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German Prisoners Form Union, Seek Minimum Wage and Pension

A group of prisoners in Germany has accomplished what American prisoners have long been prohibited from doing: They formed a labor union for incarcerated workers, to advocate for minimum wage pay so they can earn enough for a greater chance at successful reentry after their release. The GG/BO (Gefangenengewerkschaft/Bundesweite Organisation) was created in May 2014 and has 800 members in 40 prisons, with a recent expansion into Austria late last year.

Prisoners at Berlin-Tegel, Germany’s largest correctional facility, who work regular shifts in kitchens and workshops, have argued that they are “de facto employees, just like their colleagues outside the prison gates,” according to the union’s spokesman, Oliver Rast.

“Prisoners have never had a lobby working for them. With the prisoners’ union we’ve decided to create one ourselves,” said Rast, who’s been incarcerated since 2009 for a series of arson attacks on government buildings.

A national minimum wage of €8.50 per hour went into effect in Germany in 2015, while prisoners at Berlin-Tegel earn between €1.50 and €2 per hour.

The union has insisted that prisoners should receive the minimum wage and that elderly prisoners, especially, should be able to earn a pension so they aren’t released into poverty. Prison workers are provided with unemployment insurance courtesy of the German taxpayers, but no other coverage is offered to sick or elderly prisoners who can no longer work. Almost 70 percent of the German prison population is employed, primarily in industrial assembly jobs. Prison labor is mandatory in 11 of the 16 federal states and work strikes are prohibited.

With support from trade unionists and academics via the Network for Support of Inmate Workers, prisoners at the Butzbach facility in Hessen, Germany kicked off a hunger strike in December 2015 to protest prison labor conditions. Despite the involvement of 200 prisoners and 120 outside supporters in the non-violent action, prison officials declined to meet the prisoners’ demands and the strike ended after 11 days.

German authorities have undermined the union’s activities, stressing that prisoners are not covered by the legal definition of “worker” and therefore have no workers’ rights. GG/BO is not recognized as a legitimate union for that same reason, and prison officials have reportedly interfered with prisoners’ mail, confiscated their union cards and isolated union spokesmen. Yet the GG/BO continues to advocate on behalf of its incarcerated members.

Prior attempts to form prison unions have either failed or been outlawed. Prisoner labor unions in the United States were effectively banned by the Supreme Court in Jones v. NC Prisoners’ Labor Union, 433 U.S. 119 (1977). An organization called Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners (PROP) was established in England in the early 1970s, to “preserve, protect and to extend the rights of prisoners and ex-prisoners and to assist in their rehabilitation and re-integration into society, so as to bring about a reduction in crime.” Although the group organized work strikes in UK prisons, it eventually disbanded.

In a January 2016 interview, Rast mentioned that established unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the German Trade Union Federation have become more accepting of GG/BO and what incarcerated workers are trying to achieve.

Frances Crook, the unfortunately surnamed chief executive of the UK’s Howard League for Penal Reform, was encouraged by the efforts of the German prison labor union.

“We want prisoners to develop civic responsibilities, and learning that work pays is a key stepping stone towards that goal,” Crook said. “Why shouldn’t they form a union to help them on that path?”


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Related legal case

Jones v. NC Prisoners’ Labor Union