March 24, 2011

LePage calls to remove labor mural

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA -- Labor leaders and the state's biggest Latino group expressed outrage Wednesday at Gov. Paul LePage's decision to remove a mural depicting workers from the Department of Labor's headquarters and rename conference rooms in the building.

Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, called the decision "insulting to working people, petty and shortsighted."

"It seems the governor is much more interested in picking fights with labor than creating jobs that people so desperately want," he said. "We believe their story deserves to be told on the walls of the Department of Labor."

The 36-foot-long, 11-panel mural depicts the state's labor history, including a shoe worker strike in Lewiston, female shipbuilders and striking papermakers in Jay.

It also highlights dangerous working conditions, long work hours and child labor, according to a 2008 memo from the Department of Labor.

LePage explained his decision on the Boston-based Howie Carr radio show late in the day.

"I'm trying to send a message to everyone in the state that the state of Maine looks at employees and employers equally, neutrally and on balance," he said. "The mural sends a message that we're one-sided, and I don't want to send that message."

Ralph Carmona, spokesman for the League of United Latin American Citizens, said a directive to rename a conference room that's now named for the late farm worker advocate Cesar Chavez is troubling.

"The really bad news is that his decision to remove a civil rights icon's name from the labor department reflects an underlying pattern of actions and words that affect all Mainers," he said.

That pattern includes LePage's comment to the NAACP to "kiss my butt," saying that women might grow "little beards" if they are exposed to the chemical Bisphenol-A and a statement that he would go after union rights, Carmona said.

"What is next, the burning of books or the end of Labor Day as a holiday?" said Jose Lopez, director of the Latin American league. "When you add it all up, he is talking about business in a narrow sense that excludes Maine people and the public interest."

LePage's spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the governor's office has received "several messages" from the public complaining about the mural.

She also released an anonymous fax, dated Feb. 24, that apparently came from someone who recently visited the labor department's lobby.

"In this mural I observed a figure which closely resembles the former commissioner of labor," the person wrote. "In studying the mural I also observed that this mural is nothing but propaganda to further the agenda of the union movement. I felt for a moment that I was in communist North Korea where they use these murals to brainwash the masses."

The fax is signed "A Secret Admirer."

Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said he has not received any complaints about the mural from businesses. But he said LePage is trying to follow through on his mission to make Maine more business-friendly by being sensitive to all interests.

He suggested a compromise to taking down all 11 panels of the mural.

"Instead of removing them all, maybe we could add a business element to it," he said. "One that depicts the importance of employer and employee."

David Clough, director of the Maine branch of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said there is a need in Maine for better balance between small business and labor.

"Small business owners would like to see a department that's visually and substantively balanced between labor and the businesses that provide jobs for workers," he said.

Bennett also released a memo from acting Labor Commissioner Laura Boyett that asks staffers for suggestions about renaming the seven conference rooms, some of which are named after labor leaders.

(Continued on page 2)

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