Is ‘labor’ a noun or a verb?

When we say the word labor, are we talking about a verb or a noun?

When I first heard the interview on Thursday’s All Things Considered about the Maine governor moving panels depicting the state’s labor history, I had a different vision in my head of what those panels looked like:

This is what six of the panels looked like (from Judy Taylor Fine Art Studio)

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I wasn’t expecting anything quite so … what’s the word… militant. True, there’s a labor history in the country that certainly involves unions that had to fight for decency, safety, and fairness in the workplace. It’s hard to argue against its role in the history of the northeast, especially since the factories of the northeast came crumbling down when North and South Carolina start luring businesses away with their non-union business climate in the ’70s.

But is the governor’s action an assault on organized labor? The problem is labor is both a noun and a verb. As a noun, labor has come to mean unions. As a verb, it means work. Which does it mean in the name of an agency called the Department of Labor? Its mission statement doesn’t help much…


The Maine Department of Labor promotes the safety and economic well being of all individuals and businesses in Maine by promoting independence and life long learning, by fostering economic stability and by ensuring the safe and fair treatment of all people on the job.

But when the work was commissioned, a comment by a deputy commissioner made clear it was an artistic work dedicated to the noun. “I have a real sense that this is going to be a very important piece of art in the long haul, and it is going to be an accurate depiction of organized labor’s role in the history of Maine,” she said.

What was I expecting in panels about labor? Panels based on the verb. Something like this, which is a small part of a fabulous mural at Winona State University, painted by John Martin Socha under a grant from the WPA:

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Today, Maine officials removed their mural.

Is the action another assault on organized labor by a Republican governor? Perhaps. Or he’s redefining an agency’s role based more on a verb than a noun.