The Threat of History
Gov. LePage, meet Ms. LeClair
By Robert Bussel
Back in March, Maine Gov. Paul LePage ordered the states Department of Labor to remove a mural depicting scenes of working-class activism and union struggles from the lobby of the agencys administration building. A spokesperson for LePage explained that the labor murals did not reflect the governors pro-business agenda and asked why there were no paintings on display of L.L. Bean, the founder of the famed outdoor gear firm based in Maine, whom she described as a “job creator.”
This is not the first time that conservatives have displaced labor art from public buildings. In 1994, when Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives, they removed a painting showing images of the epic 1912 Lawrence, Mass., textile strike from the hearing room for the House Subcommittee on Labor and Education.
So whats behind these efforts to cleanse the public record of the visual history of worker militancy and labor activism? Although promoting a business agenda is doubtless one motivation, I believe that there is another objective that is far more disturbing.
What conservatives really fear, I suspect, is that contemporary workers might draw on this history for insight and inspiration, see parallels between the past and the present, and gain a deeper appreciation for the critical role that unions have played in creating economic fairness and social justice. Greater social awareness of this history also threatens to undermine conservative arguments that while unions might once have been necessary, they are no longer relevant given the expansion of legal protections for workers and a more enlightened employer approach to labor relations.
The painting showing images of the 1937 strike that LePage ordered removed is a powerful example of what it means to deprive us of these vital historical memories. This strike, which I learned about while writing a biography of Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) leader Powers Hapgood, involved thousands of shoe workers, many immigrant women of French Canadian descent, who sought to improve their poverty-level wages and stop their supervisors from engaging in sexual harassment. One of the strike leaders was a French speaking stitcher named Alexina LeClair, whose powerful speechmaking and singing led strikers to nickname her the “sweetheart of the CIO.” Noting at a union meeting that she was given good work until she “refused the attention of the boss,” LeClair eloquently summarized the aspirations of the strikers: “We will earn a living and not simply an existence.”
Due to intervention by the courts and intense employer resistance backed by local police and the Maine National Guard, the strikers failed in their organizing effort. Nonetheless, the issues they raised ã the right to a living wage, freedom from sexual harassment, insistence that employers respect the right of workers to organize, demanding that immigrants deserved a chance to achieve the American Dream ã remain highly relevant during a time when we are suffering through the worst economic downturn since the Depression.
Through the stirring example of Alexina LeClair, we are reminded that unions can help ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things. Her rallying cry, that working people deserve “a living and not simply an existence,” speaks to the visionary hopes and aspirations that have often guided working-class activism and trade unionism. These are the kinds of memories that LePage and his ideological allies are attempting to erase from public awareness.
Yes, an honest account of our history should acknowledge the contributions of pioneering business figures such as L.L. Bean. But it should also include recognition of working people like Alexina LeClair. During these hard times, LePage could learn a lot from LeClair, a fellow Franco-American whose story represents an integral part of our shared history that deserves to be told.
Robert Bussel teaches history and directs the Labor Education and Research Center at the UO. He is the author of From Harvard to the Ranks of Labor: Powers Hapgood and the American Working Class.