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Laborers' Union Hall Mural Demolished But Not Forgotten

Kari Sandhaas the artist
McLean County Museum of History
Kari Sandhaas in front of the Laborers' Union Hall Mural in 1988.

The old Laborers' Local 362 union hiring hall is being demolished this week. The building featured a mural created by Kari Sandhaas in the 1980s, which displayed Bloomington-Normal’s historical relationship with labor and unionizing.

According to her husband, Mike Matejka, the mural is an important reflection of Bloomington-Normal’s close relationship with labor unions. 

“Here's a place where every morning there were 70 to 90 laborers waiting for work. There were numerous political meetings, there were multiple unions that met there. Never once did anybody graffiti, never once did anybody try to do anything to this, even though dozens of people were in and out. And I think that shows that sense that this was ours, this belonged to the group. And so there was a lot of respect shown toward this piece of artwork,” said Matejka. 

The community has been unionizing since the 1850s. One of the scenes featured in the mural is the Chicago-Alton Railroad strike of 1854, and later Bloomington-Normal was one of the figureheads of the nationwide railroad worker strike of 1922. 

The mural also features the longest firefighter strike in United States history, in 1978, lasting 56 days. Matejka and Sandhaas included scenes from the Ferrara Candy Company (then called Beich Candy Company) strike in 1937. Many community members came forward to share stories about mothers and grandmothers who were involved in the strikes.

Matejka emphasized women as the leaders of labor movements in Bloomington-Normal.

“Mike had done a lot of history research in the late 70s on local labor history, here in Bloomington-Normal, and this mural actually builds on that foundation of research that he did, but once those stories started to be gathered, then we identified where those people were and people did bring out their photographs. So different faces in the mural are based on those photographs of individuals,” said Sandhaas.

She also said she does not believe murals are losing relevance, but rather viewers are shifting their perceptions. Sandhaas cited stained glass windows as an example of relaying stories through images and art, but images and art are digitized more frequently for historical archiving. 

The mural was open for one last public viewing on Friday. A high-resolution photo was taken, and there are discussions of whether the mural will be reproduced in the new Laborers hall.

Listen to the full interview with Sandhaas and Matejka:

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
Katie Seelinger is an intern in the GLT newsroom.