By Lee Sharkey
I’d like to tell you a story based on characters in three panels of Judy Taylor’s Maine labor history mural. You’ve probably had stories of your own surface when looking at it, either where it welcomed people near the entrance to the Dept. of Labor or in images spread far and wide across the media.
A week ago today, hundreds of us gathered around the mural at the DoL. It was the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which took the lives of 146 garment workers, most of them young immigrant women working 14-hour shifts for starvation wages in crowded workrooms lit by open-flame gas lamps. In Maine, women were working under similarly stressful conditions in the mills and garment factories. They are depicted in the mural’s third panel. One of the Triangle workers was Rosie Weiner, a 20-year-old Russian Jewish immigrant who’d come to the US nine years earlier, about the time my father’s father came here with his family from Russia. They had the same last name; perhaps she was a relative. Rosie took hold of her friend Tessie Wisner’s hand and together they jumped out the window to their deaths.
But exploitation and struggle are not the whole of the story. If you’ve ever heard someone, perhaps a family member, talk about their work in a mill or garment factory, you know about the bonds that formed between workers, the pleasures of friendship and the satisfaction of pulling together to accomplish the task at hand. Out of this organic solidarity grew the strength of the unions through which the workers won themselves a better life. Veterans of the factories also talk about the pride they took in their craft—cutting the pattern quickly and precisely, stitching the perfect button hole, attaching the collar without a wrinkle to the Hathaway shirt.
The factories have largely disappeared from Maine, migrating to countries where once again young women toil in sweatshops for wages that cannot sustain them, stitching the clothes we put on for work in the morning—if we have work to go to in the morning. The last panel of the History of Maine Labor mural questions what the future will hold for the people of our state. An older worker is ready to pass on the skills of his craft, but a young man and woman look doubtful that those skills will be viable in their lives.
How does Maine move forward to a future of bread and roses? I take from the past a sense of what is necessary to get us there: imagination, education, honest work, pride in craft, solidarity, the open exchange of ideas. A participatory democracy in which active citizens contribute to the institutions of a responsive government.
This is the story Judy Taylor’s mural tells me. It is not the story Governor LePage reads into it, preferring to white out our stories rather than learn from them. It is telling that the governor avoids the word “worker,” preferring to use the word “employee.” Employees exist to serve employers, whereas workers have rights and aspirations of their own. This lack of concern for lives of the working people of Maine is playing out in the administration’s legislative agenda, which would reverse the hard-won gains of the last century. Perhaps this is why the governor removed the mural—if he looked he might see in it the ruinous working conditions his policies would help revive. But the mural belongs to us and we will write its story, we are writing it together as we stand here in our State House in our Hall of Flags and as we continue to stand up for the working people of our state.