Labor Builds Community / El Obrerismo Construye Comunidad

Mural at 645 Main St., Springfield (Academy of Arts and Academics – A3)

Artists: Alejandro Sarmiento (LAC Teaching Artist / Lead Artist, www.artwithalejandro.com), Jenny Cathey (A3 Co-Art Instructor), Nissie Ellison (A3 Art Instructor), 22 A3 Honors Art Students (Springfield Public Schools policy does not permit the release and publication of student names.)

Design Leads: Ben Minnis (LAC Arts Education Program Coordinator), Alejandro Sarmiento (LAC Teaching Artist/Lead Artist), Kurt Willcox (SEIU 503 Retiree)

Installation: Springfield Public Schools Facilities & Operations work crews, Terry Rutledge (Assistant Director)

Dedicated: September 8, 2023

Mural Design

Labor Builds Community / El Obrerismo Construye Comunidad celebrates the labor and struggles of generations of working people and their unions to build better lives for themselves, their families, and their communities. It emphasizes historically key sectors of the local economy and the need to work together to achieve common goals. This mural is also a successor and tribute to the Jessie Bostelle Memorial Mural that resided at 448 Main Street for over 20 years until it was removed in 2023.

The mural consists of six sections that move through time from left to right – from about the 1890’s to the present. Each section has a major character who represents the kind of labor described in that section. The first five sections focus on the local economy – timber, agriculture, education, health care, and government workers. They are meant to be a snapshot of what the work and working conditions were like in that sector during the era depicted. They also show how the workforce, economy, and landscape have changed over time.

The sixth section is a labor rally featuring a wide variety of workers from diverse industries. Their picket signs display some of the key issues workers fight for, the values unions stand for, and the ways workers have impacted their workplaces and communities. Most of all, the rally is meant to show that the improvements to workers’ lives that occurred in the earlier sections of the mural were the result of active worker struggles. And those struggles have always been more successful when working people have found ways to work together for common goals.

Embedded in the mural are the words of a song called “Pass It On” from a 1960s movie about the immigrant experience in the United States in the first part of the 20th century. The lyrics speak to the importance of struggle in securing the freedom to live a good life, and they remind us that that struggle is never finished. Our freedoms, our workplace gains, and the communities we build are always vulnerable, and we must be prepared to defend and improve them.

Here are the mural sections as they flow from left to right:

Timber, 1890-1920

Main Character: Timber Faller

The timber industry was the largest employer in Lane County at the turn of the 20th century. Timber falling, transportation, and milling was very dangerous work. Much of it was done by hand, though steam donkeys like the one in the mural, as well as horses and oxen were often used to move the fallen trees out of the forest. The logs were then processed in dozens of Lane County mills, often small or family operated. Waste from the milling process was typically burned in large furnaces known as wigwam burners, like the one pictured. Several labor organizations, notably the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), tried to organize timber workers in the Northwest, but the timber owners fought hard to prevent this and many bloody, pitched battles were fought during this period. Beginning in the 1930s, union organizing efforts were much more successful, and the industry has been highly organized ever since. Timber remains a large industry and employer in Oregon in the 2020s, but mechanization has greatly reduced the number of people employed.

Agriculture, 1910-1930

Main Character: Hops Picker

Agriculture was the other major employer in Lane County at the start of the 20th century, but the bulk of the work was seasonal. A smaller number of regular employees, often members of the farm owner’s family, worked year-round planting and maintaining a wide range of crops – fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes. At harvest time, the workforce expanded greatly with families and children joining in. As is the case today, workers from out of the area were often brought in during this period to harvest the crops. In Lane County this included Kalapuya and Warm
Springs people, as pictured in the mural. Some farms used tractors and wagons for collecting the crops, but most of the work then was done by hand and most workers were paid piece rate. Agriculture continues to be a large seasonal employer and while farm work is more mechanized now, much of the harvesting work remains hand labor and most of it is done by Latino workers – both Oregon residents and guest workers. There were few efforts to organize agricultural workers in Oregon until the 1970s and 80s when PCUN (Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste) was formed. The Springfield sign in the background is not a relic from “The Simpsons” television show. It actually existed on Willamette Heights just outside downtown from about 1909-1920 as a way of drawing travelers’ attention to the city.

Education, 1970-1990

Main Character: Elementary School Teacher

We’ve had public and private schools in Lane County since the late 19th century, including the University of Oregon which opened in 1876. The early schools were mostly community-based, taught basic skills, and scheduled around harvest seasons. In the first decades of the 20th century, Springfield and Eugene built more permanent school buildings and began to professionalize instruction. After World War II, as the area’s population grew rapidly, so did the number and size of educational institutions. That meant lots of teachers, support staff, bus drivers, administrators, and school buildings. During the period shown in the mural, students typically sat in rows of tables or desks and followed lessons directed by their teachers. Since then, the structure of classrooms, teaching techniques, and classroom equipment, especially computers and wireless technology, have changed significantly at all levels. With the passage of Oregon’s public worker collective bargaining law in 1973, teachers and other school workers began forming unions and bargaining with their school districts.

Health Care, 1990-2010

Main Character: Operating Room Nurse

Until the 1920’s, health care in Lane County was provided primarily by individual doctors, nurses, and midwives. If hospital care was needed, residents usually had to travel to Salem or Portland. Two hospitals were established in Eugene in the 1920’s. A third, McKenzie-Willamette, was constructed in Springfield in the 1950s as the result of a community campaign following a flood that had cut residents off from the Eugene hospitals. As these hospitals appeared and grew, the local area developed several nursing programs, most notably at Lane Community College. During the period shown in the mural, health care had already become one of our largest employers, with nurses, medical workers, and support staff in hospitals, but also in an array of other locations such as clinics, nursing homes, surgical and urgent care centers, as well as home care and hospice workers in peoples’ homes. Until the 1990s, most nursing organizations in Oregon were professional associations that worked to standardize nursing training, provide continuing education, and increase respect for the profession. Since then, nurses have increasingly formed unions, bargained contracts, worked to pass legislation and gone on strike to improve pay, working conditions, and patient care.

Government Workers, 2020s

Main Character: City Building Inspector

One of the most noticeable changes in the United States workforce after World War II was the increase in public sector employment. This was the case in Oregon and Lane County, as well. The services provided by local and state governments expanded, as did the need to maintain public facilities. In this section of the mural, you can see both the construction of a new building and the city inspector making sure it is being built to code. You can also see street maintenance workers sealing the cracks in the roadway. While many government workers like these are part of our daily lives, many others work in facilities or remotely and remain largely invisible to the public they serve – maintaining computer systems, processing paperwork, operating treatment plants, supporting elected officials, running transit systems, maintaining bike paths, and planning for future development. Like education workers, unionization among government workers has grown rapidly since the 1970s when it became legal in Oregon for them to organize and bargain with their employers. In the background you can see the intersection of 5th and Main Streets where the old Rivett Building stands. On the corner is the woman walking her dog who appeared in the Jessie Bostelle Memorial Mural and just to the right of her is where that mural used to be.

Union Advocacy, present day and future

Main Character: Union Organizer

Workers in the industry sectors featured in the mural and those in sectors not directly portrayed have helped build the communities we have today, and they will continue building our communities into the future simply by the work they perform every day. However, the biggest advances in working conditions, peoples’ daily lives, and community well-being have been the result of worker and union struggles both in the workplace and in the larger community. Those struggles have routinely required bringing together people who have very different experiences, backgrounds, interests, and beliefs to fight for important common goals.

Labor unions continue to be the most effective mechanism for building the solidarity and power needed to take on determined opposition from employers and bring about substantial changes on the job. Increasingly, though, the most significant issues for working people extend beyond the workplace and require larger solutions and broader alliances. Issues like access to affordable housing and childcare, fighting discrimination, health care for all, paid family leave, a clean and healthy environment, protecting democracy, and ensuring a just transition to new kinds of industries and jobs. These issues present serious challenges for working people and our organizations. More than ever, workers must resist being divided against each other and must find ways to work with groups we may not be used to partnering with. But if we maintain our willingness to struggle and work together, we can meet these challenges and continue to build our communities. ¡Si se puede!

“The labor movement (is) the principal force that (has) transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival, but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965 on the 30th anniversary of the National Labor Relations Act

“Pass It On” Lyrics

Some of the lyrics to “Pass It On” are embedded in the mural. The lyrics speak to the importance of struggle in securing the freedom to live a good life, and they remind us that that struggle is never finished.

“Pass It On” was written by Millard Lampell and George Kleinsinger in 1964 as the theme song for “The Inheritance”, a film by Harold Mayer celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA). Lampell also wrote the script for the movie. The union was initially based in New York City and its members were largely immigrants from Eastern Europe, predominantly Jewish. The ACWA fought for better wages, safer working conditions, sanitary housing, and against discrimination and child labor. You can view the one-hour movie through this link.

Freedom doesn’t come like a bird on the wing,
It doesn’t come down like the summer rain.
Freedom, freedom, is a hard-won thing.
You’ve got to work for it, fight for it,
Day and night for it
And every generation has to win it again.
Pass it on, mother,
Pass it on, brother.
You’ve got to work for it, fight for it,
Day and night for it.
Pass it on to your children,
Pass it on.

Springfield Labor Mural Project

The Springfield Labor Mural Project, which planned and developed the Labor Builds Community / El Obrerismo Construye Comunidad mural, began as a response to the elimination of the Jessie Bostelle Memorial Mural that had stood in downtown Springfield for over 20 years.

Damage and Removal of the Original Mural

In 2021, renovation work began on the 112 year-old Rivett Building property at 448 Main Street. This involved gutting the inside of the building and creating window openings in the outside wall. Unfortunately, that outside wall contained the Jessie Bostelle Memorial Mural. Four of those window openings were placed right in the middle of the mural.

Jessie Bostelle Memorial Mural with damages due to building renovations.

Steve Salman, a retired state employee, and Star Homberg, a retired University of Oregon employee, both of whom had known Jessie Bostelle, were among the first to notice the damage. They contacted their union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 503, because it had been the driving force in creating the original mural. SEIU political staff member, Len Norwitz, who also worked with the union’s retirees, soon began to investigate the situation to see what could be done.

He and others contacted the City of Springfield Development and Public Works Department, whose staff is largely represented by SEIU 503, to determine if they could find an alternative to further damage and removal of the mural. They learned from Assistant City Manager Neil Laudati, who oversees the city’s public art program, that there was no way to preserve the mural or prevent its removal. Laudati, however, was very keen on helping find a suitable location for a new mural.

Planning for a New Mural

The labor group led by Leonard Stoehr, Springfield City Councilor and a staff member for Teamsters Local 206 in Lane County, Chris Maxie from the Oregon AFL-CIO, and Norwitz then began reaching out to other labor, art, and education folks to see if a different, more permanent site for a new mural could be found. In the winter and spring of 2022, they brought together volunteers and staff from labor and arts organizations in a series of Zoom meetings to brainstorm ideas. This group included representatives of the Springfield History Museum, retired staff from the Labor Education and Research Center (LERC) at the University of Oregon, and other union members. Thi Nguyen and Amy Orre from the Springfield Arts Commission joined the discussions and helped the group understand the variety of public art options available to them.

The needed breakthrough came in March 2022 when Stoehr met with Ame Beard, the principal of the Academy of Arts and Academics (A3). The A3 high school is a part of Springfield Public Schools and is located in downtown Springfield, less than two blocks from the site of the Jesse Bostelle Memorial Mural. Beard had already heard from numerous people about the damage to the mural, because many assumed that it had been painted by A3 students. She was eager to help, offered to have the new mural placed on the school wall that fronts their parking lot, and requested that this be a project A3 students could take part in. This fit the mural project group’s interests perfectly.

The expanded mural planning group soon began developing plans for creating and funding a new labor mural at the A3 high school. They contacted Lane Arts Council, which agreed to hire a lead Teaching Artist to work with the A3 students as part of their Artist Residency program and to be the repository for all funds raised. Springfield Public Schools formally agreed