Gov. Paul LePage’s decision to remove artwork from the halls of the state’s labor department elicited a strong response from artists across the state, who were planning to stand in Augusta on March 25 before the murals that were created by their colleague Judy Taylor, an art teacher in Bangor, several years ago.

The 36-foot-long mural, consisting of 11 panels, depicts the state’s labor history, 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. It is heavily stylized after the art of the 1920s and 1930s, sometimes described as Social Realism — not to be confused with Socialist Realism, the defined artwork of Stalin and communist states — though both have the same roots: the struggles for workers rights, and it was a very real cultural reflection of the times, which is what art often does.

The murals hanging in Augusta that are now subject of a national discussion depict the evolution of our country’s labor history, but more so, they visualize Maine’s unique labor history, which is mostly relegated to textbooks, with little surfacing in the galleries and museums that devote much space to lovely scenics and beautiful boats.

But the labor movement in Maine is our history, no matter how our new governor wants to minimize it. Political leaders’ actions are often more symbolic than practical, and LePage’s latest move reeks of symbolism, and on a very base level, spitefulness. The artwork was already hanging, and the fact that our governor went to lengths to dismiss the hard work of one our state’s teachers and artists to make a cheap political point is damaging us as a state.

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said March 23 the Department of Labor has two customers and the building’s décor needed to represent neutrality.

“It is inappropriate for a taxpayer-funded agency to appear that it is on one side or another,” she said.

But why are we using this artwork to yet again break down Maine’s citizenry into an “us-versus-them”? This is not a football game with “sides” or a conflict in which the capitalists and socialists win or lose.

The fact that LePage’s action followed an anonymous fax complaining about the murals is distressing, especially since hundreds of Maine citizens have trekked to Augusta to register concerns, with their identities fully evident. Why should our governor honor a handful of anonymous people to whom he had given unequal access to his time and his policy deliberations?

Maine, with its population of 1.3 million, is filled with enterprising small business owners, and workers. Often, those small business owners moonlight as workers for a larger business, or vice versa. We do not easily divide down the lines of laborers and business owners, and this symbolizes that our economy relies on a lot more fluidity to survive.

There should be no sides in the effort to achieve and maintain a just society.

LePage also called for changes to the names of conference rooms, names that honor the efforts of men and women, such as labor historian Charles Scontras and Marion Martin, founder of the National Federation of Women’s Republican Clubs and former commissioner of the department, who worked to ensure the health and safety of the makers and doers of America’s economy.

Business interests are important to a strong economy, but we must be careful not to discard other components contributing to the quality of life in Maine. But what are business interests? Are they corporate interests? Are they the interests of the man or woman surviving on a home occupation enterprise, are they the interests of Bath Iron Works, which survives to great extent on taxpayer dollars, and union labor?

Without respect for workers, support for health care and education, or a sense of history, Maine could become an open business with few customers and a lackluster workforce. And that, most definitely, is not the way life should be.

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