Sarah E. Bond’s recent Op-ed in the New York Times entitled “Erasing the Face of History ” describes the recent ruling of a Cairo court which “ordered that images of the ousted Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, and his wife, Suzanne, as well as their names, be removed from all ‘public squares, streets, libraries and other public institutions around the country.’” Professor Bond traces the practice of erasing vestiges of public figures through antiquity to draw lessons from the ancients. She notes that ancient Egyptian rulers employed this practice in a number of noteworthy instances as did the Romans. According to Professor Bond the Romans referred to the “destruction of images by government decree” as “damnatio memoriae” – to damn the memory of the person, ruler or deity.
The ruling by the Egyptian court described by Professor Bond bears a striking similarity to Maine Governor Paul LePage’s decree ordering the removal of a 36-foot wide, 11-panel mural by Maine artist Judy Taylor, depicting images of working men and women, significant events in Maine labor history, important strikes, Maine native and first women Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins and even Rosie the Riveter from the Maine Labor Department building. Much like the Egyptian court, Governor LePage’s decree represents the culmination of decades of groundwork by a growing movement. But unlike Egypt, where efforts to erase the memory of Mubarak emerged from a popular uprising, efforts to erase the American labor movement from the public consciousness – damnatio memoriae laboris tractus – is the work of billion dollar corporations and wealthy elites.
Working mostly behind the scenes in academic, political, and media circles for the past 40-plus years, corporations and the wealthy elite have funded a multipronged strategy to wipe out the history of the integral role played by the American labor movement in the founding and growth of our nation. They have promoted the revision of American history by excising the labor movement from American history text books and funded endowments for academics that share their interest in damnatio memoriae laboris tractus.
Corporate CEOs and wealthy elites have long recognized that manipulating our nation’s education system to capture the minds and opinions of those that will one day work for a living, and may have an opportunity to either support or oppose unions at their workplaces, is critical to damnatio memoriae laboris tractus. I discovered the depth of this deception during my first college Labor Studies class when I was given a long list of books about the American labor movement, including a sizable number of labor history books. Of all the books on the reading list one stood out and invited me to read it first. It was called Labor’s Untold Story (Boyer & Morais) and in high detail and flair the authors chronicle the rich history, struggles, discord and development of the American labor movement.
Discovering the breath, influence and importance of the labor movement in American history left me wondering why my high school American history texts had deleted all but a cursory mention of the labor movement. Labor’s Untold Story aptly describes how the history of America’s workers and their unions remains largely untold. After reading other labor history texts and biographies of American labor leaders it became clear that American history and the American history of workers, their unions and movements exist in parallel dimensions with traditional American history excluding or diminishing the role and contributions of working men and women and the labor movement.
Not content to excise the labor movement from the history books, right-wingers have also targeted Labor Studies programs for closure at colleges and universities across the nation and pro-worker professors are under attack. Take the case of University of Wisconsin Professor William Cronon who wrote an op-ed in the New York Times critical of Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union crusade. Following publication of his op-ed, Professor Cronon was targeted by the Wisconsin Republican Party and a right-wing, corporate-backed think tank with requests for e-mails Professor Cronon had written as well as e-mails of labor studies professors at three Michigan Universities to determine the political content and leanings of these professors. The obvious purpose of scouring e-mails is to chill and intimidate those within academe opposing damnatio memoriae laboris tractus. Edward Wasserman, professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University, concludes:
“The goal is to cherry-pick unguarded remarks by faculty who are critical of today’s wave of union-busting. Their comments will then be gathered and brandished not to halt already prohibited activities, but to try to stigmatize the professors as ideologues. The target, it seems clear, is their writing – and, ultimately, their classrooms.”
Undermining and attacking labor education is a national trend which has resulted in a significant decline in the number of colleges and universities with bona-fide labor studies programs and curricula. Labor studies programs at many universities have been defunded, de-emphasized and destroyed by university administrators intent on pleasing wealthy donors and corporations loath to give to institutions that educate workers and students about the history, structure and function of the American labor movement.
In their unrelenting quest for control, CEOs, wealthy elites and their political puppets have failed to grasp the vitality and adaptability of the American labor movement. The concurrent assault on workers, unions and labor education is not the first time in American history that corporate bosses, wealth elites and their political henchmen have engaged in a war on workers and unions. Corporate bosses have used every means available, from brass knuckles to bullets, courts to cops, to try and kill the American labor movement.
Those who attempt to wipe out the past and present labor movement need to know that Professor Bond concluded that damnatio memoriae – “failed in its purpose” as evidenced by the fact that history has recorded the names, actions and contributions of those figures whose memories were damned by decree. Don Berry, President of the Maine AFL-CIO echoes and reinforces this message: “Paul LePage cannot erase our history, and he will not silence the voice of the working class in Maine.”
History will record the day when Maine’s labor mural is returned to its rightful place in the Department of Labor building and the labor movement regains its rightful place in the hearts and minds of America’s working class and the foes of trade unionism learn that the history, practice and contributions of the American labor movement will never be erased from American history!
Bill Londrigan, President
Kentucky State AFL-CIO