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Should Prisoners Have the Right to Strike? Some Union Leaders Say "Yes!"

Should Prisoners Have the Right to Strike? Some Union Leaders Say "Yes!"

by Phil Wilayto

On Feb. 17, 1997, the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO opened its annual mid-winter meeting in Los Angeles. As the first item of business, the 54-member council voted to "support and encourage aggressive organizing campaigns" among welfare recipients participating in "workfare" programs. National union leaders -- including AFSCME President Gerald McEntree, Service Employees President Andrew Stem and Communications Workers President Morton Bahr -- announced that workfare organizing campaigns will soon begin in New Jersey, Alaska, California, Maryland and New York.

This is an important new development for the U.S. labor movement, which in recent years has tended to view welfare recipients as the enemy of working people. Exploiting this prejudice, right-wing politicians have been able to build a social consensus for "welfare reform" schemes that are, in reality, little more than ways of forcing single mothers into slave jobs for city and county governments and corporations.

But there's another group of workers in the U.S. that also need the support of organized labor: the tens of thousands of prisoners now working for private corporations or outside government agencies.

Over the past few years, prison-labor-for-hire programs have been spreading across the country. Minnesota prisoners now make agricultural equipment for sale on the open market. Wisconsin prisoners perform data-processing tasks for local school boards and city governments. Prisoners stock the shelves after-hours at the Toys-R-Us store in Aurora, Ill., package coffee for Starbucks in Washington state and take over-the-phone reservations for hotels and airlines.

The prisoners themselves benefit little from these arrangements. For example, the Badger State Industries program of the Wisconsin state prison system pays prisoners an average of about 90 cents an hour. In states where prisoner-workers make more, like in Minnesota, deductions are made for board and room, child support and "victim restitution", leaving the prisoners less than a dollar an hour for their labor.

The corporations, on the other hand, make hefty profits from this super-exploited labor. In addition to wages, which are well below the minimum wage, they pay no benefits, no vacations or sick days, no unemployment compensation and no pensions. Plus, there are no unions, no grievances and no strikes.

Well, almost no strikes. A year ago this month, prisoners at the Oak Park Heights Correctional Facility in Minnesota refused to go to work. Among other grievances, they were demanding they be paid the minimum wage when performing work for MinnCor, the state agency that contracts them to work for private companies.

At one time in this country, most workers were forbidden to unionize and strikes were classified as "unlawful conspiracies". The right to collectively bargain over wages, benefits and working conditions was won through struggle, the same type of struggle that was waged by the Oak Park Heights prisoners.

Responding to the strike, the Milwaukee-based A Job is a Right Campaign carried out a support campaign on behalf of the Minnesota prisoners. AJRC is an all-volunteer, grassroots organization of labor and community activists that supports labor struggles and organizes against racism. A member of our advisory board is a prisoner rights activist in Minneapolis, and, responding to her pleas for assistance, we went to work.

At our request, a number of labor officials contacted the warden at the prison and made two demands: that there be no retaliation taken against the prisoners, and that their demand to be paid the minimum wage be met. Among those who responded to our call were the president of an AFSCME local in Milwaukee, the vice president of an AFSCME local in Madison, Wisc. and the former president of an AFSCME local in Rockford, Ill. (The fact that these were all AFSCME officials is significant, because this is the union that also represents the prison guards at Oak Park Heights.)

Also agreeing to contact the warden were representatives of a number of student and community organizations. Local newspapers in Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Rockford, Ill. reported on this labor support for the prisoners, as did a number of national publications.

Following this effort, AJRC drew up a resolution, calling on the labor movement to support the right of prisoner-workers to organize unions and, if necessary, to carry on work stoppages and strikes. That resolution, a copy of which accompanies this article, was then circulated among various union officials. It was also submitted as a formal resolution at last year's conference of Labor Notes, an independent labor-oriented newspaper that each year draws hundreds of union activists to discuss ways to revitalize the union movement.

While this effort was necessarily limited in scope and effect, it was an early attempt to raise the issue of rights for prisoner-workers within the organized labor movement. As more and more prisoners are employed by private industry, the union movement is sure to pay increasing attention to this issue. Already the AFL-CIO is officially on record as supporting the right of prisoners to be paid a "prevailing wage" for work performed for private for-profit corporations.

Now the next step is for the union movement to support the right of prisoners to organize to make that right a reality -- by taking on the organizing of prisoner-workers into labor unions and supporting their right to strike.

Comments, questions and suggestions on this effort may be directed to: A Job is a Right Campaign, PO Box 06053, Milwaukee, WI 53206. Phone/Fax: (414) 374-1034. Email:

[Phil Wilayto is a member of the American Federation of Musicians Local 8 and Coordinator of A Job is a Right Campaign in Milwaukee Wisconsin.]

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