The Blog of the Frances Perkins Center

Archive for March, 2011|Monthly archive page

Missing: One Three-Year-Old Labor History Mural, Whereabouts Unknown

In Biography, Political world on March 29, 2011 at 7:56 pm

The Frances Perkins Center deplores the secret removal of the Maine Department of Labor’s mural depicting Maine workers through the centuries and asks that it be safely returned.

March 29, 2011 (Newcastle, Maine)–Frances Perkins, the nation’s longest serving secretary of labor and the first woman to be a U.S. Cabinet secretary, was a supporter of the arts. She was also a daughter of Maine, having inherited a beloved family homestead that has been in the Perkins family since the 1750s. It’s ironic that a mural installed in the Maine Department of Labor, which portrayed Perkins along with the workers whose lives she helped improve through passage of such measures as unemployment insurance, minimum wage legislation, child labor laws, and Social Security, would be removed from view by the Maine governor.

Later this year, a new edition of The Roosevelt I Knew by Frances Perkins will be published by Penguin Classics. In the book, Perkins describes how the WPA art projects of the 1930s came about: a “family member of a Cabinet secretary” suggested that the arts be included in the Works Progress Administration. In fact, that relative was Perkins’s teenaged daughter, Susanna. Perkins recognized the validity of Susanna’s suggestion, and joined with others advocating for the inclusion of artists, performers, musicians, and writers in the WPA, an idea that President Roosevelt also strongly supported. The Federal Art Project was born, and during the Great Depression, it created jobs for more than 5,000 artists. More than 225,000 works of art were created for the American people.

Many of the works were murals in public places. Some still remain, three-quarters of a century later. These often depict scenes from local history; others portray factory workers, or farm laborers. The intent was to show all sorts of people in their everyday lives, to honor the history and work of the nation.

Harking back to those WPA murals, in 2008 the Maine Department of Labor commissioned a mural for its new lobby. Painted by Maine artist Judy Taylor, and paid for by tax dollars through federal funding, the mural depicted the history of centuries of Maine workers. Evidently, after viewing the mural, a visiting businessperson faxed an anonymous complaint. As a result, one week ago, Maine’s governor decreed that the mural would be removed as soon as a new home was found for it.

On Monday, it was gone. Shockingly, the mural was removed over the weekend. There were no witnesses. No new home has been announced. The government of Maine, a state that prides itself on its artistic tradition and knows well the monetary value of its Creative Economy, has now “disappeared” a work of art.

What remains are the questions. Where has the mural been taken? Why is it no longer on public display? What was the urgency for its removal?

Frances Perkins’s grandson and only surviving descendent, Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall, also wonders, “Was the artwork properly removed? Is it in a safe place, suitable for the storage of art?” He is especially sensitive to this issue, as Susanna’s son. His father was the well-known painter, Calvert Coggeshall.

The Frances Perkins Center is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in Newcastle, Maine, at Perkins’s beloved historic homestead. The center celebrates Perkins’s accomplishments and seeks to carry on her commitment to economic security and social justice.

“This is a chilling act,” said Barbara Burt, executive director of the Frances Perkins Center. “We are concerned about the condition of the art. We are also aghast at the message of censorship that this action conveys. Removing this artwork is an attempt to erase the significance of Frances Perkins and the heroic struggles of Maine workers. We believe that the mural should be returned to the place for which it was specifically created, at the Department of Labor.”

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Statement at press conference in response to Maine governor’s action

In Biography, Political world on March 25, 2011 at 7:12 am

STATEMENT OF BARBARA BURT, EXECUTIVE DIRCTOR OF THE FRANCES PERKINS CENTER OF NEWCASTLE

March 25, 2011

Augusta, Maine

The Frances Perkins Center deplores the edict handed down by Maine’s governor to strip the Department of Labor of its mural depicting Maine workers through the centuries and to rename conference rooms that currently honor heroes of Maine’s workforce. I am sorry to miss this occasion to stand with artists, union members, and outraged members of the public. Ironically, at this very moment, many of the Frances Perkins Center’s board members and I, along with thousands of people from all around the country, are participating in the commemoration of the Triangle Factory Fire in Manhattan’s Washington Square. One-hundred-forty-six factory workers lost their lives in that fire one hundred years ago today.

Frances Perkins witnessed that tragedy and was galvanized by the experience, becoming a lifelong advocate for working people. As the first woman Cabinet member and the country’s longest serving secretary of labor, she is largely responsible for Social Security, the minimum wage, many workplace safety laws, and unemployment insurance.

Maine can be proud to claim Frances Perkins as one of our own. Artist Judy Taylor included a portrait of her in one of the mural’s panels, and a conference room is titled the Perkins Room. Although she wasn’t born in Maine, Frances spent her summers at her grandparents’ home in Newcastle and eventually came to own the homestead, known as the Brick House, which has been in the Perkins family since the 1750s.

It is shocking that Maine’s governor would want to divorce himself from a leader so significant in the history of our country and so closely allied with Maine. His action is completely misguided. Frances Perkins was no enemy of business. Her concern was that the relationship between employer and employee be fair and balanced, that the need for profit not outweigh the need for safety and reasonable wages.

The workers of Maine built this state just as surely as did their employers. And, as Frances Perkins recognized, they often paid for that work with their lives or disability; they certainly didn’t get rich. We strongly urge the governor to honor their contributions by allowing the mural to remain in its current location at the Department of Labor.

Maine Governor “Disses” Frances Perkins

In Biography, Political world on March 23, 2011 at 4:26 pm

Believe it or not, the governor of Maine wants to remove a mural depicting the history of Maine workers — which was commissioned by the Maine Arts Commission and painted by Maine artist Judy Taylor — from the lobby of the Department of Labor because it’s “not friendly to business.” (In the excerpt above, the eighth panel depicts Frances Perkins.)

The Maine Department of Labor has also been ordered to rename the meeting room now known as the Perkins Room.

We are aghast at this action. It is an attempt to erase history and a direct affront to the millions of workers in Maine and the country who built thousands of businesses. It’s also misguided. Frances Perkins wasn’t opposed to business; she simply wanted the drive for profit to be balanced by workplace safety, fair wages, and economic security.

Is this part of a national plan to weaken respect for working people? Add the Maine governor’s action to that of Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan…

For more about the Maine issue, read this article in the Lewiston Sun Journal.

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In Events on March 17, 2011 at 7:10 pm

 

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Holding Social Security hostage

In Legislation Today, Political world on March 16, 2011 at 2:50 pm

A report on Politico today tells of 22 GOP senators who have signed a letter to the president threatening to vote against raising the debt ceiling unless he “concedes to cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in the current budget negotiations.”

Social Security has nothing to do with the current deficit. It is self-financing and currently has a more than $2.4 trillion surplus. It is true that this year, due to the financial hardships of workers and a resulting increase in beneficiaries who are forced to take early retirement, the program will pay out more than it takes in in payroll taxes. However, the surplus will more than cover the difference, and has been set up for just that purpose. Actuaries estimate that the program has total financial stability through 2037, after which, with no adjustments, it would be able to pay out at a rate of approximately 78 percent of promised benefits. Experts suggest that, with small, relatively painless modifications such as raising the salary cap to its original level (covering 90 percent of paid wages), the program could be extended far into the future.

Yet there continues to be this obsession with cutting benefits, fueled by misinformation coming from huge Wall Street interests (who just can’t bear to see all that money and those potential fees not flowing their way) and policy wonks who are simply opposed to the idea of social insurance and government programs. These well-financed Social Security foes speak with weighty pseudo-authority, claiming all the while that they are “saving” Social Security. (As if, in order to “save” it, they must eviscerate it.) Luckily, the vast majority of Americans know that Social Security works for them and for the country’s economy, as is shown in poll after poll.

The list of Republican senators signing this letter includes Dan Coates (Indiana), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), John Cornyn (Texas), John Ensign (Nev.), Jim Risch (Idaho), Mike Crapo (Idaho), Mike Lee (Utah), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Rand Paul (Ky.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Ron Johnson (Wisc.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), Mike Enzi (Wyo.), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Richard Lugar (Ind.), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Pat Roberts (Kan.), Roger Wicker (Miss.) and Mike Johanns (Neb.).

Let’s hope they feel some electoral pain for their attack on this hugely successful government program.