On April 22, a U.S. District Court judge denied a temporary restraining order sought by the plaintiffs who have sued Maine Gov. Paul LePage for ordering a mural on history of the labor movement taken down from the lobby walls of the state Department of Labor.
While the suit is still in a preliminary stage, I have little doubt the District Court’s ruling was legally correct and foreshadows the case’s ultimate outcome. However, just because the governor’s decision was upheld legally doesn’t mean it was politically wise. It was, in fact, a colossal blunder.
The court ruled, in essence, that removal of the mural was not government censorship of private speech in violation of the First Amendment, but, instead, a permissible form of “government speech.”
Every administration, state or federal, has a political point of view which informs its policies, actions and words. Just how the chief executive expresses that viewpoint is left to his discretion. For instance, the painted portraits of past presidents and prominent statesmen adorning the White House walls could legitimately be replaced by each new U.S. president to reflect his party affiliation or political outlook.
Voters who don’t like the chief executive’s message may not have the right to challenge it in court, but they can certainly cast a ballot to change the messenger at the next election.
Which brings me back to my original point. Legal authority, in this instance, does not necessarily equate with political wisdom.
In American politics, elected leaders, especially those who have won by a whisker, traditionally govern by compromising with their opponents and treating them respectfully. Rough-and-tumble partisanship in an election is one thing. In governance, however, trying to ride roughshod over the opposition eventually leads to a backlash at the polls.
Elected to the Blaine House by a minority, roughly 216,000 or 38 percent, of the votes cast last November, LePage should be seeking to broaden his electoral base instead of alienating substantial segments of the electorate by making them the target of gratuitous insults.
The governor predictably ran into flak from public employees, when he proposed raising state employee pension contributions by 2 percent, increasing the retirement age for new hires, and capping cost-of-living adjustments for state retirees. However, he was able to take the high ground on those issues by arguing that the pension system needed restructuring to keep it solvent, pay down unfunded pension liabilities, and lower taxes.
Removing the labor mural, on the other hand, was merely a symbolic gesture, not a substantive measure to improve the state’s economy or business climate. Nevertheless, it was a powerful symbol, one which tens of thousands of Mainers saw, in the words of the state’s AFL-CIO, as an “arbitrary and mean-spirited” act.
According to a 2008 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, Maine has over 86,000 working union members, all potential voters. If you add to these members, their families, friends and supporters, proponents of the arts, sympathizers for the underdog, and those who are just plain annoyed by the governor’s propensity for offensive remarks, you can see why he has just made a lot of enemies.
The justifications offered by the LePage administration were that the removal was “a very small thing,” which was “not meant to “antagonize” labor, but rather to “achieve a little aesthetic balance,” a “décor that represents neutrality,” and an ambience “equally receptive to both businesses and workers.” Such a flimsy pretext cannot pass a straight-face test.
How exactly do you balance a labor mural to make it less “one-sided” and more pro-business? The answer is: you don’t. It is what it is.
The mural, after all, was on display at the Department of Labor. Its 11 panels, depicting, among other things, colonial-era shoemaking apprentices, lumberjacks, “Rosie the Riveter” in a shipyard, the 1937 Auburn shoe workers’ strike, and a 1986 paper- mill strike, were, making allowance for artistic license, essentially historically accurate.
If the labor movement’s past has been turbulent and tinged with anti-business sentiment, that’s because it arose from the crucible of America’s industrialization, where workers toiled for a century or more under terrible conditions imposed by business.
From the 1840s through the late 1930s (and well beyond in some industries), low wages, long hours, hazardous conditions, child labor, union busting and blacklisting were the norm. Through most of this period, federal and state governments were solidly behind business, calling in troops to break up strikes and declaring unions an unlawful conspiracy in restraint of trade. Not until 1902, when President Theodore Roosevelt mediated an anthracite coal strike in eastern Pennsylvania, did a U.S. president do anything to recognize, let alone, assist, a labor union.
Two of the greatest works of American fiction, Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” published in 1906, and John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” published in 1939, graphically dramatized the miserable plight of the American worker.
If LePage really wanted to create balance in a positive way, he could have commissioned a new mural celebrating the historic accomplishments of Maine businesses, such as Bath Iron Works, Poland Spring, L.L Bean and Jackson Laboratory. Instead, he chose to erase a reality he found unpalatable.
The LePage administration can probably get away with labeling the mural’s removal government “government speech.” However, the impact of the public’s speech in response is apt to be much more powerful.