Guest: UO profiting off prison labor is a human rights issue

This piece reflects the views of the UO Student Labor Action Project (SLAP), and not those of Emerald Media Group. It has been edited by the Emerald for grammar and style. Send your columns or submissions about our content or campus issues to [email protected]

In collaboration with other students working out of the Radical Organizing Activist Resource (ROAR) Center, this term the University of Oregon Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) launched a campaign to bring awareness to the university’s profits off of prison labor.

SLAP is a group of students at UO that builds campaigns involving students and the labor movement. This has included supporting the GTFF in strike for a fair contract, working with the statewide fight for a $15 minimum wage and pressuring administration to reinstate shift meals for student workers in the dining halls.

This most recent project started after ROAR and SLAP students noticed the underside of their classroom desks were labeled with tags from Oregon Correctional Enterprises (OCE). OCE, a semi-independent agency, sells furniture made by inmates in Oregon prisons. Incarcerated people working for OCE are paid only an estimated $70-80 per month and are subjected to inhumane working conditions under unethical circumstances.

Student Labor Action Project protesters hang a banner in the EMU (Hannah Kanik/Emerald)

ROAR obtained public records that exposed a disturbing $2,041,834 in purchases University Housing has made with OCE from February 2015 to October 2017. Between February 2006 to February 2018, transactions between University Housing and OCE totalled  $7,285,094. According to SLAP’s research, contracts mostly involved new dorm furniture, but EMU and classroom furniture purchases were also substantial.

SLAP hand-delivered a letter to President Schill asking for a meeting with administration to negotiate better ways the university could go about making future furniture purchases, which has received no reply. SLAP has now gone forward with a campaign organizing community opposition to the Prison Industrial Complex and UO’s investment in an agency that profits off the exploitation of prison laborers.

Thus far, SLAP has organized several demonstrations that have been effective in bringing awareness to these issues. On the afternoon of Tuesday, Feb. 27, SLAP members hung large banners at locations on and around campus. The students used the banners to peacefully convey their message of abhorrence to the university’s use of prison labor, while handing out informational material to interested passerbys.

Within minutes, building managers alerted police, who aggressively confronted the peaceful demonstrators, threatening them at several locations with trespassing charges and jail. It was not made clear to the demonstrators holding the banners what university policies they were breaking, as they were harassed and poached out of public student access spaces.

Following this action, SLAP held a week-long boycott of furniture purchased through OCE. Students across campus refused to sit in their classroom chairs and EMU furniture while ROAR hosted floor brunches with folks able to sit with them in boycott of university spaces using OCE furniture.

As students at this university, it should be our priority to hold the admin signing off on these transactions accountable for the ethics of the purchasing decisions they make with our tuition money. Purchasing records with OCE show UO has a dense history of engaging with a system that disproportionately jails communities of color and other marginalized groups. This makes UO an active participant in perpetuating this country’s culture of enslaving marginalized peoples. UO administration has made it clear they have zero regard for human rights by collecting unpaid wages of incarcerated folks via the purchase of OCE furniture.

Furthermore, the UO has made it apparent it has no interest in using its position as a state leader and place of higher learning to contribute positively toward a more humane and just future for the state of Oregon. UO has no place advertising or branding themselves as a catalyst of the human good, or as more specifically published, an institution “enriching the human condition.” Rather, until administration begins to listen to their students and consider the lives and working conditions of the people they are exploiting, the UO should be ashamed, and we as students funding this school should be angry.

The campaign has just begun, and SLAP welcomes any students seeking justice for incarcerated workers to reach out and become involved. To learn more you can attend weekly meetings on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. in the ROAR Center (room 006 of the EMU). Additionally, people wanting to get involved can message SLAP on their various social media accounts or like the University of Oregon Student Labor Action Project Facebook page for updates.

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