AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage has ordered the removal of a 36-foot mural depicting Maine’s labor history from the lobby of the Department of Labor.
Worker advocates described the move as a “mean-spirited” provocation amid the administration’s high-tension standoff with unions.
Acting labor chief Laura Boyett emailed staff Tuesday about the mural’s pending removal, as well as another administration directive to rename several department conference rooms that carry the names of pro-labor icons such as Cesar Chavez.
According to LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt, the administration felt the mural and the conference room monikers showed “one-sided decor” not in keeping with the department’s pro-business goals.
“The message from state agencies needs to be balanced,” said Demeritt, adding that the mural had sparked complaints from “some business owners” who complained it was hostile to business.
Demeritt declined to name the businesses.
The mural was erected in 2008 following a jury selection by the Maine Arts Commission and a $60,000 federal grant. Judy Taylor, the artist from Seal Cove, said Tuesday that her piece was never meant to be political, simply a depiction of Maine’s labor history.
The 11-panel piece depicts several moments, including the 1937 shoe mill strike in Auburn and Lewiston, “Rosie the Riveter” at Bath Iron Works, and the paper mill workers’ strike of 1986 in Jay.
According to Taylor, the idea for the panels came from Charley Scontras, a labor historian at the University of Maine.
Taylor said the administration’s decision to remove the mural was “terrible.” She said her 2007 selection by the Maine Arts Commission was the “commission of a lifetime.”
Taylor said she’d never heard that her mural painted an unflattering picture of business.
“There was never any intention to be pro-labor or anti-labor,” she said. “It was a pure depiction of the facts.”
She said people had always reacted positively to the mural, even businesspeople who came to her studio.
“At one point, maybe their grandmother or their grandfather had worked in the mills, so they had a very moving, emotional reaction to the mural,” she said. “It touched them in a way because there was this ancestral legacy there.”
Demeritt said the administration’s decision wasn’t designed to antagonize organized labor. In recent weeks, labor groups have been gathering at the State House to protest LePage’s budget, which proposes cuts in retirement benefits for unionized state workers and teachers. In addition, LePage has said the state “is going after right-to-work,” legislation that labor groups say is designed to destroy unions through a bleeding of finances.
Labor advocates had a strong reaction to the mural’s pending removal.
Mike Tipping, a spokesman for the Maine People’s Alliance, a progressive organization, said LePage had been “elected to create jobs, not to be the state’s interior decorator.”
“The LePage administration is going after Maine workers on a bunch of different fronts,” Tipping said. “I guess ‘Rosie the Riveter’ is just another casualty.”
Matt Schlobohm of the Maine chapter of the AFL-CIO said it was understandable for the administration to have different priorities. However, he said, a depiction of history should “rise above” political ideology.
“To remove a mural that is a historical depiction just seems arbitrary and mean-spirited,” Schlobohm said.
Demeritt said the administration didn’t see a problem with the directive.
“It’s a very small thing,” he said. “I just want to emphasize that we were merely looking to achieve a little aesthetic balance. It’s very minor.”
Demeritt said he didn’t know when the mural would be removed. In her e-mail to the Labor Department, Boyett said there would be a contest to rename the committee rooms.
Demeritt said the rooms could be named “after mountains, counties or something.”
One of the current committee rooms is named after Frances Perkins, the U.S. labor secretary under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Perkins became involved in labor reforms following the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that resulted in the deaths of 146 garment workers in New York City.
Friday marks the 100th anniversary of that fire.
Perkins’ parents were from Maine. The Frances Perkins Center is in Newcastle.