Maine Takes Down Labor Mural
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Maine's new Republican governor, Paul LePage, wants to remove a mural at the State Department of Labor. He says he wants everyone to feel welcome in state buildings. But union activists and others who were already wary of the governor's anti-union positions say the move is pure politics.
Susan Sharon of Maine Public Radio has the story.
SUSAN SHARON: Maine artist Judy Taylor says she spent a full year researching and planning the 36-foot-long mural that currently hangs in the lobby at the State Department of Labor.
Ms. JUDY TAYLOR (Artist): It's an art project based on the historical facts of the history of Maine labor, so there was no bias intended.
SHARON: The 11 panels depict scenes from Maine's labor history, including women working as shipbuilders during World War II, textile and wood workers and two strikes - one at a shoe factory in the 1930s, and the other at the International Paper Mill in 1980s. The mural was hung in 2008.
Ms. TAYLOR: I have never had a negative response to it.
SHARON: But a spokeswoman for the governor's office says several unnamed people have complained that they felt the mural is inappropriate for the setting. She says one even wrote an anonymous fax, saying that sitting in the Labor Department lobby with the mural made him feel, quote, "that I was in communist North Korea, where they use these murals to brainwash the masses."
Governor LePage declined to be interviewed by NPR. But he told WRKO Boston radio talk show host Howie Carr, the mural has to go.
Governor PAUL LEPAGE (Republican, Maine): The state of Maine looks at employees and employers equally, neutrally and on balance. And the mural sends a message that we're one-sided and I don't want to send that message.
SHARON: The governor says his office is trying to find another public venue for the mural. In the meantime, the Labor Department has also launched a contest to rename eight conference rooms that are currently named after icons, activists and historical figures in the Labor Movement, people such as farm worker and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, and Frances Perkins, a U.S. secretary of Labor who was the first female cabinet member.
Barbara Burt is the executive director of the Frances Perkins Center.
Ms. BARBARA BURT (Executive Director, Frances Perkins Center): It's just unthinkable to me that anyone would consider her an enemy of any part of American life, including business. I mean she was not anti-business.
SHARON: Burt says the decision to remove the mural and rename the conference rooms seems more like a thumb in the eye to Maine's working people. And with a proposed budget that asks state workers to pay more for their pensions, raises the retirement age for some state workers and teachers, and caps their cost of living increases, Governor LePage has already agitated the workforce and incensed union activists with goals to weaken collective bargaining rights.
Matt Schlobohm of the AFL-CIO says removing the mural is just the latest salvo in an ongoing attack by the governor.
Mr. MATT SCHLOBOHM (Director, Public Policy & Political Mobilization, AFL-CIO): The governor seems far more interested in picking fights with working families than he does in solving the problems that working people face, the state of Maine faces, and in creating the jobs that we desperately need.
SHARON: But LePage told Howie Carr that he and Maine workers are not at war, and he doesn't anticipate Wisconsin-style protests flaring up in Maine.
Gov. LEPAGE: While they say that we have a rocky relationship, we're much closer together than people recognize.
SHARON: Labor leaders say the governor may be able to remove the mural but he can't erase Maine's labor history.
For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon in Portland, Maine.
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