Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"You have nothing to lose but your heritage" Charlie Scontras, Labor Historian

I am saddened that a gifted artist, Judy Taylor, who created these kaleidoscopic  images of working Maine men, women and children featured in the Labor Mural, is ensnared in that seething cauldron of political conflict which has been known to claim its own innocent victims. 

Judy Taylor is not a “card carrying communist” and her clothing is not draped in pins bearing the hammer and sickle  Her work is a pure and innocent depiction of a slice of Maine cultural heritage. 

When I first viewed her images of workers, I felt as if I could  walk into any of the panels representing desperate workers and interact with them.  I sensed the indignities they suffered, their quest for a measure of economic security and dignity, and their cries protection against the arbitrary and capricious actions of their employers.  

I could sense the granite cutters going into the bowels of the earth to extract the granite, cut the granite, and polish the granite.  I could sense the sweat and pain of those who labored to lay down the ribbons of steel that crisscrossed the state, who built the locomotives that drove over them, and the engineers who piloted them.  I could experience the  travails of those who penetrated the darkness of the forests to extract its resources and of  the men, women, and children who labored in the textile mills where the cry for fresh air could be heard with monotones  regularity, and where the hours were so long that it was often said that did not see sunlight for they labored from darkness to darkness.

These are images of those who did and do the work of the world, Those who wove the cloth, made the shoes, harvested the crops, made the ships, loaded and unloaded the ships, and manned  the “floating prisons”  at sea, and all others who labored to provide the necessities, comforts, conveniences, and services.  In short, those who labored in the mills, factories,  mines, shops, quarries, etc., who helped to create the wealth of the state.

I was particularly disturbed by the images of child labor. Images of society’s most vulnerable members tethered to the machine and hobbled in their educational and physical health, victimized by the ravenous appetites of their parents or their employers, and doomed to an infinite variety of pathologies which threatened not  only their own welfare but also the welfare  of the community, provided citizens of the state with a sense of the human costs of unchecked industrial growth and the factory system.

A dramatic example ot the consequences of the search for profit in unbridled  unbridled economic order was the Triangle fire of 1911 that we tearfully remember here today.  Maine workers knew something of the meaning of that fire.   They too labored in multistoried building with out fire escapes.  They too knew of doors closed after they entered the  workplace.  Little wonder that some expressed anxiety about their safety.  The First Biennial Report of the Maine Department of Labor and Industry, 1911-1912, was published against the background of the Triangle fire.  It stated that it was “folly” to assume that our mills and factories offered workers security against fire.  It would appear to be axiomatic that no one be permitted pursue profit at the expense of the health or safety of another.

Looking at these images one is reminded that it was organized labor that helped to create the modern middle class by demanding a greater share of the wealth it helped to create;  that it was organized labor that brought democracy to the  workplace and provided workers with a voice is shaping the laws and workplace policies under which they labored and which  made them citizens at work rather than subjects; and that it was organized labor that insisted a measure of dignity in the workplace rather than treated as  impersonal  costs of  production to be found in the ledger along with taxes, insurance, raw materials, etc. and whose “value” was determined by the “laws” of the market place.

The Labor Mural should remain in the Labor Department.  Workers of Maine Unite!  You have nothing to lose but your heritage.

1 comment:

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