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Josh and Heidi Belka stood before what was once their mural of Joe Hill, which had boldly declared that "the capitalist class" killed him.
The mural depicting the labor cause's world-famous martyr, who was executed in Utah nearly 100 years ago went up last week on the side of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees' union building, at 526 W. 800 South in Salt Lake City.
"Fire Your Boss," "Abolish the Wage System," "Murdered by the Capitalist Class" and other phrases bordered a portrait of Hill and some of his protest song lyrics.
The union had voted to put up a mural, a project that the Belkas who are members took up. But sometime Monday night, someone painted over the mural with an American flag, destroying the Belkas' project, two and a half years in the making.
"As though someone who's associated with a certain political party is not American," Heidi Belka said Wednesday. She said she expected that someone might cover up the border's statements, or ask them to take the mural down, but not destroy the mural.
The Salt Lake City couple suspect fellow union members were responsible, based in part on negative comments. The Belkas heard rumors of "a paint party" around the office, and Heidi Belka said that a coworker told her that she didn't like the "communist mural" on their wall, "that I shouldn't have painted it on the building."
The IATSE regional management could not immediately be reached for comment. The Belkas called Salt Lake City police, but said they were told vandalism charges are unlikely if fellow union members painted over a mural on their own building.
Detective Veronica Montoya confirmed Thursday that the police are not pursuing criminal charges.
Hill was executed in 1915 for the murder of ex-Salt Lake City police officer John G. Morrison, who was shot in the Morrison family's downtown grocery store. Two men, masked by red bandanas that covered their faces, burst in and shot Morrison and his teenage son, Arling, in January 1914. Many argued Hill a songwriter for the Industrial Workers of the World was not the man who shot Morrison.
In death, Hill became a martyr for the labor cause.
The union voted years ago to put up a mural, said Tim Reynolds, the local union president. But in all that time, he said, the Belkas never shared the planned content of the art project.
"Not a word to anybody," he said. "What did they expect to happen?"
Reynolds was in remote Kane County, helping on a movie set, when he received cellphone pictures of the Belkas' mural.
"It was a huge surprise to people," he said. "Mostly, [the backlash] wasn't Joe Hill. We like Joe Hill, he was a good guy. It was the outside border that some people saw as communistic, socialistic talking points."
Reynolds questioned whether those phrases should be on the side of their building: "It's not exactly the message that a lot of people want to have sent to the general public."
The local IATSE chapter has been around since 1903, and has worked in large venues such as USANA Amphitheatre and Energy Solutions Arena. They are also working on "Blood & Oil," the first television series to be shot in Utah since "Touched by an Angel" ended in 2006.
Reynolds said he would rather not hurt union members' employment opportunities.
While the union president didn't like the Belkas' choice of words for the mural, he said he doesn't approve of the way their work was painted over without prior discussion, either.
Reynolds added that he doesn't know who did it.
Heidi Belka, convinced the mural was painted over by union members, said she cried and "felt so much sorrow" for the labor community, and never expected that "as a labor union, they would deface Joe Hill."
The stagehand union's regional district representatives were proud of the mural, Heidi Belka said. They took photographs and were planning on sharing it in the quarterly newsletter.
The Belkas said they have recently butted heads with fellow union members over other issues.
"We've come under fire in our local for helping our dispatchers go union" several months ago, Josh Belka said. "In fact, we've even been brought up on charges [for sharing privileged information] inside our local … so there's going to be a trial; we may lose our membership."
Hugh Glass, a fellow union member who helped the Belkas install the mural, was not shocked to hear it was painted over, given the union's internal politics. He thinks some people misunderstood the mural and Hill in general.
"Given the way it was painted over, somehow people feel that there's something un-American about Joe Hill. And I don't subscribe to that at all," Glass said. "I think it's very American to have a working class with living wages and sustainability."
There are lots of great people within IATSE, Josh Belka said. But the Belkas claim the union has a disciplinary culture that has resulted in people being unwilling to stand up for themselves.
"I think it's a sign of the times where union members' sentiments would be against a labor hero," Heidi Belka said.
Reynolds responded that the union is not "about pushing anybody down, never have been … It irks me a little bit that [the Belkas are] pushing this attitude."
He added: "[The Belkas] have created a few enemies, and a few frenemies. There's groundswell, and it's coming to a head… They're a small group that are really pushing this agenda."
Reynolds expects the next union meeting will be well attended. And it may be an opportunity to "hammer out" the schism in the union membership.
"[The mural's defacing] has revealed people's true colors," Heidi Belka said. "I think in the end, something very good may happen to our local. I think after the dust settles, that this may change some people's hearts and minds and they'll get on board with the labor movement."
As the Belkas see it, the mural's demise also may get more people talking about Hill.
"These people don't even know the beginnings of our roots," Heidi Belka said. "… I think there is opportunity, especially since the vandalism, for people to learn about Joe Hill. I think people who would not have gotten involved or cared too much that this beautiful Joe Hill mural was on the wall, I think now they may be provoked to care."
Tribune Photo Editor Jeremy Harmon contributed to this story.