History on the wall: St. Paul’s labor movement

There is a very colorful and truly beautiful wall in the Labor Centre in downtown St. Paul, but few people know about it.

Tucked in the back of the center’s meeting hall — a dark room dotted with stacks of chairs and a lonely lecturn — is a 48-foot-long, 6-foot-high history lesson on St. Paul’s labor movement.

The St. Paul Area Trades and Labor Assembly, an arm of the AFL-CIO, commissioned local artists Keith Christensen and Ta-Coumba Aiken to create the mural. The work was unveiled to a few dozen people during the assembly’s September meeting. Since its debut, even fewer people have had a chance to see it, because the room is often closed to the public.

Mural, timeline document labor history
The mural, called “The St. Paul Labor Movement, Flowing out of Us,” offers a timeline running along the bottom that tracks significant dates in labor history, such as:

1856 — St. Paul printers organize the first union in Minnesota,

1913 — Legislature passes Workers Compensation law, and

1956 — Retail clerks strike St. Paul stores.

But what’s most striking is the artwork. The mural is “split” nearly in half, with Keith Christensen’s work on the left and Ta-Coumba Aiken’s on the right. A blue swath snakes through the two works, connecting images of labor’s early history with those of today and the future. Naturally, the blue line represents the Mississippi River, so important to the creation of St. Paul, its industries and its workers.

Christensen’s side of the wall has the look and feel of the early 20th century with a few representations of the anonymous but noble “Everyman.” Woven around these figures is a collage of faces, places, and events that make up the Twin City’s labor movement. There are images of labor parades and portraits of leaders, including William Mahoney (former labor leader and mayor of St. Paul), and journalist Eva McDonald Valesh.

Aiken’s side of the mural continues the action (the mural really does appear to move). Also a collage, it combines colorful shapes overlayed with impressionistic line drawings of contemporary labor history and its players. One section includes drawings of Nellie Stone Johnson, Paul Wellstone‘s famed green bus, and even Garrison Keillor http://prairiehome.publicradio.org/ (after all, what’s a Minnesota mural without him?). Aiken’s representations become more abstract as the mural acknowledges St. Paul’s unknown labor future.

 

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Unions launch Labor Legacy Project
Shar Knutson, president of St. Paul’s Trades and Labor Assembly, says the mural is the cornerstone of the assembly’s Labor Legacy Project campaign. “We believe as an organization, you need to know where you came from to know where you’re going,” Knutson says.

As part of the initiative, the Assembly is designing a curriculum to teach Twin Cities labor history in the public schools. Knutson says the assembly also wants to raise enough money to digitally archive the St. Paul Union Advocate newspaper, which was first published in 1897. (I learned that from the mural!)

The legacy project’s slogan: “To preserve our past. To preserve our future.”

“The union movement pushed for things we tend to take for granted today,” says Knutson. “We didn’t always have the eight-hour work day, child labor laws, holidays, sick time off. We’re seeing a decline in those benefits today, which makes it all the more important to highlight where we’ve come from.”

The influence of U.S. labor unions has declined as the industrial economy continues to give way to the service and technology industries. But Minnesota is above average in union participation at 20 percent, compared with the national average of 13 percent. Knutson says the assembly’s membership is about 60,000. She says future growth of St. Paul’s unions will depend on a mix of restructuring the state’s union infrastructure, political alliances and community partnerships.

Knutson sees the mural helping to educate St. Paul residents and gain their support.

The mural is actually painted on 12 separate panels of wood. That’s because the Assembly wants to be able to lend pieces of it to schools and other groups. Assembly workers also are developing an interactive, point-and-click Internet version of the mural so anyone can access it without having to come to St. Paul.

And, that’s a good thing, because the mural is not easy to see. The room is often booked with meetings, keeping the work of art behind closed doors. To find out when the mural is available for viewing, contact the assembly’s community services liaison, Lynne Larkin-Wright, at 651-222-3787, ext. 16, or llwright@stpaulunions.org.

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