records and altering photos to make the past conform with the ruling party’s current views. Original documents that conflict with new political realities are sent down a “memory hole” to an incinerator.

Reading “1984” is required to understand what’s happening at the state Department of Labor headquarters in Augusta. Some of the department’s symbols — a mural, the names of conference rooms — are being sent down the memory hole by the LePage administration.

Acting Commissioner Laura Boyett explained in a departmental memo:

“We have received feedback that the administration building is not perceived as equally receptive to both businesses and workers — primarily because of the nature of the mural in the lobby and the names of our conference rooms. Whether or not the perception is valid is not really at issue and therefore, not open to debate.”

Who cares if perception isn’t reality? We’re changing things anyway — and there will be no debate. This is straight out of Orwell’s world.

The supposedly offending mural, created by Mount Desert Island artist Judy Taylor, depicts an apprentice learning a trade, young women working in textile mills and Rosie the Riveter. It also features images of child workers, a union activist organizing woods workers, a 1937 Maine strike and Frances Perkins. A conference room is also named for Ms. Perkins, who was secretary of labor under President Franklin Roosevelt and the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet.

Ms. Perkins is credited with helping write and pass much of the New Deal legislation, including Social Security. The headquarters of the U.S. Department of Labor is the Frances Perkins Building. Her parents were born in Maine and she is buried in Newcastle, home of the Frances Perkins Center which honors her life and legacy. Ms. Perkins witnessed New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 (100 years ago on Friday), which killed 146 garment workers. The tragedy galvanized her interest in protecting workers.

Just as the Conservation Department advocates for natural resources, and images of mountains, forests and wildlife would be expected in its offices, the Labor Department advocates, in part, for Maine’s workers. If there really were complaints, it’s hard to believe business representatives passing the murals would conclude they would not get a fair shake.

In her memo, Ms. Boyett announced a contest to pick new names for the conference rooms. How about naming one after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker? Ronald Reagan? Will a new mural feature images of cheerful workers filing past a time clock, or waving their hard hats in salute to the company CEO? If such image-management sounds absurd, it’s because it is.

The history of workers fighting to earn the status they now hold represents the best of America. Companies operating here do not make employees work 12-hour shifts with one bathroom break. A hundred young women don’t perish in fires in unsafe factories. This is to be celebrated, not scrubbed from our collective memory.

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