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Prison Labor Unions?

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Inmates from a La Fourche parish jail on a work release program fill giant sandbags in Port Fourchon, Louisiana May 11, 2010. U.S. Army National Guard troops were dropping the sandbags using helicopters on nearby breaks in beaches to protect marshes from the BP oil spill offshore.   REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENVIRONMENT DISASTER)
Inmates from a La Fourche parish jail on a work release program fill giant sandbags in Port Fourchon, Louisiana May 11, 2010. U.S. Army National Guard troops were dropping the sandbags using helicopters on nearby breaks in beaches to protect marshes from the BP oil spill offshore. REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES – Tags: ENVIRONMENT DISASTER)

While I remain as skeptical of whatever the modern Industrial Workers of the World is as ever, this is certainly interesting. Should prison laborers organize into unions? Should public sector unions make this a priority?

This spring, the IWW and allied community groups organized prison labor strikes of thousands of incarcerated workers in Alabama, Wisconsin, Texas, Mississippi, and Ohio—all demanding the right to form a union. The IWW Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee has called for a nationwide prison strike on September 9th to mark the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising and claims it has the support of thousands of prisoners throughout the U.S.

“It could really shake things up,” IWW organizer Jimi Del Duca told me. “A lot of working class people are afraid to organize because they have a few crumbs to lose. [Many] prisoners have nothing to lose and that gives them courage. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

However, the barriers to organizing prisoners are high. Communication between prisons is difficult, as most prisoners are not allowed access to email. Even within prisons, inmates are limited in their ability to meet face-to-face. While they are allowed to assemble routinely for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or religious activities, the 1977 Supreme Court case Jones v. North Carolina Labor Prisoners’ Uniondenied them their first amendment right to assemble if a warden feels a gathering is a threat to prison security. As a result, wardens block most prisoners’ union meetings.

However, Elon University Labor Law Professor Eric Fink says that prisoners may have another option. The right of prisoners to form a union has never been challenged in a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) union certification case, and Fink believes that prisoners could use the NLRB process to push for the right to meet regularly and form collective bargaining units. He argues that prison workers—employed by private contractors in 37 states—should have the same right to form a union as other workers employed by those contractors. According to Fink, if the IWW were to bring a case before the NLRB, then the Board could declare that prisoners are employees who are eligible to join a union.

“I think the Board is capable of saying there are issues that [incarcerated people] have the right to bargain for—such as hours and wages—as any other worker would have the right to do,” said Fink.

As for prison workers who are employed directly by the state, Fink feels they could organize more easily. Under federal labor law, each individual state has a Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) which governs how labor law is applied in the jurisdiction. Often, the leadership of the PERB is heavily influenced by local labor leadership. So, if a public sector union such as AFSCME were to endorse the right of prisoners to form unions, state-level PERBs might be inclined to extend that right.

However, there is a catch: many public sector unions also represent guards, who may be lukewarm to the idea of prisoners forming unions.

“The problem is that insofar as a number of public sector unions have prison guards as members—and sometimes in large numbers—it has an impact on the ability to have that discussion,” said Bill Fletcher, the former education director of the AFL-CIO.

Heather Ann Thompson, Professor of History in the African American Studies at the University of Michigan, believes that guards should see prisoners’ unions as a win for them, too.

“These are workplaces that are deeply unsafe and barbaric,” said Thompson. She believes that giving workers a collective voice may reduce gang violence, because it will give prisoners a structure through which they can advocate for themselves. Unions would also provide guards and prisoners with the means to push together for a safer prison environment.

A few thoughts:

1) Since we as a society have determined to make prisoners work for substandard wages, a situation corporations and states are very happy to take advantage of, we also have to think of them as workers. They are legitimate workers. They are also unfree workers. They make wages that undermine non-prison workers. They work in terrible conditions. They work directly under the supervision of people who can be violent toward them. These are problems.

2) All workers should have the right to a union. That very much includes prison workers.

3) Suits challenging the status of prison labor would be beneficial. This is a project someone should take on.

4) Regardless of the IWW name and history, anyone working to organize workers is a good thing. The Jimmy John’s actions of a decade ago didn’t lead to much, but did help jumpstart the broader fast food workers movement of the present. If the established unions aren’t going to do this, anyone who wants to step into the breach is more than welcome.

5) The challenges here are gigantic, including that the prison guards are going to freak out about it.

6) Those challenges don’t mean it shouldn’t be tried. But this would require a lot of money, which only the established unions can provide, and the energy for a shot in the dark campaign that will anger other unionists, which these IWW activists are going to have to a far greater extent than unions that already represent guards.

So I don’t really know what the path forward looks like, but it’s a path that needs to be walked.

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