If the Republican assault on academic freedom weren’t bad enough, now we have an example of a Republican governor’s assault on artistic freedom, and a literal whitewash of state history. Last weekend, Governor Paul LePage of Maine ordered that the mural of state workers (panel at left) be removed from the state’s Department of Labor building. Employees returned to work on Monday to find the conference room where the mural was located replaced with white walls and fresh spackling. All this because of one anonymous fax from a “secret admirer” [one of the Koch brothers perhaps?] that complained the mural was too pro-labor and reminded him/her of “North Korean propaganda.” What? It’s the Department of Labor for crying out loud — isn’t it supposed to be pro-labor?
Naturally, Judy Taylor, the artist who was commissioned to paint the mural finds the decision horrible, and labor leaders in the state are outraged. In an interview for the Portland Herald, Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, called the decision “insulting to working people, petty and shortsighted.”
“It seems the governor is much more interested in picking fights with labor than creating jobs that people so desperately want,” he said. “We believe their story deserves to be told on the walls of the Department of Labor.”
Ralph Carmona, spokesman for the League of United Latin American Citizens, is troubled by the decision to rename a conference room now named after labor leader Caesar Chavez.
The really bad news is that his decision to remove a civil rights icon’s name from the Labor Department reflects an underlying pattern of actions and words that affect all Mainers,” he said.
That pattern includes LePage’s comment to the NAACP to “kiss my butt,” saying that women might grow “little beards” if they are exposed to the chemical Bisphenol-A, and a statement that he would go after union rights, Carmona said.
“What is next, the burning of books or the end of Labor Day as a holiday?” said Jose Lopez, director of the Latin American league. “When you add it all up, he is talking about business in a narrow sense that excludes Maine people and the public interest.”
Lynn Pasquerella, president of Mount Holyoke College, on Tuesday sent a letter to Governor Paul LePage criticizing this decision. She and many students and alumnae are upset because the mural includes a panel of distinguished MHC alumna Frances Perkins (left), Secretary of Labor under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the first woman to hold a cabinet position. According to Pasquerella, “the timing for this decision could not have been worse. Friday, March 25, marked the 100th anniversary of the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. This event strongly influenced Perkins’s lifelong commitment to the well-being of working men and women, as well as to working children in those days of rampant exploitation. But on an even larger scale, the Great Recession we are now struggling through–and which has hit Maine particularly hard–has numerous historical parallels with the Great Depression. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, the first woman presidential Cabinet member, figured prominently in leading us out of that cataclysm.
I was particularly surprised to read that you were influenced by an anonymous fax comparing the 11-panel mural to North Korean political propaganda, because the act of removing images commemorating Maine’s history itself conjures thoughts of the rewriting of history prevalent in totalitarian regimes. If the U.S. Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. is housed in the Frances Perkins Building, why can’t she be honored with a conference room in Augusta?”
Why indeed. As Civil Rights heroine Fannie Lou Hamer once said, is this America?