Ricardo Levins Morales describes himself as a “healer and trickster organizer disguised as an artist.” The social justice artist is celebrating 50 years of artistry and activism, and he’s visiting Portland in November to attend Portland Jobs With Justice’s annual dinner as the keynote speaker.
Morales was born in Puerto Rico during the anti-colonial movement and spent his teenage years delving into the world of organized activism and protests in Chicago with visionary groups such as the Young Lords and the Black Panthers. He sees his art as “medicinal,” as a way to address trauma individually, collectively and historically.
Morales’ current organizing efforts beyond the art studio include workshops on trauma and resilience for organizers, creative and strategic training for organizing, sustainable activism, and mentoring young activists in his community and nationally.
Casey Miller: What do you believe makes a social protest effective – and how is this seen in your artwork?
Ricardo Levins Morales: It really depends. What are the conditions? What’s the balance of power for a protest in a concentration camp? It’s a lot different than a protest in a workplace. It depends on how much leeway you have, and how much organization you have. So there’s no single answer to that. It’s like saying asking what kind of medicine is most effective? What’s the condition of the patient, you know?
Miller: What artists and activists have influenced you over the years?
Morales: Oh my gosh. Well, I learned to do art by copying art. I dropped out of high school, so I never had any formal education in it. One of the main influences on me was one of the Puerto Rican screen printing masters. Screen printing is a highly advanced art in Puerto Rico, where I’m from. So, he was a major influence there. Also, cartoon artists, caricature artists, because I started out doing a lot of political caricatures.
In terms of activism, there’s a long line of political ancestors. My parents were both involved in the anti-colonial movement in Puerto Rico. When we moved to the States, when I was an adolescent, a major influence was Fred Hampton, who was the leader of the local chapter of the Black Panther Party. We did very creative coalition-building work across racial boundaries. That has still left an imprint on how I think about organizing.
Workers at New Seasons Market report that the iconic local grocery chain will be put up for sale soon by its private equity owner, Endeavour Capital – this is according to rumors filtering down from managers. That would make sense because Endeavour first invested in New Seasons in 2009 and typically sells off its portfolio companies within 5 to 10 years.
What future do you want for New Seasons? Scroll down to take our survey.
New Seasons Market was founded in 1999 by three Portland-area families and has since grown to 21 stores employing 3,300 workers, mostly in the Portland metro area. Customers have gravitated to its prepared foods and stated commitment to sustainability and progressive values. But, under Endeavour’s ownership, New Seasons has also faced criticism over its role in gentrification and for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on anti-union consultants.
When Endeavour Capital first invested in New Seasons in 2009, co-founder Brian Rohter claimed Endeavour was brought in to help transition New Seasons to some form of worker ownership. “At the end of this process,” he wrote, “the majority of the company will be owned by the original shareholders and staff members”. In 2012, when Endeavour became the majority owner, New Seasons CEO Lisa Sedlar predicted the company would achieve employee ownership within 5 years.
Now that a sale appears to be on the horizon, is employee ownership still on the table? With Endeavour’s sale process shrouded in secrecy, we have no way to know, but a sale could go any number of ways:
As New Seasons’ #SellByDate fast approaches, Jobs With Justice thinks workers, shoppers, and impacted communities should have a voice in the future of the company.
Full disclosure: At Jobs With Justice, we are excited about the potential for employee ownership to give employees real power to shape the future of the company in ways that are good for workers and the community. However, we also know that is not always what happens with ESOPs. So, we’re going to be doing some homework on the subject.
What do you think? Fill out our super short survey below! The survey has one section for community members, and one section for current employees of New Seasons.
Global online retailer Amazon announced last month that July 15th and 16th will be “Prime Day,” dropping prices on millions of goods for members of its Prime service. It’s workforce of 650,000 people will face the monumental task of packing and shipping it all out.
Amazon says that its online retail dominance is due to “Amazing People and Amazing Technology”. In our community, many of those people work at huge facilities in Hillsboro, Portland, and Troutdale. Workers report dire conditions at these and other Amazon facilities, including unbearable heat or freezing cold conditions, insufficient bathroom access, poverty wages, not enough hours, and a competitive work culture that raises serious safety concerns.
Managers claim they can’t control the temperature in Amazon rented buildings, like the Portland facility. Prime Day, falling in the summer, purposefully creates a massive increase in sales and an incredible strain on workers that rivals the winter holidays. With only 5 toilets for the more than three hundred workers at the Portland facility, conditions are, shall we say, sub-Prime!
These Amazon workers make $15.00 an hour, after the company raised wages last year (while simultaneously eliminating some benefits and bonuses that workers enjoyed). Workers report that most Amazon workers at the Portland area facilities work 5.95 hours per shift, making them ineligible for benefits like health insurance and paid time off. That puts the typical Amazon worker at $23,205 in annual wages, $10,000 below the cost to rent an average one bedroom apartment.
Amazon likes to put its technology into competition with its people, running sorting and packing competitions like the “Big Iron Challenge” where workers try to beat Big Iron, a robot, in productivity scores. Workers that beat Big Iron get “Amazon Bucks” that can only be used to buy company branded items like bags and t-shirts. Workplace safety culture suffers when companies promote competitions like the Big Iron Challenge because they encourage speed over safety.
Fortunately, Amazon workers in our community and elsewhere are organizing to improve their conditions. Jobs With Justice is part of a national and global effort bringing together unions, worker centers, and non-profit organizations to lift up Amazon workers fighting for better jobs. Locally, workers and their supporters have set up the Amazon Workers’ Solidarity Campaign to get the word out about their efforts.
All Oregonians should support justice for Amazon workers. Public officials here have given Amazon over $200 million in tax breaks for its warehouses and data centers. We’ve gambled resources that could have gone to schools and vital public services for these jobs. Meanwhile, Amazon is booming as people increasingly shop online, capturing 50% of all U.S. online sales while founder and CEO Jeff Bezos recently became the richest person in the world, worth an amazing $120 Billion.
We all need to come together to support Amazon workers’ fight for safe, well paid jobs that are worth the public resources we’ve invested. It’s Prime time for good jobs at Amazon.
When I heard that Elizabeth Warren proposed a student debt relief plan that would cancel about 75% of all student debt, I got hopeful. When Bernie Sanders proposed canceling 100% of all student debt, I got excited! If you’re one of the 45 million people in the US with student debt…I imagine you felt the same way.
There are plenty of reasons to support canceling student debt. One commonly cited reason is that it would just be good for the economy. For example, “canceling student debt would lead to a boost in GDP by an average of $86 billion to $108 billion annually over the next 10 years” and “it would reduce the unemployment rate by about 0.3%.”
Improved macroeconomic indicators are great and all, but more money for rich people to gamble on the stock market isn’t what rouses me to action. As a working person who has struggled for two decades to make payments I often couldn’t afford, and who still has tens of thousands of dollars in student debt… a bigger GDP just isn’t what is important to me, or I’d venture to say most working class people, about these proposals.
What is important to working people is the prospect of no longer feeling like we’re constantly drowning! It would mean a vast improvement in quality of life just for its affect on our chronic anxiety issues alone! It would be a breath of fresh air to not feel like the education we dedicated ourselves to was just an expensive mistake!
The extra $400 per month in working families’ pockets would mean we could actually save money for emergencies. We could enjoy more evenings out with friends and families. Maybe we’ll even be able to afford an actual vacation.
It would mean that for the next two or three years we’ll be able to afford the rent, even as it continues to constantly climb up while our wages stay stagnant.
It could mean being able to help my own now adult child pay for college so she doesn’t have to live this student debt nightmare.
Proposals to cancel student debt are important to working people who are living paycheck-to-paycheck, struggling to make ends meet, and always one mistake away homelessness. But make no mistake, the working class cannot sit back and wait for politicians to throw us a bone. If we do then that might mean waiting around listening to sweet …nothings… for years to come.
Being thrown a life jacket in an ocean of rising debt won’t solve the problem. Solidarity is our life raft, and we have to build it together. Working people must come together and organize. We need to be in the streets, we need to engage in direct action and civil disobedience, go on strike, and build the overwhelming grassroots pressure that it will take to save our ship from drowning in student debt!
In the last month and a half, I have witnessed 6 workers in the fast food industry in Portland be terminated.
What trespass had they committed to invoke the Management equivalent of capital punishment? They were all guilty of fighting for their fellow workers to have safe working conditions, be able to pay their bills, and to maybe…just maybe… avoid the indignities of living paycheck-to-paycheck in 2019 America.
All of them were either members of the Little Big Union (who only recently took their campaign public), or the Burgerville Workers Union (in the midst of the fight for a historic first union contract), and none of them deserved the shameful treatment they received.
In the sadness of thinking about their plight, and the long fights ahead to right the wrongs that were done, I couldn’t help but think about a disempowering phrase that has been trained into the reflexes of my generation. Repeated countless times to workers who came of age during the Great Recession, sometimes as well-meaning advice, other times as a thinly veiled threat…
Just be thankful you have a job.
On the surface not an altogether shocking phrase, I’d contend that the implications between each word are odious. Right now less than 8% of the private sector workforce in America are Union members. I believe this speaks to the reality that many of my peers have learned to keep their heads down in the face of abuse, drudgery, and unbearable stress… rather than glimpse side-to-side, and fight back in unity!
One of the many paradigm shifting Union realities that has made a difference in my life, has been understanding Just Cause Discipline, which has become a standard feature in practically all Union contracts. On occasion I’ve noticed longtime Labor activists not fully explain the remarkable difference that it can mean to young workers who have known nothing but its alternative, namely At-Will Employment.
The crux of At-Will Employment is this: an employer can at any time and for any reason, even the mere end of their will to keep you employed, or no reason at all, terminate you without cause. Besides the most blatant discrimination involving legally protected classes, there is essentially no legal remedy – nothing – that a worker fired by an at-will employer can do when they get a pink slip.
This is, in a microcosm, essentially a system that enshrines the absence of due process. That absent of facts, representation with counsel, appeal rights… summary judgment can be issued from on-high, and that’s that!
That notion offends me, so much so that I’ll take it a step further and say that At-Will Employment is an evil and should be confronted as such. Just Cause Discipline in a contract enshrines basic fairness that should be the reality for every worker.
Just Cause Discipline (far from the anti-Union trope of making it impossible to fire anyone), means all instances of discipline from Management must be evaluated against 7 objective tests:
There is no promise in the world that a boss can make that will ensure that the simple questions posed above are followed and enforced. Knowing that those 7 fair questions guide the discipline that I may receive has freed me from feeling like I arrive at work insecure, threatened, and powerless. In truth, that sense of freedom and workplace democracy is what I want for every single worker that I know, and is part of why I organize and continue to fight!
The Oregon Investment Council (OIC) oversees the investment and allocation of all State of Oregon trust funds, including the retirement investments for public workers, or PERS.
Did you know that OIC has been investing State of Oregon retirement funds with the Portland-based private equity firm Endeavour Capital?
Private equity firms like Endeavour are designed to extract wealth from communities for the sole benefit of the 1%. Endeavour is the majority owner of Portland’s local union busting grocery chain, New Seasons Market. It’s also the majority owner of one of the largest bail bond companies in the nation, Aladdin Bail Bonds. If that isn’t a bad enough wrap sheet, this private equity firm is also a repeat investor in for-profit educational companies.
Public workers across Oregon have dedicated years of their working lives to serving the common good, and now part of their future is being tied into the interest of something quite opposite. Endeavour Capital and the companies it owns have:
Endeavour has also received significant investment from the Murdock Charitable Trust, which has funded extremist anti-LGBTQ causes like the so-called “ex-gay therapy” (or “conversion therapy”).
These actions are offensive to the ideals of justice that are at the core JwJ’s work, and at the core of our community. It is unconscionable that our public retirement funds are being invested in a company that profits off such disgusting businesses and business practices.
Our public workers deserve better. We are asking that the OIC listen to people of good will, act as responsible fiduciaries for Oregon’s future, act justly, and divest from Endeavour Capital.