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Profits First! Convict Labor in America, book: Twice the Work of Free Labor (Book Review)

A. Lichtenstein

The United States, in the throes of a vicious social war against the poor, is poised on the brink of dismantling New Deal legislative prohibitions such as the Ashurst-Sumners Act which made the interstate transport of prison-made goods a felony offense. [In 63 years, not one person has been prosecuted under the Act!] Today's convict laborers package items like Microsoft Windows 95 and Starbucks Coffee. They build cars, make waterbeds, assemble circuit boards for nuclear power plants and are deployed to help break strikes.

In fact, labor journals are reporting that employers in Wisconsin and Texas are beginning to close factories that employ free labor only to reopen in prisons with convict workforces shortly thereafter. Convict labor has once again become an issue that we must energetically address.

Alex Lichtenstein's Twice the Work of Free Labor seeks to place the institution of convict labor at the intersection of post-Civil War class relations, industrial capitalism, and the U.S. South's road to modernization. Lichtenstein argues that the traditional image of the chain gang at work on the prison plantation must be broadened to encompass the role that predominantly African-American convict laborers played in building the South's industrial infrastructure.

While Twice the Work focuses on Georgia, Lichtenstein's concern with the role that convict laborers played in the development of the southern Appalachian mineral range in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee gives his work a wider significance.

Each of these states leased their convicts to private companies to establish extractive industry in the South. In turn, these companies used convicts' labor to develop vertically-integrated operations that produced fuel to power blast furnaces and rolling mills, while simultaneously crushing the region's nascent labor movement.

What accounts for the emergence of convict labor in the late 19th century New South? Lichtenstein argues that would-be boosters trying to develop the region's resources, transportation networks and internal markets faced an insurmountable barrier that blocked their schemes of economic development: the southern working class.

Southern industrialists chafed at the tendencies of freed slaves as well as white workers to combine wage labor with subsistence farming. Railroad bosses, trying to build regional railroad networks, went haywire when road crews downed their tools and went "back to the farm" when construction crossed over into the next county. "In harmony with the planters," Lichtenstein notes, "the single most common complaint voiced by southern industrialists was their inability to command a reliable, predictable labor force."

Negotiation was out of the question: Industrialists as well as plantation owners bitterly opposed the idea of collective bargaining with workers. "'You take the average built free man and put him on the public roads and work him hard for ten hours a day, and he will strike for higher wages,' claimed William L. Spoon, a road engineer. 'The convict', on the other hand, 'is forced to do regular work, and that regular work results in the upbuilding of the convict, the upbuilding of the public roads, and the upbuilding of the state.'''

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