Rolde’s take on Maine’s historic DOL labor mural highlighting Frances Perkins

wmural-5-82-300x167First appeared on Maine Insights

On Friday April 22, 2011 U.S. District Court Justice John Woodcock denied the request of six plaintiffs for a temporary restraining order that would have compelled the LePage administration to return the mural to the Labor Department’s lobby. The plaintiffs also asked the court to order Gov. LePage, Labor Commissioner Laura Boyette and Maine State Museum Director Joseph Phillips, to reveal where the mural is being stored to ensure that it is in good condition and protected. Woodcock has yet to rule on that issue.

The following is a piece about the mural’s saga highlighting Frances Perkins written by Neil Rolde, a well-known Maine writer and historian:

What an uproar Maine’s Governor Paul LePage recently created by peremptorily ordering an up-to-now unnoticed mural removed from the Augusta premises of the State’s Department of Labor. These painted panels apparently offended the Tea Party stalwart chief executive by being – of all things for a Labor Department setting – too pro-Labor. The artwork, funded primarily by Federal money, depicted episodes from the State’s labor past, including the most violent strike in Maine’s history (in LePage’s hometown of Lewiston), Rosie the Riveter at work during World War II in the Bath Iron Works’ record-setting construction of Liberty Ships and the Jay Paper Mill strike of the late 1980’s, the last serious instance of labor strife downeast. LePage’s ire was also aroused by the fact that some of the conference rooms had been named for labor leaders like Cesar Chavez and Frances Perkins, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, the first ever woman Cabinet member in the U.S government.

Defenders of Governor LePage argued that the name change (to those of Maine rivers) for the conference rooms was perfectly logical because Cesar Chavez was from California and had nothing ostensibly to do with Maine. But Frances Perkins, the Governor undoubtedly didn’t know, was a daughter of Maine, at least once removed [she was actually born in Massachusetts] but her family’s red brick home has been in Newcastle, Maine, since 1700, is still there and now occupied by her grandson who has turned it into a Frances Perkins Center. In her childhood, the future Madam Secretary spent many happy summers on this property to which she always returned and considered her home. Moreover, she is buried in Maine.

Recently, the 100th anniversary of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City was observed, a conflagration that killed 146 workers, most of them young women, trapped in their workplace because the exit doors had been locked on them by their penny pinching employers. This entirely avoidable event was the catalyst for Frances Perkins’s entry into public life. She, herself, personally witnessed the horrific scene from the street outside, especially the haunting sight of young women with their long dresses afire jumping out windows to their deaths.

That searing memory never deserted Frances Perkins throughout her remarkable career in social service. It underscored her many fights for better working conditions during an era when there were practically none.

A policeman watches as women jump to their deaths during the Triangle Shirtwaist fire
She began by promoting a 54 hour work week for woman in New York State and before long progressed to a full-fledged job as a member of the Empire State’s Industrial Commission once Al Smith became Governor. By the way, this happened before women were even allowed to vote. Her connection with Franklin Delano Roosevelt really commenced after Smith left Albany to run for President and was succeeded in the New York Governor’s chair by FDR. He put her in charge of the entire Commission, one of the largest agencies in New York State government, which among other things investigated factories for safety. It was a natural step, four years later, when Roosevelt won the presidency for him to offer Frances her job of Secretary of Labor, although no female had ever held such an important post in Washington.

Nevertheless, prior to accepting, she insisted her boss agree to her plan for enhancing labor relations at the height of the Depression. Thus it was, since Roosevelt acceded to her demands, that working hours were to be reduced to an eight hour day, child labor prohibited, a minimum wage established, workers compensation allowed for job-incurred injuries, safety regulations promulgated to prevent any future Triangle Fire-type horrors, and unemployment insurance initiated. The final accomplishment to her credit – and the one for which she would receive everlasting celebrity – had no direct connection to working conditions. It was an old age pension scheme, applicable to everyone over a certain age. We call it Social Security.

Yes, Frances Perkins came to be called “The Mother of Social Security.” As originally intended, the legislation would have included National Health Care, but that proposal proved too controversial and was withdrawn at the President’s insistence. Despite its universal popularity, Social Security has never been safe from attack or from those who seek to divert its vast resources into private hands. One might well wonder if Governor Paul LePage’s removal of the mural and renaming of the conference rooms was aimed at Frances Perkins and her pivotal role is establishing Social Security. Erase history you don’t like. Or that you seek to overturn.

Also erased in the mural, ironically, were two Republican figures out of Maine’s past – William Looney, a 19th century Maine legislator, and Marion Martin, a longtime Maine Commissioner of Labor and a founder of the National Federation of Republican Women. Frances Perkins’s family in Newcastle, Maine, it should be noted, were deep-dyed Republicans and she, herself, did not join the Democratic Party until she went to work for Al Smith.

Two other facts Governor LePage should know:

1. Since his Excellency professes to be a Tea Party disciple, it might interest him to learn that Frances Perkins includes in her ancestry none other than James Otis, the fiercest and most eloquent of the 18th century Boston revolutionists, whose phrase: “Taxation without Representation is Tyranny” became the rallying cry of the Indian-disguised activists who dumped the East India Company’s tea into the Bay State capital’s harbor. (please note, Governor; not taxation, but taxation without representation).

2. Also gone with the mural was a depiction from the Lewiston-Auburn shoe strike of 1937, which did lead to violence. The shoe shop owners had refused to recognize the local Unions or bargain with them. Thanks in part to Frances Perkins, a National Labor Relations Board had been set up to oversee the Wagner Act of 1935 that enforced such bargaining and Union recognition if certain conditions were met. What ended this strike in Androscoggin County was the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1937 decision that the Act was constitutional and the procedures in the law had to be followed. The workers could vote to have a Union.

Were Frances Perkins alive today and witness to Governor LePage’s act of trying to efface her memory from the halls of a fairly obscure State government building, she might just have laughed at him. She had faced down much more formidable male bullies who had tried to intimidate her. Conservative members of her own Democratic Party had actually but unsuccessfully tried to impeach her because of her liberal attitudes toward immigration, then during the 1930’s as now an exceedingly touchy subject. In fact, she outlasted almost all of her contemporaries in the Roosevelt Cabinets through the thirteen years of his presidency and stayed well into the Truman years. She was a lovely, dedicated, compassionate lady and Paul LePage’s intemperate action can in no way sully what she has done for America’s working families and middle class.
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