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March 30, 2011

Frances Perkins, Joe Hill, and the Struggle of Memory Against Forgetting

"The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history, Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster. . . . The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."
     The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, 1979
     Milan Kundera, Czechoslovakian, born 1929.

The Governor of Maine, a small and unaccomplished man whose name shall not be documented here, has chosen to pursue his sponsor's agenda by stripping artwork and renaming conference rooms at Maine's Department of Labor. This is no different from the Soviet manipulation of history by doctoring official photographs to remove the fallen from the public's eye, so that the public will forget about them and move on.

These are the offensive murals the governor is having removed:

This demonstrates the old maxim that while it takes a skilled craftsman to build a house, any idiot with a sledgehammer can knock one down.

From the inestimable Robert Reich,

[The] Maine Governor... has ordered state workers to remove from the state labor department a 36-foot mural depicting the state’s labor history. One panel shows my predecessor at the U.S. Department of Labor, Frances Perkins.

The Administration is also renaming conference rooms that had carried the names of historic leaders of American labor, as well as former Secretary Perkins. The Governor’s spokesman explains that the mural and the conference-room names were “not in keeping with the department’s pro-business goals.”" ...

Frances Perkins was the first woman cabinet member in American history. She and her boss, Franklin D. Roosevelt, came to office at a time when average working people needed help – and Perkins and Roosevelt were determined to give it to them. Together, they created Social Security, unemployment insurance, the right of workers to unionize, the minimum wage, and the forty-hour workweek.

That’s why the current Republican assault on workers – on their right to form unions, on unemployment insurance and Social Security, on public employees, and even (courtesy of [the] Governor) on our common memory – is so despicable. ...

Governor, you might be able to erase some of Maine’s memory, but you’ll have a hard time erasing the nation’s memory – even if it’s not in keeping with your pro-business goals.

The Maine Governor's intention is to erase the memorials to labor leaders, to erase the memory of a labor movement, in order to advance his sponsor's agenda. When you remove the names, the artwork, and the statues; when you revise the history and the schoolbooks, as the generations pass the memory fades. He would like the memory of Frances Perkins to fade away.

Frances Perkins, RIP

From Wikipedia:
With The Social Security Act [Frances Perkins] established unemployment benefits, pensions for the many uncovered elderly Americans, and welfare for the poorest Americans. She pushed to reduce workplace accidents and helped craft laws against child labor. Through the Fair Labor Standards Act, she established the first minimum wage and overtime laws for American workers, and defined the standard 40-hour work week. She formed governmental policy for working with labor unions and helped to alleviate strikes by way of the United States Conciliation Service.

She achieved statewide prominence as head of the New York Consumers League in 1910 and in that position she lobbied with vigor for better working hours and conditions. In 1911 she was an eyewitness to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a pivotal event in her life.

Having earned the cooperation and respect of various political factions, Perkins ably helped put New York in the forefront of progressive reform. She expanded factory investigations, reduced the workweek for women to 48 hours, and championed minimum wage and unemployment insurance laws.

The Frances Perkins Building in Washington DC, the headquarters of the United States Department of Labor, was named in her honor in 1980. Perkins is also honored with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on May 13.

Holy Laity, Batman, She's got a Feast Day named after her!

Repositioning Child Labor

Maine's Republican legislature is developing legislation to reduce child labor protections:
The minimum wage in Maine is $7.50 an hour, and there is no training or subminimum wage for students. But under a new piece of legislation introduced in the state's House of Representatives, employers would be able to pay anyone under the age of 20 as little as $5.25 an hour for their first 180 days on the job.

The bill, LD 1346, also eliminates the maximum number of hours a minor 16 years of age or older can work on a school day and allows a minor under the age of 16 to work up to four hours on a school day during hours when school is not in session.

I would like to restate for clarity: Frances Perkins worked for the 40-hour work week, minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and overtime; she was against workplace accidents and child labor. The Republican governor wants to remove all traces of her memory, set wages for young workers below the minimum wage, and let under-16 kids work up to four hours every school night.

The Governor may rename the building and the rooms, and the task of preserving the memory of the labor movement and the memory of Frances Perkins may fall upon others who do not have the means to name buildings and offices. We can only hope that the Streisand Effect will perversely thwart the governor's intention.

There are other ways to preserve a memory. A song can be an effective means of memorializing a person or a movement. "Let me write the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws."
Let's consider the story of union organizer and song writer Joe Hill.

Joe Hill

Joe Hill (1879 – 1915) was a Swedish-American labor activist, songwriter, and member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). He learned English during the early 1900s while working itinerant industrial jobs across America.

Hill became a respected song writer for the workers' association. His most famous songs include "The Preacher and the Slave", "The Tramp", "There is Power in the Union", "Rebel Girl", and "Casey Jones: Union Scab", which generally express the harsh but combative life of industrial workers.

In 1914, Hill was accused of the murders of two prominent citizens. Hill, who had a gunshot would, declined to give an alibi; he explained the wound as the consequence of a dispute. Contemporaries suggested that Hill declined to make public his alibi (an assignation with a married woman) in order to protect her. He was convicted in a controversial trial with changing testimony. Following an unsuccessful appeal, political debates, and international calls for clemency, Hill was executed in November 1915.

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.
Don't let them re-write history and erase the memory of the labor movement.


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