Maine's Labor Murals: Latest LePage Order a Piece of Work

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The Portland Press Herald (Maine)

Maine's Labor Murals: Latest LePage Order a Piece of Work

Back in November, long before he decided to hide from the media behind his own weekly television show, Gov. Paul LePage sat down along with his wife, Ann, to chat with WCSH-TV's Bill Green.

They talked about, among other things, how they met while they worked at what was then Scott Paper Co. in Winslow -- Ann had a union job, Paul was a member of management.

"Scott was battling its unions," recalled Green in his set-up. "She was a union rep from a union family when she took the manager home to meet her father."

Cut to Ann LePage:

"And my dad looked at me and said, 'Ann, you've got to be kidding me! What are you doing with him? Those white collars don't know how to work!' "

Nor does this one know how to govern.

We won't waste valuable space this morning trying to discern what was going on in LePage's head when he ordered the removal of a mural and the names of meeting rooms -- all commemorating Maine's deep and rich labor history -- from the headquarters of the Maine Department of Labor.

Searching for rational thought inside this guy's noggin, after all, is like wandering through an abandoned coal mine without a headlamp.

Besides, it's the things LePage clearly didn't think about that make this latest assault on Maine's sensibilities so stunning.

For starters, he didn't think about his own heritage as a French-speaking kid growing up on the rough-and-tumble streets of downtown Lewiston.

Panel Seven in Maine artist Judy Taylor's widely acclaimed, 11-panel homage to Maine workers focuses on the 1937 shoe mill strike in Lewiston-Auburn.

Seventy-four years ago today, 5,000 of the area's 6,300 largely French Canadian shoe workers voted to walk off the job over low wages, dangerous working conditions and discrimination, to name but a few of their grievances.

They shut down 19 shoe factories before it was over, but paid dearly when police and then the National Guard moved in and forcibly put down the insurrection.

Just a thought, but how many of those workers do you think might have been named "LePage?"

Nor, speaking of history, did LePage stop to think that Taylor's Panel Three ("The Textile Workers"), Panel Six ("The Woods Workers") and Panel Nine ("Rosie the Riveter") all celebrate eras in which hard-working Mainers, through their own sweat and blood, made this state what it is today.

Also lost on the governor is the simple fact that the Department of Labor, by definition, exists first and foremost to protect Maine's workers.

The laws and regulations it enforces are in place because without them, those forlorn child laborers in Panel Two ("Lost Childhood") would still be walking around with bandages on their hands, and that parade in Panel Five ("The First Labor Day") would have dissolved into just another endless September workday.

Then there's Panel Eight, titled "Frances Perkins."

Born of Maine parents, Perkins went on to become the first female member of a U.S. Cabinet -- she was secretary of labor through the 12-year presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt and played a lead role in the creation of our Social Security system.

Her lifelong love of Maine is reflected in the Frances Perkins Center, on the family homestead in Newcastle, where Executive Director Barbara Burt found herself shaking her head in disbelief Wednesday at our "very mean-spirited" governor.

"Unemployment insurance, child labor laws, workplace safety law, the minimum wage -- those are all things that you can directly trace back to Frances Perkins," said Burt.

Removing both the mural and Perkins' name from one of the Department of Labor's meeting rooms, Burt said, "is an attack on something that's so deeply ingrained in American life that it's almost inconceivable to me. I mean, Maine should be so proud of Frances Perkins."

Instead, Perkins and all she stood for soon will come down off the wall and head for what acting Labor Commissioner Laura Boyett, in her email to department employees this week, euphemistically called a "new home."

Boyett, a 17-year labor department veteran who we can only assume is just trying to hang onto her job (ah, the irony), also explained in that email that the rush to redecorate stems from "feedback that the administration building is not perceived as equally receptive to both businesses and workers."

That feedback undoubtedly came from Team LePage the moment it first entered the building. And those labor department employees who may hold a different view have been told in no uncertain terms to shut up and keep working.

"Whether or not the perception is valid is not really at issue and therefore, not open to debate," wrote Boyett.

Expect little more from Dan Demeritt, LePage's communications director, who achieved a new level of tone deafness this week when he told the Lewiston Sun Journal that the labor department's face-lift is "a very small thing."

"I just want to emphasize that we were merely looking to achieve a little balance" Demeritt said. "It's very minor."

Except it isn't.

In fact, coming just a few days before Friday's 100th anniversary of The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City -- 146 young women perished that day in what Frances Perkins later called "the birth of the New Deal" -- it's an insult to those who over the last century fought, and sometimes died, for the workplace rights we all take for granted today.

Back when the LePages sat down with Bill Green, Ann LePage portrayed the governor as the kind of guy who always identifies with the downtrodden because, as an 11-year-old who left home after his abusive father put him in the hospital, he'd been there and done that.

"Because Paul had the upbringing he did," promised Maine's first lady, "Paul will fight for the underdog every time."

To paraphrase her father, she had to be kidding.

Bill Nemitz

Bill Nemitz is a news columnist for the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram. After 10 years as a city editor and assistant managing editor/sports for the Portland Newspapers, he began fulfilling his long-held desire to put aside the budgets and performance evaluations and returned to writing in 1995, with his three-times-a-week column.

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