Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Let's keep the history of working people from being erased

(To the right is the monument at Haymarket Square in Chicago with labor historian Jeffrey Helgeson talking of its history)

As a young boy growing up in Sanford, N.C., I recall often standing in awe in front of the giant Depression-era mural that dominated one of the walls in the city's post office. The larger-than-life people and warm, dramatic colors made an impression on me, and I somehow felt connected to it. Isn't that what good art does?

Lucky for me Paul LePage wasn't mayor of my town at that time. Likely he would have blasted the mural as an example of New Deal socialism and ordered it to be removed.

The people of Maine aren't so lucky, however. LePage is their governor, and he's apparently a typical modern-day Republican who sees anything that even hints at challenging his own religion of Darwinistic capitalism as smacking of socialism and communism.

That's why he ordered an 11-panel mural by artist Judy Taylor depicting the history of Maine's working people taken down from the lobby of the Maine Labor Department. Depictions in the mural included cobblers, textile workers, labor strikes, and, horror of horrors, 1930s-era U.S. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, one of FDR's closest aides and a comrade-in-arms on worker issues.

A legal battle is still underway to restore the mural to its rightful place, but the nation's judiciary is hardly a refuge these days of pro-worker sentiment.

The irony is LePage, who (according to the Associated Press) never even saw the mural in person, brings to mind what Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin would do when officials, even close aides, fell out of favor. They simply disappeared from the history books and even from official photographs. They were erased as if they had never existed. Of course, Stalin often took it further, relocating them to Siberia, or worse.

A similar battle is now being waged in West Virginia, where activists are fighting to save Blair Mountain--site of a historic nine-day strike by 10,000 coal miners in 1921 who wanted to join the United Mine Workers. Massey Energy, owner of the mine where 29 miners died in an explosion in April 2010, and Arch Coal want to remove the mountain top--in other words, destroy the mountain--so they can search for coal.

These actions by LePage and the mining companies are simply the latest chapter in the attempted rewriting (or erasing) of history that conservatives commissioned long ago. It leaves us a history with many blank pages. You can see it by the dearth of statues in the United States honoring true American worker heroes, people like Mary "Mother" Jones, Ella May Wiggins, Mary Heaton Vorse, Jock Yablonsky, and Walter Reuther.

Travel across this nation and tour the handful of landmark sites in its labor history. The battles to erect monuments were often as fierce as the events that inspired them.

I've just returned from the Working Class Studies Association Conference in Chicago, where participants were given a tour of that great city's labor sites. One of the most important such sites in the nation is Haymarket Square, where in 1886 workers demonstrated for the eight-hour day and were met with a huge show of force from local police. Someone tossed a bomb, killing one and injuring dozens, and prompted a battle that left nearly a dozen people dead, seven of them policemen. Eight anarchists were tried for the incident, and four were executed, none of them as a result of "a shred of evidence," according to historian Thomas R. Brooks.

A monument finally exists on the Haymarket Square site today, but it came after many, many battles that included an earlier monument to the police at the site that was dynamited allegedly by the radical Weather Underground group in 1969. Even today it's a monument that causes much dispute and disagreement.

Another important labor site is the Ludlow Monument in Ludlow, Colo., commemorating the massacre there during a major strike at the Rockefeller-controlled Colorado Fuel and Iron Company in 1914. As many as 19 died, including eleven children and two women but only one of the militiamen who'd descended en masse on the workers with rifles, machine guns, bombs, and coal oil (which they poured onto the striking workers' makeshift tents and set on fire).

The monument was erected in 1918, defaced by unknown parties in 2003, and repaired and unveiled again in 2005.

Several years ago, I traveled back to my native North Carolina to do research for my book Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press. One of my stops was in Gastonia, N.C., at what I believed to have been the old Loray Mill, an abandoned, five-story, red-brick shuttered building when I saw it in 2003, but in 1929 it was the site of one of the most dramatic textile strikes in Southern history.

It was near here that minstrel Ella May Wiggins met her death at the hands of anti-labor goons, her last words being "Oh, Lord-a-mercy, they done shot and killed me." She was a 29-year-old mother of five who would serenade the workers during their strike against the grueling "stretch-out" (in which production requirements for workers were doubled, tripled and even quadrupled) on the factory floor and huge cuts in their wages.

I took lots of pictures on my old, now-discarded Olympus camera, but I'm still not absolutely sure it actually was the Loray Mill. I asked folks in the neighborhood, and no one knew.

That's what happens when history is discarded. People forget. Yet, I wonder if ghosts haunt that old building at night, one of them maybe even Ella May Wiggins, looking for the justice they never found in life. Call me irrational, but I'm inclined to believe that sort of thing.


  1. I was just searching around and found your great site, the local newspaper had a piece in todays paper which I find interesting because most people here still hate the unions here is a link for you
    keep up the great work,and yes you were at the right mill the old Loray Milland believe me its still standing and empty


  2. Thank you so much for your letter, which I just now belatedly found. I appreciate the comments.
    Joe Atkins