AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s plan to remove a mural depicting the history of the state’s labor movement is adding fuel to the fire of the already contentious debate between the Republican administration and labor forces over pension benefits and union membership.

The $60,000 artwork, purchased with federal funds, was installed in the lobby of the Maine Department of Labor offices in 2008, shortly after its move into the leased office complex on Commerce Drive in Augusta. But after what administration officials characterized as a handful of recent complaints about the perceived message behind the mural, the governor ordered its removal.

“When you walk into that lobby, there’s a clear message that comes across,” said the governor’s press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, citing complaints about the pro-union themes in the artwork.  “There’s a new message in Augusta, and that’s that the governor works for the people, all the people, not just a single group.”

The move comes within days of union rallies at the State House and LePage’s ceremonial raising of an “Open for Business,” sign under the “Welcome to Maine” sign on Interstate 95 in Kittery. The governor has made clear his support for “right to work” laws, which would allow workers in union shops to forgo paying dues if they choose not to join the union. Unions oppose such laws because they say they are required to represent all workers in a union shop regardless of whether they are members, and it’s already illegal to force workers to become union members.

LePage also has called for unionized state workers to contribute more of their paychecks to the state’s pension system. He also has proposed caps on cost-of-living adjustments for state retirees and supports an increase in the minimum retirement age for new hires and anyone with less than five years of service.

Bennett said Wednesday the decision to remove the mural is not meant to antagonize union forces.

But Sen. Troy Jackson, an Allagash Democrat and logger heavily involved in labor issues, said the mural’s planned removal is just one more hostile act by an anti-union governor. Jackson said he never viewed the mural as overly pro-labor, and he wonders why anyone would be offended by the depictions of the history of the state’s own labor movement. The decision to remove the mural, Jackson said, is a petty move that is emblematic of the governor’s approach to labor issues, he said.

“It just goes to show their attitude toward organized labor,” Jackson said. “We should be working to make businesses more attracted to Maine and should raise up workers’ wages and health benefits, not tear them down like we are tearing down a mural on the wall. I just think it is very petty.”

Administration officials provided one written complaint about the mural, but said more informal complaints were raised with the governor’s office.

“In studying the mural I also observed that this mural is nothing but propaganda to further the agenda of the union movement,”  reads the written complaint, dated Feb. 24, and penned to LePage by a “secret admirer.” “I felt for a moment that I was in communist North Korea where they use these murals to brainwash the masses.”

But the mural artist, Judy Taylor of Tremont, said Wednesday that the painting is not about politics. The artwork, which was installed in the lobby in August 2008, is about the history of Maine and should be treated as such, she said.

“It’s not a political statement,” Taylor said, while on a break between teaching art classes at All Saints Catholic School in Bangor. “I’ve never heard a complaint about the mural. Most people take it as a learning experience.”

Marcia Diamond, principal of All Saints Catholic School, said Wednesday that is how the school approached it. Faculty and pupils were aware of Taylor’s involvement in the mural’s commission and talked about the mural and Maine’s labor history as part of the school’s regular history curriculum, Diamond said. When the mural officially was unveiled, several members of the school’s staff attended the event, she said.

“We’re very proud of the work she does,” Diamond says. “She’s an excellent art teacher.”

Taylor said she spent a year working on the project, which consists of 11 panels, each nearly 8 feet high, that stretch for 36 feet along the lobby wall. She said she worked closely with Charles Scontras, a labor historian and former University of Maine professor, in choosing the scenes to be depicted in the mural.

“It’s enough to make you weep,” Scontras, whose likeness is depicted as a cobbler in the mural’s first panel, said Wednesday. “I think this will produce quite a bit more reaction than [LePage] imagines.”

Scontras said that Maine’s Franco-American community, which include LePage’s ancestors, benefited greatly from the state’s labor movement in the early 20th century. The mural’s removal, he said, is more about partisan politics than it is about helping people.

“I just don’t see getting rid of the panels as doing anything for his budget problem,” Scontras said. “You just don’t erase a historical and cultural legacy.”

According to Taylor’s website, some of the mural panels depict women shipbuilders during World War II, the 1986 International Paper strike in Jay, and former federal Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, whose family homestead in Newcastle is now the Frances Perkins Center. The 11th panel depicts a worker from the past offering a hammer to modern-day workers “who are unsure of its value in a changing world,” the website says.

Beyond the mural’s removal, LePage also has called for the renaming of several of the labor department’s conference rooms, one of which is named after Perkins, another for Scontras, and yet another for Cesar Chavez,  an iconic labor leader and civil rights activist.

Laura Fortman, the labor commissioner under Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, on  Wednesday criticized what she called LePage’s “sweeping action.” She said it was especially troubling because it comes so close to the 100th anniversary of a tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory that claimed the lives of 146 garment workers in New York City and inspired Perkins in her efforts to strengthen workers’ rights.

“It just seems like when you have tens of thousands of Mainers looking for work, to focus on changing the names of rooms and and taking down murals is … interesting,” said Fortman, who described the mural as a meaningful and accurate depiction of the history of Maine’s labor movement.

“It is a powerful work of art, and I think the governor’s action is a testament to its power,” said Fortman, adding that news of its imminent removal was “hard to hear.”

David Clough of the Maine Federation for Independent Business said he saw the reasoning behind LePage’s requests regarding the mural’s removal and the renaming of the conference rooms.

“I know conference rooms A and B aren’t the most remarkable, but they are probably the least offensive,”  said Clough, whose organization represents small-business interests.

While changing the name of a conference room is relatively simple in a logistical sense, moving a massive mural isn’t.

Taylor said the mural can be removed without being damaged. But her first choice is to have it remain in the MDOL lobby, she added.

The mural could be closer to a new home, however.

While Bennett said Wednesday that efforts to place the work in the Maine State Museum were not fruitful because the museum does not display modern works, another undisclosed museum has offered to put the mural on display.

Administration officials are working with the Maine Arts Commission to find a home for the mural, but there is no timeline for its removal and relocation, she said.

Taylor said that when the mural was erected, she never imagined that anyone would order its removal two and a half years later.

“I would say this is a very short lifespan,” Taylor said. “I feel like it should definitely stay.”

BDN writer Kevin Miller contributed to this report.

Mural Fax