Maine Gov. Paul LePage wants a few changes to the state’s Department of Labor offices so they don’t give the impression the department champions labor. LePage, another new Tea Party-backed Republican governor who’s battling public employee unions, ordered the removal of a mural depicting events from the state’s labor history after “some business owners” complained about art deco images of protests and strikes. He also ordered the renaming of conference rooms honoring farm worker organizer César Chávez and FDR Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins.
Apparently, in 2011 employers (and the governors they own) feel threatened by Chávez, who used nonviolence to urge California out of The Grapes of Wrath era, and Perkins, who engineered minimum wage and overtime laws and a 44-hour work week. During the era of industrialization, Maine was a backwater state where conditions were always a peg worse than they were in Massachusetts. Today’s business leaders are irate at the lionization of those who demanded better. That’s frightening.
If these “business owners” succeed in sending America’s labor history down the memory hole, there won’t be much accurate history left to put in a mural. Working-class people settled our expanding territories, forged the arsenals that won our wars and made up every wave of immigration that redefined our culture. The questions of who does the backbreaking work that builds a country and how they are treated are central to many threads weaved into our 234-year story— except in times of foreign war, they are usually the paramount issues of the day.
When the United States was founded, its work force had no rights. Slaves and indentured servants worked the farms and maintained the houses, providing the Founding Fathers the time and sustenance to indulge their political brilliance. In the next 90 years, this system nearly tore apart the republic, pitting North against South, defining the admission of many new states and leading to a constitutional crisis and war. Abolition, secession, the Civil War — they all stemmed from a dispute over labor.
The Industrial Revolution built up the country as an economic powerhouse and secured America’s place at the global table. The transition from farm homesteads to wage labor also slowly etched out a new set of rights, just as essential to the American character as those in the Constitution — fair wages, reasonable hours, workplace safety, restrictions on child labor and, eventually, freedom from job discrimination.
Still, the powerful lived with the guilt-induced fear that the masses would violently overthrow the system if they could, leading to red scares and the anti-communism that defined America’s foreign policy for decades.
Red-blooded American workers didn’t despise the system; they just wanted a place within it that sheltered them from financial insecurity and exploitation, the results of which became horrifically apparent when the abuses and excesses of a moneyed few led to the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented new bank regulations, laid out the New Deal and set up Social Security. His humane, sensible approach rebuilt America and guided the course of government until the ‘80s conservative movement deemed it un-American.
The post-Depression restrictions on banks were stripped away a few years before the 2008 crash, allowing history to repeat itself seamlessly (and they haven’t been put back into place, setting us up to fall again). At the same time, the Bush tax policy ran up a deficit that is jeopardizing the social safety net and depositing an increasingly ridiculous amount of wealth into the hands of a few. Now, the likes of Paul LePage are working to dismantle unions, force the poor and middle class to pay for the economic disaster created by the bailed-out rich and sanitize all aspects of government to be “business-friendly.”
The history of America belongs to labor. Its future as a shelled-out, two-tiered plutocracy that sees working people as commodities will belong to business.