GUEST COLUMN

Celebrate, don’t erase, Maine’s labor history

Posted March 24, 2011, at 9:20 p.m.

March 25 marks 100 years since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York — a fire that took the lives of 146 workers, most of whom were young women who had immigrated to the United States.

As the fire tore through the factory, where doors were kept locked, workers were forced to make a choice — burn alive or to jump from the eighth, ninth or 10th story to their death. Passersby stood helpless as they watched the tragedy unfold. One of those witnesses was a young woman with deep Maine ties, Frances Perkins, and from that moment, she was driven to spend her life protecting American workers.

Today, on this anniversary, we should reflect on the tragic story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers. We should look for the lessons that we’ve learned as a nation and as a state.

This week, Gov. Paul LePage added to a long list of attacks on working Mainers by announcing his plans to rename rooms at the Maine Department of Labor and to remove a mural from its wall. This mean-spirited and spiteful move has outraged and saddened many Maine people.

This state was built by generations of hard-working people who toiled in mills, shoe shops, shipyards and scores of other industries and trades. Maine’s history is one of a proud, hardworking people, and this mural tells their story.

Mainers are proud of the stories and the sacrifices of our grandmothers, of our grandfathers and of those who came before us. These stories deserve, without a doubt, to have a place on the walls of the Maine Department of Labor.

In addition to removing the mural, the renaming of conference rooms is another insult to working people. Who were these rooms named after?

Frances Perkins, a great Maine leader, was the first woman to hold a position in the U.S. Cabinet. Driven by the horrors she witnessed 100 years ago, she led key efforts to protect American workers and to pull the nation out of the Great Depression. Under her tenure, landmark reforms — the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established the minimum wage and maximum work week; the Wagner Act, which codified workers’ right to establish unions and bargain collectively; and the Social Security Act of 1935 — were enacted.

Rose Schneiderman, another conference room namesake, was spurred to action by the conditions that women faced in garment factories. In 1909, before the fire, she marched in the Uprising of 20,000 — a massive strike of shirtwaist workers in New York City. She, too, fought against notion that being killed or maimed was simply part of the job.

Cesar Chavez served in the U.S. Navy, and as a Latino farmworker, he organized thousands of laborers and led the charge to win collective bargaining rights for farmworkers in California.

Marion Martin was a Republican and founder of National Federation of Women’s Republican Clubs, one of just a handful of women in Maine’s legislature in the 1930s and the first woman to be appointed as Maine’s commissioner of labor.

William Looney was a Republican state legislator who worked to pass child labor laws.

Charlie Scontras is Maine’s preeminent labor historian.

Gov. LePage’s efforts to wipe the names of these leaders and the images of workers from the halls of the Maine Department of Labor dishonors them and their accomplishments. And those accomplishments — the end of child labor, establishment of Social Security, minimum wage and the 40-hour work-week, the improvement of safety standards and protections at work — are foundations of our economy.

Unfortunately, the fight is not over. Around the world, workers face horrific conditions every day.  Just last year, more than 40 workers were killed in a Bangladeshi garment factory when there was a fire; exits were locked and firefighters had to cut the window grills to get in. Here in the U.S., it is well-documented that workers still work in sweatshop conditions. Even here in Maine, workers struggle to speak out against unsafe conditions for fear of losing their jobs.

On behalf of Maine workers, and with our history in mind, I respectfully ask that the governor reconsider his decision to remove the mural and rename the conference rooms.

The truth is that the demands made of us in life are not small. We as workers, as elected officials, as leaders of this state should constantly be reminded of the great works of those came before us who have struggled for justice, who have struggled to better this nation, and who have struggled to get by. We should — with commemorations like these — constantly remind ourselves of the awesome shoes we struggle to fill.

Don Berry is president of the Maine AFL-CIO.

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