May 26, 2018
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Mural may become symbol of labor fight

By David Farmer

The decision to remove the mural from the Department of Labor has been compared to the Ministry of Truth in “1984.”

It’s the year, not the book, that offers the greater insight.

The year is 1984. And the place is Baltimore.

Overnight on March 28-29, 1984, under the cloak of darkness and with stunning secrecy, the Baltimore Colts loaded up Mayflower moving vans and left the city for a new home in Indianapolis.

Does it sound familiar? Right down to the timing? Eerie.

An entire city was devastated. Mayor William Donald Schaefer, a proud man and accomplished public servant who also served as governor, cried.

When I woke up and heard the news that Gov. LePage had, over the weekend, removed the mural depicting the labor movement’s history in Maine from the walls of the Department of Labor, I was stunned.

In many circles, people were outraged, appalled and, frankly, confused.

The governor had said that he would leave the mural on the walls until a new home was found.

Instead and without warning, he had it removed and placed in a secret and “secure” location.

The governor had grown tired of the story of the mural and all the attention it was receiving. It’s not every day that the New York Times writes a scathing editorial about you or that you become a national punch line on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

The governor called people who protested the removal of the mural “idiots,” and said that they should get over it. The decision was made.

But it was a story reported by Susan Sharon of the Maine Public Broadcasting Network that best captured the governor’s intention: “That building is not an organized labor building,” the governor said. “End of story.”

Unfortunately for the governor, it’s not the end of the story.

Gov. LePage is locked in war with state workers and teachers over changes in their pension and over his support for a measure that would drastically change collective bargaining rules in Maine.

The unions are fighting for their survival and the long-term security of their members.

The LePage administration is playing a dangerous game of trying to divide working people against one another for political gain and to weaken unions, the only real force left that will stand up for the middle class.

But most people who aren’t directly affected won’t take the time to understand issues like the attack on collective bargaining, the complexities of the pension system or the trade-offs of the state budget.

They have their own jobs, their own retirement and their own budgets to worry about.

What the governor has done is create a potent symbol of the fight, one that simplifies the issues, cuts through the numbers and the complexities and gives people on both sides a shorthand way of thinking and talking about the fight with labor.

For his supporters, it’s just a painting. Get over it. What’s the big deal? It’s just another example of the media blowing something unimportant completely out of proportion.

For unions and their supporters — and more broadly, people who think the governor is whitewashing history — the murals represent a direct assault on progress and an attempt to undo the gains of the past.

The fight over the murals was unnecessary. There was no reason to do it during the fire of the budget debate unless the goal was to distract from more important and lasting issues. Frankly, there was no real reason to do it at all except to poke a finger at unions. Of course, it’s not the first time the governor has taken the path of most resistance. But the braggadocio will have a consequence.

In 2009, 25 years after the Colts were hijacked from Baltimore, The Sun published readers’ memories of the morning that they found out that their beloved football team was gone.

More than two decades, a new team and a Super Bowl later, the passions still ran hot.

For the rest of his life, Baltimore Colts superstar Johnny Unitas refused to recognize the team he had once played for. One fan wrote: “That was the day I lost all respect for the NFL,” saying he hadn’t watched a game since.

There’s no way to know whether this murality play will linger as an issue, but like “kiss my butt,” “go to hell” and “little beards,” repeated provocations like these can haunt a politician for the rest of his or her career.

David Farmer is former deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci. A longtime journalist, he has been an editor and reporter in Maine, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. You can reach him at

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