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.

  • Jamie

    Maine’s (and every other state’s) Department of Labor may very well be less about organized labor than it is about a broader sense of the word (both a generic noun and a verb), but I’m guessing that the very existence of departments of labor is owed in large part to organized labor. Maine’s DOL mission statement: …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… has a lot to do with what labor unions have been about. Labor departments probably wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for what those murals depict.

    That mural (which doesn’t look at all “militant” to me) belongs at the Department of Labor. If businesses want to put up their own mural showing them beating and burning up, exploiting, discriminating against, and just badly treating workers (including children) while they stuff money into their own pockets, then let them.

  • http://norwegianity.wordpress.com Mark Gisleson

    I can’t believe you think that mural is militant. There are no pictures of National Guard or Pinkertons shooting strikers, no scenes of violence — no implicit violence whatsoever. The eleven panels have only one thing in common: they all show images of men and women and children who work with their hands for a living.

    This is a Republican governor sticking his thumb in Labor’s eye. A governor from the same party that threw a hissy fit when Obama’s Oval Office remodeling job included removing a bust of Winston Churchill (who, last time I checked, wasn’t even American).

    I can’t even figure out where you’re coming from on this, Bob. A mural honoring labor created by a Maine artist was taken down on the same weekend that many Americans were solemnly commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire. I don’t think LePage could have been more provocative or insulting if had he commissioned Andres Serrano to do a replacement art installation.

  • Bob Collins

    //put up their own mural showing them beating and burning up, exploiting, discriminating against, and just badly treating workers (including children) while they stuff money into their own pockets, then let them.

    But that says there are two sides of labor. The union and the people who victimize workers.

    The issue isn’t whether unions have had a positive effect on working conditions. It’s whether in 2011, the role of a Department of Labor is as a Department of Labor Unions, or whether it is a Department of Workers.

    Hyperbole aside — please — it becomes a matter of whether there’s an “us against them” role for a state agency to play. Would the Department of Economic Development equally be justified in a mural showing the Pinkertons and the sweatshops since that’s the history of economic development and that agency traditionally is geared toward business owners? Is that helpful?

    And, yeah, I get that a lot of people are now nodding their heads, but it gets back to the question of the role of a state agency.

    As for the militancy there are panels signifying workers on strike. I would say that’s the most militant statement workers can make. That doesn’t make it bad. It doesn’t make it good. It just makes it what it is.

  • kennedy

    “Militant” may be a stretch, but the artist definitely communicates a political message. The images of a ballot box and labor protest are pretty clear references to politics and organized labor. I’m no expert, but it conjures communist propaganda.

    I checked the other 5 images and only one of the eleven panels show someone actually working (on a shoe.) The others focus almost exclusively on mistreatment of laborers rather than the value of their work.

  • Jamie

    Labor unions are not about communism. That’s either typical Republican rhetoric used to tie their opponents to anything hateful, distasteful, or un-cool. Or it’s just a lack of understanding of unions or communism. Or both.

  • http://norwegianity.wordpress.com Mark Gisleson

    Bob, unless you’re suggesting that the Treasury and dept of Commerce are neutral parties, why on earth wouldn’t a department of Labor be pro-worker? Good gravy, can you imagine the hubbub if a President ever tried to appoint a union person as Secretary of Commerce?

    I also find it odd that anyone would find it odd that workers and unions have the same agendas. If the unions are doing their job, the overlap between workers’ needs and union agendas should be 100%. That doesn’t mean all workers need a union anymore than folks who live in hi-rises need to own a snow shovel, but there’s a clear congruence of interests.

    Sorry if I sound irate but I just got done watching Inside Job and I find it astonishing that anyone would think unions and working people are getting anything like preferential treatment in this country.

  • Bob Collins

    // why on earth wouldn’t a department of Labor be pro-worker?

    Don’t think I said it shouldn’t.