Is Prison Labor A Union Issue?

George Lavender

The Industrial Workers of the World has a history of trying to organize with prisoners

A work strike by Alabama prisoners in January won them the support of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Last month, the union established an Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, to support the Free Alabama Movement. The Prison Complex spoke with Jim Faulkner an organizer with the IWW, about the strike, and the connection between the labor movement and incarceration.

What is the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee?

It was set up a few weeks ago, after we were contacted by the Free Alabama Movement. It’s an official committee of the IWW. We see the committee as organizing specifically this campaign in Alabama but also more broadly to help organize incarcerated workers inside prison in general. 

As a labor organizer, what connection do you see between the labor movement and incarceration?

The way the IWW sees it is these people are incarcerated workers. In the IWW about 25 years ago there was an attempt to organize a prison in Lucasville, Ohio, and at that time the IWW General Convention passed a resolution saying that prisoners could be members of the union. Legally speaking prisoners don’t have the rights to organize, officially, as other workers do. Basically that’s where the IWW and the government disagree. As far as our organization is concerned they’re incarcerated workers they’re just not being paid, or being paid extremely poorly, and they are able to be members of our organization with the same full rights and benefits as any other member. We don’t need an election or an LRB (Labour Relations Board) process in order for people to become members. People can join individually or they can join in groups but that’s basically between the union and the people, and the state doesn’t have a role in it. The people that are in prison, before they went to prison and when they come out of prison are members of what we consider the working class, when they leave prison they’re going to be members of the working class. Even though the working class are in prison, they’re still producing things for the state, that means they’re still workers. Obviously we have the highest imprisonment rate in the world. I think there’s something to the fact that the state and other private corporations and companies are able to use free labor, that’s also what the inmates in Alabama call it, it’s free labor, it’s slave labor and unfortunately the 13th Amendment makes it legal. The 13th Amendment forbids slavery within the United States unless (after) being convicted of a crime. Basically what it says is you do have slave status if you’re in prison. Essentially you do not have the same rights and you can be used as free labor for whatever the state or whoever else sees fit. When we talked about organizing workers, I think it is an ignored part of what is the working class in the United States. They are part of the workforce. Prison labor provides a lot of goods and even services we use. They’re as much a part of the economy as anyone that’s on the other side of that fence that’s also working. It’s a part that’s traditionally been looked down on by the middle class labor unions, you know the unions that focus on middle class issues, rather than working class issues. The prison industrial complex is a working class issue, and as such, the unions should be involved in it. 

What is your perspective on the strategy that the Free Alabama Movement has chosen? 

The one thing that they’re doing and they’re very explicit about it, they’re withholding their labor power to effect political change and to effect changes in their living and working conditions and that’s basically what the IWW preaches. The best way to put direct pressure on the system is economic pressure. You fold your arms and you refuse to work which effectively slows down the machine and potentially stops it if you have enough people involved in it. They’re using economic pressure to try and effect political change which is what we say is the most direct way and most successful way to change the world. They do reject a lot of the advocacy groups because they say that they’re ineffective. They’ll come in, they’ll make a report they’ll file a lawsuit and the lawyers make some money and nothing really changes in the prison. There already (was) a ten day strike in January that they pulled off in two other prisons in Alabama. The IWW was not involved until a month ago when they reached out to us. We’re supporting them as best we can, obviously we can’t go in the prison, but we’re going to do the best we can to make sure that attention is placed on them. We think what they’re doing is very important, and it’s also important in a broader perspective for the reinvigoration of the labor movement. If prisoners are going to stand up for themselves why can’t everybody else? I think what they’re doing is good and I think it could have really broad implications for other prisons and internationally and also for what we consider free world labor outside the prisons. 

In the labor movement, there’s often a degree of wariness around prison issues. What’s your response to that? 

That comes up a lot. I think that’s a natural reaction. My first reaction, and this is personal, but I think a lot of my colleagues, would agree is it’s pretty hypocritical to say some of these guys are in prison for doing bad things to people. Bad things are done. The worst things usually done, are done by people in positions of privilege and power. Just walk in the halls of power any place in the world and some of the biggest criminals are running the countries. It’s laughable when you put it in perspective. I think there’s a class issue involved. If you’re rich you can get away with things, if you’re poor you’re going to go to jail. Those (harm caused to people) are real issues, but I think those are issues, any union, in any situation can have. There are former prisoners in traditional unions and there are people in unions who will go to prison. I think one of the things is to humanize people, and not demonize. These are people like everybody else and a lot of us are one misstep or one bad mistake from ending up in jail ourselves. 

Going forward what will the IWW be doing? 

A lot of this is in the hands of the guys on the inside. This is their strike. This is our struggle, but their strike. And people of conscience and people of goodwill need to support this. Look at their bill. They’re struggling for what they call a Freedom Bill” and it’s essentially a prison reform package. I’ve read it, it makes sense to me. If prison is going to make any sense these are some of the ideas that have to be taken seriously by the wider public, and by the politicians in the legislative houses. One of the thing we’re going to do is we’re already setting up support networks all over the country. We see this not just as Alabama but as a nationwide thing. 

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George Lavender is an award-winning radio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.
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