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Maine's dangerous effort to erase labor's past

By Joseph A. McCartin, Special to CNN
A portion of a mural depicting workers and unions that was ordered removed by Maine Gov. Paul LePage.
A portion of a mural depicting workers and unions that was ordered removed by Maine Gov. Paul LePage.
  • Maine's governor ordered removal of a mural depicting workers and the labor movement
  • Joseph McCartin says removing symbol of our history is effort to control today's politics
  • He says the labor movement pushed for progress in society, state government
  • McCartin: Governor is trying "to rewrite the nation's history, erasing unions from it"

Editor's note: Joseph A. McCartin teaches U.S. history and directs the Kalmanovitz Initiative on Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. His book, "Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America" will be published by Oxford University Press in September.

(CNN) -- " 'Who controls the past,' ran the Party slogan, 'controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.' "

That memorable phrase comes from George Orwell's Cold War classic, "1984," in which a party, led by "Big Brother," exercised power in part by controlling what was remembered and what was erased from collective memory.

The inspiration for Orwell's dystopian novel, Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union, was known to remove inconvenient figures from history (even erasing them from photographs). Thankfully, Stalin's brutal dictatorship is gone. But the Big Brother impulse to "control the past" is alive and well in present-day Maine.

This week, Maine's Republican governor, Paul LePage, went forward with his effort to scrub Maine's Labor Department building clean of any reference to the movement that was responsible for the creation of that department: the union movement.

LePage argued that references to the union movement or union leaders were inappropriate in this state building ("one-sided," his spokesman said) and ordered the removal of an 11-panel mural depicting workers in which unions also were portrayed in a favorable light.

At the same time, Maine's labor commissioner has announced that she is erasing the names of labor leader Cesar Chavez; the first female presidential Cabinet member, Frances Perkins; and other pro-union figures from the Labor Department conference rooms that were named in their honor. She is holding a contest to come up with new, and presumably less labor-friendly, names.

The nation has witnessed an aggressive set of attacks on unions this year. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker pushed through controversial legislation that stripped most of his state's public workers of many of their bargaining rights. Ohio legislators just passed a bill that would restrict the collective bargaining rights of some 350,000 police officers, firefighters, teachers and others. Their counterparts in Florida are contemplating banning public employee unions from collecting dues from their members through an automatic payroll deduction.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, Republicans are pushing legislation that would count any worker who fails to vote in a union election under the Railway Labor Act as having voted against union representation.

In some ways, these actions could have been expected in the wake of 2010 elections, which saw Republicans take back the U.S. House and many statehouses. There is clearly no love lost between present-day Republicans and organized labor -- their political agendas could not be more divergent.

Yet what is now underway in Maine is more extreme in many ways than other attacks on unions.

Here we have an effort to purge the history of the labor movement and its rich past from public memory altogether. Although we need not fret about Soviet-style gulags suddenly springing up in Maine, citizens of conscience should be troubled by this chilling echo of Stalinistic historical revisionism.

Whether Paul LePage likes it or not, unions were responsible for creating Maine's Labor Department.

In 1867, the National Labor Union called for the creation of such departments on the federal and state levels. In 1869, Massachusetts became the first state to respond to this demand, creating a State Bureau of Labor Statistics, the forerunner to all state labor departments. Maine followed Massachusetts's example in 1887. And, finally, the U.S. Department of Labor was created in 1913 after many years of lobbying by unions. (In an interesting historical twist, it was the signature of Republican President William H. Taft that brought that Cabinet-level department into being).

Unions pushed for labor departments because they believed that all levels of government needed to have at least one agency concerned with the welfare of wage earners. There was nothing overly partisan about a mural that depicted unions in a favorable light or conference rooms named for labor leaders. Such displays simply acknowledged the one group without which labor departments would never have existed in the first place.

The effort to erase this past is dangerous. More than a mere exercise in political score settling, it is an effort to rewrite the nation's history, erasing unions from it.

This past week, we marked the 100th anniversary of one of the worst tragedies in American history, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that claimed the lives of 146 workers on New York's Lower East Side.

Future U.S. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, then a young social worker, witnessed that event firsthand, arriving at the scene just as the first of the fire's victims jumped from a ninth-floor window to her death. She never forgot what she saw.

The memory of that horrific event propelled her to a career as a reformer who -- in partnership with allies in the labor movement -- helped do away with the scourge of child labor and win minimum wage legislation.

Perkins' visage, once visible on the walls of Maine's Labor Department, was a reminder of where we have been as a nation, what we have overcome and the challenges we now face in a nation where economic inequality has begun to once again approach the levels that prevailed a century ago.

Thanks to Gov. LePage, Perkins' face is no longer there. That erasure is not just an attack against organized labor; it is an effort to expunge part of our national heritage -- and it ought to be rejected.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Joseph McCartin.