Just Enforcement Will Empower Workers to Enforce Their Rights
by Sarah Kowaleski, JwJ Coalition Organizer
All workers should be able to entrust that their rights will be protected and that the state will enforce laws meant to protect them. Throughout the pandemic, state agencies received record numbers of reports of workplace abuse and health and safety violations. During 2020, OR OSHA received complaints from 23 of the 35 largest workplace COVID outbreaks but were only able to investigate two. OR OSHA received ten times as many complaints as they do in a normal year.
Essential workers have made life-saving sacrifices and keep us nourished, cared for, and safe. Yet mortality rates for jobs in the food and agriculture industries, disproportionately immigrant workers, have jumped nearly 40% during the pandemic. When frontline and essential workers work in industries which have seen the most widespread workplace outbreaks of COVID-19, robust safety enforcement is essential to public health for our entire community.
Essential and immigrant workers also disproportionately labor for low wages and face wage theft. That is, they are cheated out of their pay by bad bosses. Despite hundreds of claims of stolen wages filed every year, employers only pay penalties in 1% of claims determined to be valid. As a result, lawbreaking employers have little incentive to do the right thing. When labor laws are poorly enforced, workers, especially the most marginalized, lose confidence that the system will protect them. This tailspin drives workers into dire circumstances and disadvantages honest businesses who play by the rules. It is precisely the communities with the least means, and who face the most structural and language barriers to collective organization whose rights have been heartlessly disregarded.
Because it’s clear that the state lacks the capacity to enforce existing labor law, the legislature should enact the Just Enforcement Act (House Bill 2205). This legislation allows workers and organizations to enforce labor laws when the state cannot do so. Providing an avenue for workers to partner with trusted community organizations to file suits on the state’s behalf would empower workers to speak out without fear of retaliation or losing their jobs. Workers recover 30-40% of the civil penalties collected from bosses who break the rules, and the state agency would reinvest the remainder to expand investigative staff and conduct community outreach. Workers and advocates will be empowered, more violations will be caught, and a culture of compliance will create better working conditions for all.
Jobs with Justice is dedicated to protecting the rights of working people and this landmark legislation will make workplaces more safe and just. Our community must demand that legislators support House Bill 2205, Just Enforcement Act, in defense of all workers’ rights.
By Sarah Kowaleski
A Narrow Proposition
This November in California, multi-billionaire Gig corporations such as Uber, Lyft, Postmates, DoorDash and Instacart spent more than $200 million to back a deceptive California state proposition known as Prop 22. This was a corporate backlash to a new law in California, known as AB5, that rightly classified gig workers as employees. Despite all of their millions and resorting to deceptive tactics, gig corporations won, narrowly. Only 58% of California voters backed Prop 22, the gig-worker proposition.
Prop 22 has both enabled gig corporations to continue misclassifying their workers as “contractors” and has given the industry a playbook they hope to replicate in the face of rising Labor movements worldwide.
What’s in it for Gig Employers?
Proposition 22 was based around the fear that their workers, given the proper wages and protections of employees would annihilate the gig business model based on hyper exploitation. Uber and the like see their ‘success’ with Prop 22 in California as a way to thwart regulations that apply to every other employer. In fact, just after the win, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi told analysts, “We feel strongly that this is the right approach, and it’s a priority for us to work with governments across the U.S. and the world to make this a reality.” 32 other states already use the same legal test to determine worker classification as California’s, so Gig corporations are keen to export this approach to other states. They know that “not real employee” status is inferior to “employee” status, so they wish to enshrine this everywhere, permanently.
What’s at stake for Labor and communities?
Measures like Prop 22 allow wealthy corporations to deny their drivers rights and protections like paid sick leave, workers compensation, and unemployment benefits. What’s at stake include good union jobs that pay fair wages, and small businesses, as gig corporations drive down standards in order to drive up their competitive advantage. Gig corporations want to maximize their profit and expand their low-pay, no-protection business model to virtually every industry, leading to unprecedented job loss and a race to the bottom.
Now, gig corporations are pouring resources into state legislation and forming industry lobby groups such as the App-Based Work Alliance, to accomplish their goal of rolling back workers’ rights and to pre-emptively stifle worker organizing and consumer advocacy for stronger protections. This makes us all less safe by eliminating safety protections for riders and drivers and any liability these wealthy corporations have to consumers.
Stay tuned for ways you can support Gig workers organizing, pushing back on greedy corporate plans to erode the rights of employees. We must not take these rights for granted!
By Rev. Cecil Charles Prescod and Will Layng
(This article was originally published on 7/28/20 on the national JwJ website)
Every day and night over the last two months, Portland, Oregon– our city and home–has seen mass protests against police brutality in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The protests involve Portlanders from all over the city, taking place at schools, courthouses, parks, and in the streets. It’s an uprising that threatens to sweep out the racist policing that has brutalized our community for decades.
The eyes of the nation and the world turned to our city and the uprising on July 16 when video emerged of camouflaged U.S. Marshals, attached to the Department of Homeland Security, abducting protesters and attacking demonstrators outside the federal courthouse in downtown Portland.
On Monday, July 20, thousands of demonstrators gathered downtown to protest federal and local police attacks on non-violent protesters, including blocs of moms and dads who joined the uprising to support Don’t Shoot PDX, a Portland Jobs With Justice- allied civil rights group who has helped lead the uprising in the streets. Thousands lifted flashlights into the air and sang the historic movement song “We Shall Overcome” in an uplifting moment of solidarity. Soon after they were tear gassed by a mix of federal and local police. Undeterred, they returned the next night and each night since.
Oregon became a state in 1859 and joined the Civil War on behalf of the Union. Yet its founding had less to do with ending slavery and freedom for Black people, and more to do with white people desiring a homeland separate from Black people. While moving quickly to decimate and relocate indigenous tribes, the state’s original constitution also explicitly banned Black people from residing in Oregon.
The generations of police violence against Black people in our community are part of our inheritance from Oregon’s racist origins. Over the last two decades, we have seen a growing movement to organize against and challenge racist police violence and the killing of Black community members such as Kendra James, James Jahar Perez, Keaton Otis, and Aaron Campbell. The nationwide attention on police brutality has empowered local organizing efforts.
Over the years, Portland JWJ has worked to bring a workers’ right perspective to police oversight and accountability efforts in our community. The Portland Police Association, the “union” for police officers, has long been an advocate for violent police tactics and a defender of racist police. We’ve seen our local labor movement take real steps to be part of efforts at reforming our criminal justice system, including efforts to limit the power of police associations.
For us, as we work to raise awareness about union contract campaigns and organizing campaigns, the same communities we mobilize will say things like “why should we support that union when the police union attacks us and no one from labor says anything?” For us to build true solidarity, we know that we have to be willing to challenge injustice at all the intersections where it emerges to have a stronger workers’ rights movement.
As the federal menace in Oregon became more visible, many speculated that it was primarily a political stunt by President Trump to try and show “law and order” cred in the face of lagging poll numbers. Other reporting shows that the President wants to build a federal police force with the ability to carry out unchecked and uninvited domestic extrajudicial activities.
Our experience in Portland shows that we in the labor movement cannot and will not allow that to happen. Imagine if the next time we are striking and picketing an employer for a fair contract, and Homeland Security arrives to whisk away our leaders? The rise of fascism in the United States must remind us that democracy, whether in the workplace or our politics, is a threat to fascist regimes, and regimes will use forces as we see in Portland today to smash our democracies.
That’s why we are so proud of our community for showing up night after night. We’re bringing our leafblowers, we’re bringing helmets and umbrellas and food. We’re feeding each other, we’re gathering in blocs by trades, our faith communities are showing up, we’re wearing masks, and keeping each other safe. The police forces are armed with military weaponry and apparently feel bound by no laws. We are a city of #EverydayAntifascists; we affirm the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “we shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice,” and the existential reality that #BlackLivesMatter.
Ways you can take action:
Rev. Cecil Charles Prescod is the chair of the Faith Labor Committee of Portland Jobs With Justice
Will Layng is the Executive Director of Portland Jobs With Justice
Here at Portland Jobs with Justice we wholeheartedly support police accountability, and we have a history of doing so. We were part of the network that successfully fought to get Portland out of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and we are actively engaged with our allies pushing the city to use contract negotiations with the Portland Police Association to win increased and much needed accountability and transparency around the use of force and bias-based (i.e. racist and discriminatory) policing. We have endorsed the demands issued by the Portland African American Leadership Forum and Unite Oregon to cut at least $50 million from the Portland Police Bureau budget and reinvest the money back into the black community.
In the weeks that have passed since the horrific murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, and in the wake of the brutally violent crackdown on protesters by police departments across the country, the landscape around police reform work has shifted significantly. Seen as radical and fringe just a couple months ago, demands to defund and abolish the police have very quickly entered mainstream conversations.
Our organization has not taken a position on police abolition. However, in light of these sudden and significant shifts in what is possible with regards to police reform and the increased attention on the demand to defund and abolish police, we feel it is important to explore what it means and what it might look like to abolish the police and create a community-centered and non-violent alternative to public safety.
A Shift in How Communities View Policing
The demands to defund and abolish police aren’t just topics of discussion, they’ve become practical points of action. Last week in response to protests and cries for defunding, the Los Angeles city council cut $100-150 million from L.A.’s police budget.
School districts in cities like Minneapolis, Portland, Denver, Oakland, and Seattle have severed ties with police.
The Minneapolis City Council has taken a number of steps on the path toward completely dismantling it’s police department to create a community-centered, non-violent alternative to public safety.
Despite common fears, abolishing the police does not necessarily mean instantly firing all law enforcement officers and sitting back to watch cities descend into chaos. It means following the lead of city’s like Minneapolis and organizations like Freedom to Thrive, and begin to re-imagine and shift our perception of what public safety looks like and how we can achieve it. It means we find better and non-violent ways to solve social problems.
The Violent Nature of Modern Policing
The problem doesn’t seem to be poor training. We’ve put a lot of money into more training, better training, and other reforms that don’t strike at the root of the problem. Increasing diversity in police forces has failed to end police violence. Body cameras have failed to prevent police from using excessive force. Anti-bias training has not solved the problem of systemic racism in police institutions with a history rooted in slave patrols and the enforcement of Jim Crow laws.
The problem seems to be that policing itself is inherently violent and doesn’t work. Our modern concept of policing and public safety is based on the idea that social problems should be solved by people who are armed with deadly weapons, and who are granted authority from the government to threaten and to actually use violence against people to force their compliance.
If policing itself is inherently violent and is the problem, then what is an alternative that gets rid of that problem and also creates real public safety in our communities?
The answer to what it means to abolish the police and how it could be accomplished lies in changing our priorities and implementing various ideas and policies that reduce our reliance on police by shifting the responsibility for public safety into other agencies, programs, and practices that don’t rely on violence and the use of force. Read More
Two months into the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s estimated that 100,000 U.S. residents have died of complications of COVID-19. Over 90% of patients hospitalized for COVID suffer at least one underlying condition, primarily hypertension, obesity, lung disease, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease.
The effects on our community go far beyond the medical issues, almost overnight turning a low unemployment rate into the highest unemployment rate since The Great Depression, with the shuttering of entire industries. Similar to how our bodies are suffering unequally from COVID, our community is suffering unequally due to underlying conditions made plain and more severe by the virus.
In medicine, diagnosis is the first step toward a cure, and there are emerging cures for some of our community’s underlying conditions as well.
Underlying Condition #1 – Poverty and Racism
The U.S. social safety net, already tattered by decades of cuts to public services, is clearly not able to support us as our economic conditions deteriorate. Although Oregon seems to be an outlier, with layoffs due to COVID tracking with the overall racial breakdown of the workforce, nationwide layoffs and furloughs are hitting people of color harder in the same way that infections and deaths from the virus are hitting them harder. This impact has everything to do with structural racism and racial capitalism. Across the political spectrum, we now see an imperative for broad scale investments to strengthen social safety net programs and services. We knew that “we are all in this together” even before the pandemic, and now is the time to build a movement to successfully restructure public policy and ensure we have a strong safety net to help resolve underlying poverty, racism (including devastating effects on Indigenous communities), and gendered economic disparities.
Underlying Condition #2- Disregard for Workers’ Rights
There is a paradox to calling poorly compensated workers in grocery stores, nursing homes, meat packing plants, farms, and child care facilities “heroes” and “essential” — an inconsistency that is glaringly apparent to union members and workers’ rights advocates. Essential work needs basic protections, and work is safer for us all when workers themselves have a voice in their workplace. For decades, employers have attacked workers’ rights, reducing the percentage of workers who are part of traditional unions to less than 11% of the workforce. Yet workers in low wage jobs, essential workers across the country, are now taking collective action to protect themselves — and they are winning, often without the backing of a union. A revitalization of militant labor organizing is underway. We should support them by requiring that health and safety standards are enforced by workers’ councils at all workplaces. These councils should have the power to change practices or cease work if they deem it unsafe.
Underlying Condition #3- “Gig” Employment
Over the last decade we have also allowed gig platforms like Uber and Lyft to grow and operate without basic worker protections like healthcare, paid sick leave, and unemployment benefits. All of this took place within a logic of innovation and ‘job creation’ following the last recession. It’s clear now that this was a colossal mistake, as we scramble to provide benefits for workers whose employers resisted paying into the unemployment insurance system and public benefits.
Underlying Condition #4 – Health Care
Our employer based health care funding system was not working for us before the pandemic, and that fact has been made even more clear in the face of widespread unemployment. Now is the time to permanently disconnect our health care from employment. Support is growing for the federal Health Care Emergency Guarantee Act, to ensure that anyone who loses coverage due to the pandemic is covered by Medicare, a clear and necessary measure to keep us healthy and safe.
Our Time To Make Our Own Solutions
As artist, trickster, healer, and friend of Portland JwJ Ricardo Levins Morales said on his blog: “…the resources we’ve needed were here all along. Trillions of dollars that were never offered to house, clothe, feed and heal us, appear out of thin air when the survival of the aristocracy is at stake…. Why is access to all our basic needs in the hands of predators in the first place? Why not ours?” Our community’s and our bodies’ underlying conditions can be treated, and now is our time to make our own solutions.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread around the world, affecting the economy and the working people at the heart of all economic activity. Businesses are shutting down with no guarantee they will weather the storm and reopen, and workers are being laid off by the thousands as stay-at-home orders and the need for social and physical distancing take what should be obvious precedence over profit-driven economics. Yet in spite of the frightening and uncertain nature of these times, workers are organizing and winning important victories including hazard pay, paid sick leave, and more.
Here in Oregon and so many other places across the country, workers and other community members are forming mutual aid groups who are actively organizing and providing food, disinfectants, and other supplies to the community, especially to elder and immunocompromised people who especially should not risk going out into the public during this time. In addition these groups are organizing a rent strike and other policy campaigns designed to help workers and other vulnerable and marginalized people in this crisis. These impromptu organizations follow a long history of mutual aid organization during times of crisis, and are absolutely vital to efforts to stem the tide of this pandemic and keep our communities safe.
Workers are organizing in shops across the country to hold bad bosses accountable and ensure that front line workers in vital and essential occupations like food service are receiving paid sick days, hazard pay, and more. For example, members of the Burgerville Workers Union in at least one Portland area store have gone on strike due to dangerous under-staffing, inadequate sanitary conditions, and the corporate offices unwillingness to listen and respond to the needs of workers.
As a result of this crisis, people in the United States are waking up to the fact that grocery workers are vital, essential workers in our economy who deserve to be well paid and respected. In Oregon and Southwest Washington, UFCW Local 555 has been at the forefront of providing important and useful crisis information for grocery workers. The union and the front line grocery workers they represent are also leading the way with a series of recent and important victories in direct relation to the COVID-19 crisis. These victories include Hazard pay of an extra $2 per hour at Albertsons, Safeway, and Sherms stores as well as a hazard bonus for all Fred Meyer employees, an expansion of Fred Meyer’s emergency leave policy to include workers who have been told to self-quarantine by a healthcare professional, and store signage and floor markers and Fred Meyer check out stands to help ensure people are adhering to physical distancing guidelines while shopping for needed supplies.
Nationally, Amazon has become an important resource and supply line for people who are quarantined or unable to go out into the public due to age or having compromised immune systems. That makes it even more important for workers and community to be organizing to hold Amazon accountable, and that is exactly what is happening. In fact, this past week worker organizing at Amazon won paid time off for part-time warehouse workers and seasonal delivery drivers.
It can be easy to fall into the trap of discouraging workers from organizing in a time when businesses are struggling. But it is during times of crisis that the wealthy, capitalists, and business owners often attempt to pass off their risk and loss onto vulnerable workers, and the treatment of workers on the job declines as a result. Now more than ever, workers need to be organizing for better working conditions and a better world. Here at Jobs with Justice we are doing everything we can to help food service workers who want to organize to hold bad bosses accountable and provide mutual aid to those in need. If you are a food service worker and want to participate in these organizing efforts with us, please text “Community” to 503-782-6265 and we will update you and plug you into the movement accordingly!
Since its debut as an online retailer 10 years ago, Amazon has seeped its way into every aspect of our lives. From shopping to watching TV, from listening to music to calling the kids up from their rooms for dinner, Amazon is seemingly ever-present. But despite the many conveniences for Amazon customers, those who work in Amazon warehouses to make sure that our packages arrive the next day… or the same day, often have a different story to tell.
Amazon claims that they now pay their workers at least $15/hr. In fact here in Oregon they received $9.6 million in property tax exemptions at their Troutdale warehouse in exchange for an agreement to pay at least $15/hr, and that is in addition to other tax breaks they receive throughout the state. But don’t be fooled by fancy half-truths. Delivery drivers and Amazon warehouse workers often tell a different story when it comes to their wages. The problem is not just in Oregon of course. A recent report published by the Economic Roundtable shows that the average Amazon worker makes well less than $15/hr despite working for the company full time, and despite having a family to take care of.
Amazon claims that it provides a safe and quality work environment for all of its hundreds of thousands employees. But back, shoulder, wrist, and other injuries at Amazon warehouses are extremely common. Many Amazon warehouses have a serious injury rate that is double the national average and that isn’t even the worst of it. At the Troutdale warehouse just outside of Portland, 26 out of every 100 those workers filed for workers comp in 2018. That is more than six times the national average!
This clearly isn’t just a problem “out there.” As we can see it is a problem right here in the Portland area. Jamie Partridge–who is a retired postal worker, Portland JwJ board member, DSA member, and an organizer with the PDX Amazon Workers Solidarity Campaign–told The Oregonian that the PDX9 warehouse in Troutdale, Oregon “…like others, just has a high rate of repetitive motion and other types of injuries.”
The time has come for workers and the community to work together to confront Amazon and it’s exploitive business model. Workers around the world are already starting to fight back through strikes at Amazon warehouses.
In addition to direct worker action internationally, a national coalition called Athena, which is comprised of dozens of organizations including but not limited to Jobs with Justice, Fight for the Future, and Partnership for Working Families has come together to take on Amazon from multiple, interconnected angles. From surveillance technology and Amazon’s collaboration with ICE and Customs and Border Protection agencies in breaking up and detaining families in concentration camps, to horrible working conditions with poverty wages and high injury rates, to its massive size and the obvious issues concerning monopoly and antitrust law–Athena is ready for a fight, and so is Portland Jobs with Justice.
With the warrior spirit of Athena, we are coming together with the community and workers at the PDX Amazon Workers Solidarity Campaign to build pressure and make change here locally. Be sure to check in and stay tuned for updates and actions!
The Universal Preschool Now! (UP Now) 2020 ballot measure campaign is a grassroots, community-driven push to create a free, publicly funded, year-round universal preschool system for all kids in Multnomah County. Large metro areas like Washington D.C. and New York City have had extremely successful universal preschool programs for years now, and Chicago recently started rolling out their program in 2018. It’s time for the Portland area to do the right thing and join them!
UP Now’s well-thought-out plan has many benefits we can all get on board with. It will be publicly funded–without austerity measures–through tax increases that will only affect the top 5% of super wealthy income earners in the county. It will be a truly universal service, free to enroll any child regardless of family income on either end of the spectrum. The program will provide play-based, culturally-responsive and inclusive preschooling in multiple languages and in the parents’ choice of setting. This will not be a simple one-size fits all program. Rather, children of all abilities, languages, and backgrounds will be welcome and given the care they need and deserve.
As if that wasn’t enough to ensure support, check out what’s so exciting about this plan specifically for those who value Unions, workers’ rights, and economic justice.
A universal preschool program, one that is publicly funded with no cost for families at the point of service means that working families, single moms, and other single parents who are struggling to make ends meet–as well as student parents, unemployed parents, houseless parents, and legions of underemployed parents who are fighting to reach stable ground–have one less huge financial burden.
In addition, the UP Now plan ensures living wages for teachers in the program through a mandated $18/hr starting wage for all staff, and pay for teachers comparable to elementary school teachers This ensures that our county’s preschool workers won’t live in poverty, and can live in the communities they serve.
Does that wet the Union whistle and get you excited about the campaign? If not, then perhaps a system-wide neutrality agreement will do the trick. Yes you read that right – the UP Now measure requires union neutrality from Multnomah County and from any and all employers that take county money from the universal preschool program, regardless of whether they are preschools or other kinds of child care facilities that can offer a preschool program. That means that legally, preschool and other child care administrators won’t be allowed to fight back and get in the way. They won’t be able to prevent their employees from forming a union, nor can they stop family child care providers from joining the unions already representing others like them who accept public dollars like Employment Related Day Care funding. Neutrality will create a solid foundation for unionization throughout Multnomah County’s public preschool industry as well as the county’s general child care industry. With an established wage floor and union representation, we can get preschool and child care workers the pay and benefits they deserve. If those aren’t good enough reasons for Unions to get on board with the Universal Preschool Now campaign, then what is?
So grab your device (or a pen and some paper), a cup a coffee, and start drafting that endorsement resolution for your Local. Portland Jobs with Justice, AFSCME Local 88, Portland Association of Teachers, ILWU Oregon Area District Council, and CWA Local 7901 have already signed on. Let’s get your Union on board!
Click Here to get your Union connected with the UP Now campaign!
(title photo taken by Rick Belliveau)
The Portland Police Association is gearing up to launch negotiations for a renewed union contract for the Portland Police Bureau. Here at Jobs with Justice we know that Police Contracts are unlike most public sector contracts.
Police Union Contracts act as a shield to protect police from oversight or accountability (especially in cases of biases and police interactions with mentally ill people) while they continue to kill and harm community members with no consequence.
We think this means you should be informed and have an opportunity to weight in!
The Portland Police officers’ contract is negotiated by the City and the Portland Police Association (PPA). Their most recent contract expires in July 2020. Negotiations for a new contract will begin in January 2020.
As city employees, the police should be accountable to the residents of Portland for their actions, especially around issues of biased-based policing.
We’re calling on Portland City Council and the PPA to ensure that this contract negotiation process is transparent and seeks citizen feedback along the way.
Now some people might say…
“But the police are public sector employees and we support workers’ rights!”
We know that the police exist in a very specific position of unchecked power due to their ability to use deadly force, Portland’s long history of biased based policing, and the protections provided them in police union contracts across the nation.
“Supporting negotiations that increase oversight and employer power over the police violates the spirit of organizing and worker solidarity!”
We know that the police force has historically sided with the oppressive state over and over again. We know that the militarized police state has used varying degrees of force to silence workers using their 1st Amendment rights & fighting for more accountability for the police is an act of solidarity with the most marginalized workers.
“It’s a waste of tax payer money to negotiate against the powerful PPA”
We know that as city employees entering into negotiations with Portland’s elected officials, the police are essentially employed by the citizenship of the city who pay their wages through taxes. We know the police are overfunded and this is a worthwhile redirection of funds.
The issue of Police Union Contracts keeping officers from any meaningful consequences for their action is NOT unique to Portland. That’s why national researchers and experts on police violence have been tracking problematic policies in Police Union Contracts across the country.
At a presentation to Portland city council members on October 1, 2019 organizers from Campaign Zero (a data-informed platform presenting “comprehensive solutions to end police violence”) explained how Oregon state law regarding deadly force is among the most permissive in the nation.
We know that ensuring police are held accountable for their actions is an important part of showing solidarity to the most marginalized and oppressed workers in our communities.
That’s why we want you to be in the know. Because the power is with the people.
Keep an eye on our social media and the #ChangeTheContract campaign as we explore the policies we’re fighting for in the Portland Police Association contract, what they mean, and how they can be fixed. Together we can build and create a safer community with a police force that is more transparent and accountable to the people they serve.
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.