By Nancy Nesvet
It is important to understand both the history of the creation of the Maine Labor Mural cycle, including decisions about the content and style of the mural. The Reed Act, an unemployment fund administered by the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. and nine other streams of funding at the U.S. Department of Labor provided funds to the State of Maine to fund an artist to create a mural for the Maine State Department of Labor building in Augusta. [i] The Maine Commission on the Arts was charged with administering a juried process to choose an artist to create the artwork and to be paid a commission of $62,000. During the administration of Governor John Balducci, in 2008, artist Judy Taylor was chosen. She embarked upon a process of researching the topics for a set of ten panels (later adding an additional panel) for the space, with the aid of Professor Charles Scontras, of the Department of Labor History at the University of Maine Orono. Throughout 2008, Taylor worked to visualize Maine’s working past, first in drawings and then in a mural, organized into eleven themes, in which the intersection of visual memory with politics can be viewed. The mural was completed during a year of research, under the direction of Professor Scontras, and painted by Ms. Taylor from September 2007 through August 2008. It was hung in the anteroom of the Department of Labor building, and was first shown to the public during a ceremony on Labor Day, 2008. The brochure produced by the Maine Department of Labor printed, “The mural is on permanent display”, 2 but that was not to be.
The History of Maine Labor mural, as labeled at its original location, consists of eleven panels, painted on prepared birch panels with oil paint. The piece shows working scenes from early artisan workshops, natural resource economies, manufacturing and traditional industries in Maine and highlights pivotal events and people in the history of Maine labor. In the first panel, in which Taylor made “Apprenticeship” the organizing theme, the social character of work appears in different interactions between workers and their apprentices. Most prominently, a shoemaker instructs his young apprentice in his trade. In one interpretation, the first panel glorifies Maine’s pre-industrial craftsmen and the autonomy they exercised from modern forms of industrial management and control. In another, the panel portrays the central role that job skills education plays in a workforce. Observing apprentice-based education from the vantage point of an industrial economy where government or government-funded institutions including Maine’s Department of Labor educate the state’s future workers, Taylor glorifies the work of the public institution in whose building the mural was exhibited.
In the next panel, to which Taylor assigned the theme, “Child Labor”, the industrial revolution appears in the image of a group of tired, sometimes wounded children walking to work. Behind them, Maine’s economy appears in images of food and fish processing, a blueberry harvest, and a textile mill. The Maine Department of Labor enforces child labor laws, which are largely credited with ensuring that children are not endangered through employment and have time to attend school. With this image of sad, wounded children on their way to work, Taylor once more reminds us of her views of the importance of labor reform by the state.
In the third panel, Taylor depicts workers exposed to workplace dangers. Entitled “Women in Textile Mills”, this panel shows women holding handkerchiefs to their faces to limit the amount of dust-filled air they are breathing. In the background, other women appear in the textile factories that once constituted a major part of Maine and New England’s economy. Like the second panel that featured child workers, Taylor draws on the power of those she portrays as frail and long-suffering to legitimize the Department of Maine Labor’s governing mission. In the fourth panel, “The Secret Ballot”, Taylor turns to the theme of workers empowering themselves through secret ballot elections. It is unclear if the elections are public elections or unionization votes; perhaps they represent both. This panel suggests that workers’ interests are separate from those of their managers and employers. Visualizing workers in the past casting secret ballots, Taylor again hints at the divergence between the political interests of managers, owners and workers, but show that government allowed secret balloting by workers to shield them from possible discrimination, job termination and violence, a mission that is still the bailiwick of Maine government and its Department of Labor.
In the fifth panel, “First Labor Day”, Taylor conveys pride in images of workers marching under banners of their occupations and unions. In the sixth, titled “Woods Workers”, Taylor depicts workers as they harvest forest products together, live together, and unionize under the banner of the IWW (The International Workers of the World, whose pro-socialist political stance captivated America’s imagination beginning in the 1930’s, even as mainstream American labor marginalized its radicalism under American business’ and government’s struggle against what they imagined to be the threat of Soviet communism).
Here, Taylor seems to reify images of populations that give meaning, purpose and coherency to the Maine Department of Labor that is charged to protect them. In the seventh panel, “The ’37 Shoe Strike”, Taylor depicts the violent CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) union action in which thousands of Lewiston and Auburn shoe mill workers walked out of work. Taylor depicts those who appear to be the enemies of labor, from Auburn police chief Harry Rowe and the Maine state police he called in to put down the strike, to a Catholic priest warning strikers that they would go to hell for the strike, and threatening them with ex-communication if they participated. In this panel, Taylor portrays a dark vision of church and police in 1937 Auburn and Lewiston.
In the eighth panel, “Labor Reformers”, Taylor glorifies the national figures that championed workers, and publicly enforced labor laws and programs during the first half of the twentieth century. These are the figures that brought about the laws that the Maine Department of Labor is charged with enforcing, and are founding figures for all public overseers of work and industry. Juxtaposed against the earlier panels, these women, including Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor under Franklin Roosevelt, Rose Schneiderman, and FDR’s first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt brought about the social safety net and employment security laws enforced nationwide today. They are portrayed as heroines, working for a government that helped save and protect workers.
In the ninth and tenth panels, “Rosie the Riveter”, and “Jay Strike”, Taylor turns from the heroes of the early American labor movement to its aftermath, to make the common people heroes in the image of women supporting the war’s industries during the Second World War, and to an image of paper workers on strike in 1987 at the International Paper Mill in Jay, a seventeen month strike that is the longest recorded strike in New England history. In this panel, we see in the center image the people of Jay rallying behind the paper workers, leading us to see an entire community supporting the workers.
In the last panel, “Future of Maine Labor”, Taylor depicts the images of those the Maine Department of Labor protects and educates. Here, too, this panel depicts workers – families are seen handing off work from one generation to another. In this final panel, the changing face of Maine labor is depicted, the young, the immigrant that the state must educate, protect, and keep in Maine if the state is to remain competitive in in business and industry.
Judy Taylor foregrounded her work with realistic looking figures dressed in the costumes of the time of the background view. In the mural portraying Eleanor Roosevelt, Francis Perkins, and Rose Schneiderman, the portraits are of real people. In “Child Labor”, they are anonymous child workers from that time. We empathize with the children portrayed because they may have been our ancestors, and they are hurt children.
(To be continued)
1 DeRocco, Emily Stover, Training and Employment Guidance Letter No 18-01, Subject:Reed Act Distribution, Washington, D.C.,Employment and Training Administration Advisory System, U.S. Department of Labor, April 22, 2002
2 Maine Department of Labor, Pamphlet commemorating opening for History of Maine Labor Mural, Augusta, Maine, August 22, 2008
3 Trotter,Bill and Tuttle, Jeff, Muralʼs planned removal heats up labor dispute -Maine Politics-Bangor Daily News. New.bangordailynews.com. 3/23/11, Retrieved 2011-8-15
4 U.S. District Court for the State of Maine, Newton et al vs. LePage, et al, Order on Motion for Temporary Restraining Order, 44.