More than 300 feisty workers and artists packed the Statehouse Hall of Flags on Monday, April 4, in back-to-back protests.

The first rally was aimed at leaders in Washington and demanded that they “bring our war dollars home” by ending our military involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

The second rally was aimed at Republican Gov. Paul R. LePage, who was vacationing in Jamaica. Protesters excoriated LePage for ordering the removal of an 11-panel mural at the Maine Department of Labor in Augusta that depicted Maine’s labor history.

Demonstrators at the second rally demanded LePage return the mural to the Department of Labor.

“Put it back! Put it back!” was one of many repetitive chants that rang out through the Hall of Flags. Another was “Recall Paul! Recall Paul!”

Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s press secretary, said the governor’s office would have no comment on Monday’s rally. But she noted that LePage is soliciting bids for new artwork to replace the mural. The new art is supposed to depict a balance between management and labor and the two sides getting along with each other.

Adam Fisher, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Labor, made public a letter received Monday by Laura Boyett, acting commissioner of labor, from Gay Gilbert, regional administrator of the U.S. Department of Labor in Boston.

Gilbert said the majority of the $60,000 artist’s commission for the mural was paid from “Reed Act” funds, that is funds transferred to the state’s account in the Federal Unemployment Trust Fund under a section of the Social Security Act. Accordingly, Gilbert said, federal Unemployment Compensation laws concerning Reed Act money govern the disposition of this property.

The state paid 63.39 percent of the $60,000 commission, or $38,364, from Reed Act funds. With the mural no longer on display in Labor Department headquarters, Gilbert wrote, it is “no longer being used for an administrative purpose permitted by the Reed Act.”

Therefore, the state must return to its Unemployment Trust Fund 63.39 percent of the current fair market value of the mural as a condition of continued participation in the federal-state Unemployment Compensation program.

Alternatively, Gilbert wrote, the state could once again display the mural in its Labor Department headquarters or in another state employment security building.

In releasing the letter, Fisher said, “We have reviewed the letter and are assessing what it may mean for the agency moving forward.”

LePage had the mural, created by artist Judy Taylor, removed from the walls of the lobby of the Department of Labor over the weekend of March 26-27, after he declared the mural gave a one-sided view that only showed organized labor’s perspective.

Hundreds of artists and union activists jammed the hallways of the Department of Labor on March 25 to protest LePage’s action.

At the April 4 rally, Robert Shetterly, president of the Union of Maine Visual Artists, spoke and introduced other speakers.

He quoted playwright Arthur Miller as saying, “I think the job of the artist is to remind people of what they have chosen to forget.”

Shetterly quoted the late union storyteller/singer Utah Phillips as saying, “The degree to which we resist injustice is the degree to which we are free.”

“Gov. LePage has tried to neuter the Department of Labor,” said Shetterly, who was interrupted numerous times by cheers and applause. “He would have you believe that organized labor is bad for business.”

“Paul LePage has embarrassed himself, not us. He has disgraced himself, not us,” said Shetterly. “We demand that the mural be returned.”

Natasha Mayers said, “There are more of us than ever to demand that the mural be returned to the walls of the Department of Labor. It’s a movement now. It’s our Wisconsin! It’s our Ohio!”

Don Tuski, president of the Maine College of Art in Portland, said, “It’s very simple. Just put it back. Art is not decoration. Like democracy, it allows for differences of opinion. It’s made for all the people of Maine.”

Singer-songwriter Dave Mallett sang several songs.

In the earlier rally, organized by a group called the Maine Campaign to Bring Our War Dollars Home, Matt Hight of the Service Employees International Union, said U.S. and state leaders are conducting “a campaign to distract people from the real cause of our economic woes.”

“Scapegoating poor, immigrant people, people of color and unionized workers has always been a tactic of totalitarians,” said Hight.

Peter Woodruff, a 30-year employee of Bath Iron Works and a member of the International Association of Machinists, said his career has been spent building destroyers for the U.S. Navy.

“But the greatest threat to our security and humanity as a whole cannot be controlled by the U.S. military,” said Woodruff. “The mightiest military in the world is powerless to control the effects of climate change.”

“The United States military during wartime has the biggest carbon footprint of all. They consume 14 million gallons of oil a day,” Woodruff said. “We need a paradigm shift away from oil and endless resource wars.”

“Eighty percent of homes in Maine heat with oil,” he said. “When oil reaches $200 a barrel and we don’t embrace alternatives like solar and wind, Maine will be uninhabitable.”

Woodruff said Maine and America need high-speed passenger trains.

The group joined hands and sang “We Shall Overcome” at the end of their rally.

 

 

 

 

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