Rattling the Bars: Unions must stand up for prisoners

An estimated two thirds of the more than one million prisoners in the United States today are incarcerated workers. With many prisoners earning less than a dollar an hour, and those who refuse to work often facing vicious retaliation in the form of punitive solitary confinement, labor exploitation is an important part of what makes life in American prisons so brutal. It’s little surprise that prisoners’ resistance often centers around the question of labor, as was seen during the nationwide 2017 prisoners’ strike. In spite of these realities, ‘labor issues’ and ‘prison issues’ are all too often presented as separate concerns. US labor journalist and Real News contributor Michael Sainato joins Rattling the Bars to discuss why the union movement today should see the prison struggle as an essential part of the fight for justice for all workers.

Michael Sainato is a journalist based in Gainesville, Florida, and a regular contributor to The Guardian and The Real News Network.

Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


TRANSCRIPT

Mansa Musa:  Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa, co-hosting with Eddie Conway. And to update you on Eddie Conway, Eddie Conway is doing good. And I keep emphasizing that hopefully we’ll have him make a cameo appearance on his show that he created.

When we think of Labor Day, we think more along the lines of holiday, but Labor Day came into existence as a result of a bloody encounter in the 1800s when workers were protesting against the inhumane working conditions in Chicago. And during that time, the big capitalists, the capitalists had control over the labor and the police, and utilized the police to beat people back into submission.

Here to talk about labor and the prison movement is Mike Sainato. Hey, Mike, introduce yourself to the Rattling the Bars viewers and listeners.

Michael Sainato:  I’m Michael Sainato. I’m a journalist based in Gainesville, Florida, and I’m a frequent contributor to The Guardian and also to The Real News Network. I primarily cover labor issues, but obviously prison labor is just one of those intersecting with criminal justice that has been a topic that I’ve covered over the years. And I think it’s really important and doesn’t get a lot of attention, unfortunately.

Mansa Musa:  Yeah. And you’re correct. Okay. We have Labor Day coming up and we know that Labor Day came into existence as a result of a bloody encounter. So when we look at the concept of labor and Labor Day and we celebrate it, we’re celebrating, basically, the brutalization of workers and their rights and people’s rights to unionize. That’s basically what we’re celebrating, the brutalization of workers under a capitalist, fascist, and privileged system, and their right to be treated as human beings.

Mike, talk about the labor movement. Let’s go from that point, let’s go from there and talk about how you see the labor movement today. And then we are going to make the comparison, juxtapose that against what we know to be the lack thereof in prison. Go ahead.

Michael Sainato:  Just to characterize the labor movement today, based on data from the NLRB and anecdotally, because the labor movement isn’t just labor unions, although they get characterized synonymously. It’s much bigger than that. And I think coming out of the pandemic, we’re seeing a resurgence of the labor movement, a big popularity among groups of workers and individuals. I think people are more interested in introspection of their work, what that means for their life, their work-life balance, working conditions, obviously wages, and having that voice in the workplace, expanding democracy into the workplace. And that’s what the labor movement’s really all about is empowering workers to collectively bargain and win improvements and push back against decades and decades…

We’ve seen recently where wealth and quality has surged. Billionaires are getting richer and richer. Even during the pandemic, billionaires increased their wealth by billions and billions of dollars and workers lost billions of dollars in wages. So people are connecting the dots between that wealth redistribution to the top, and I think people are seeing the labor movement as the best counter to that mechanism we’re seeing in our society.

Mansa Musa:  And not to beat up on the unions, but we recognize that, in terms of the labor movement, how it had become marginalized by capitalism, in that a lot of the unions, major unions, had basically acquiesced on a lot of the issues relative to workers. And now, how do you see COVID impacting the labor union? And we’ll go from there to the prison. How do you see COVID impacting the labor union?

Michael Sainato:  I think, like you said, labor unions, in recent times, have made concessions and really upset rank and file workers. You saw that with the Teamsters, they brought in new leadership last year. And this time around at UPS, one of the biggest employers in the country, that leadership is now in line with the rank and file. And they’re saying, straight up, a year from now, if you don’t meet these demands, we’re going to strike. And I think that’s happening at the United Auto Workers. And I think we’re seeing that now with groups like Starbucks Workers United and a lot of other places. Amazon Labor Union. They’re not affiliated with the larger unions, so I think people are wanting to redevelop that rank and file community and build it from the ground up rather than relying on larger, more established unions to lead the way. And that’s really how it’s always been, the labor movement’s going to be fueled by grassroots movements. Not by leadership.

Mansa Musa:  And I like that observation, because they’re going back to their roots. And like you say, rank and file. It’s the people, it’s the workers that’s actually created the whole concept of getting treated better or equal wages. So it wasn’t anybody in the corporate office of a labor union, it was somebody on the ground that felt like they should have been treated fair, and they organized.

But let’s look at the labor union as it relates to – Labor, in particular, as it relates to the prison-industrial complex. And we recognize that the 13th Amendment legalized slavery, and in legalization of slavery, we recognize now that the prison-industrial complex is the new plantation and the prisoners are the chattel.

In 1970, the North Carolina prisoners made the first concerted effort to unionize. This case went to the Supreme Court, which ultimately sided with the institution and corporate America in regards to not allowing prisoners to unionize. My question to you is, why do you think institutions put up so much resistance to allowing prisoners to come together and ask for or demand better working conditions and livable wages, wages that they could ultimately save and impact their lives upon their return to society? Why do you think it’s such a pushback? Because it’s been going on since 1970 and probably beyond or before?

Michael Sainato:  Well, I think that the main motive for suppressing workers organizing and improving their working conditions within the prison-industrial complex comes down to… I think there’s a lot of reasons, but money’s a big one. There was a report that came out a few months ago by a lot of researchers in the ACLU, and it even mentioned that estimates are limited because there’s so little reliable data on it. But labor in the prison system produces at least $11 billion in revenue for the prison system. And a lot of that is to maintain this mass incarceration-industrial complex, because it’s very expensive to maintain and run these huge prisons in areas where there is poverty and jobs are hard to come by, so they kind of manufacture consent in that way. And a lot of companies, a lot of government agencies are profiting immensely off of prison labor.

In many states, these workers aren’t paid anything. They’re not given the option to turn down work. And if they try to, they can be sent to solitary confinement. They can be dinged in terms of parole, in terms of other privileges. And they really have no rights in their working conditions. Not only do they not have the right to organize unions, they don’t have the right to safe working conditions. All those OSHA laws, the states’ workplace safety laws, they’re not enforceable under prisoners. And in my work, I’ve seen a lot of places. There’s a huge egg farm in Arizona that employs hundreds of prisoners, and many people lose fingers. They lose arms. They get seriously injured, and they really have no rights in those cases which typically a worker would find available to them if they were outside of prison.

I think governments, companies, agencies, and the system in general has viewed prisoners as this really cheap labor pool. And I think suppressing that and keeping that gravy train running for these people is the driving force to suppressing any efforts to reform or improve the working conditions and the wages within those systems.

Mansa Musa:  And as you were outlining that, it establishes the hypocrisy of this country, because everything you say was the reason why unions came into existence in this country, because of workers wanting to be treated fairly. When we look at the prison-industrial complex, I worked in the industry in Maryland, and they changed their name from one thing to Maryland Correctional Enterprise.

And this is a general principle throughout the United States when it comes to the prison-industrial complex, with the institution, with these industries, they get priority over government contracts or state contracts. And in the case of Maryland Correction Enterprise, they got contracts over all the state clothes. They make all the state clothes. They do all the furniture for colleges and the legislation, that’s the wood shop. And they make tags for the state of Maryland and beyond. And I worked in a tag shop, and to say you were actually pressing tags. That seems like something out of a James Cagney era, but yeah, we were pressing tags.

But let’s look at some of the things that we’ve been doing, prisoners have been doing to try to bring attention to this injustice and the inhumanity that’s being inflicted. I recall, I think it was 2016, prisoners in San Quentin called for a nationwide strike, a labor strike to protest the living conditions and working conditions. Do you have any information on that? Are you aware of that? And do you want to comment on it?

Michael Sainato:  Unfortunately, I don’t, but I think a big part of just the lack of attention on it is because these workers are in prison. Even as a reporter, I’ve had difficulty getting in touch with people in prison because if I write a letter asking them, oh, can you talk about your working conditions? Even if it does get through the screening process, because a correctional officer is going to read that and based on their interpretation, they’re going to decide whether they’re going to wave it through or not. And on the other end, those workers are at risk of severe retaliation if they do speak out. So unfortunately, during instances where you do have workers that are organizing and calling for things like a strike, it’s difficult to get the word out and get news and media coverage to cover those issues. And I think in the backend, part of that is really because this whole system is kind of done in secret.

Like you said, prison workers create all those things, but for the typical person that’s getting a tag in the state of Maryland, they’re not going to be informed of who’s making that. Or if you’re working in a state agency, they just give you a desk. They’re not telling you, oh, a prisoner made this and was paid $0.20 an hour.

And even companies that have been caught using prison labor, they are always on the defensive. I found last year when I did a story on companies like Russell Stover using prison labor, they try to say like, oh, we’re doing a good thing for them, which, that’s not true. If you’re doing a good thing, then you wouldn’t have the issue of not being able to find and retain enough workers where you have to go to the prison system and then cut deals with the state prison system and pay those workers even less. And the state prison system gets a big chunk of that because they take out fees for boarding and fees for transportation and things like that. And workers aren’t compensated for that time. All around there’s these gross human rights violations within these systems. And it’s very difficult for people to speak up while in them and these products that are coming out of these systems. Even with this report that researchers took a long time getting into.

I’ve done Freedom of Information Act requests to get some information on it, and it varies in different states. They won’t even tell you how many workers are working in prison. There’s no reliable, specific data. So it’s all done in secret, and it’s a matter of trying to peel back and figure out how expansive this system is and work locally to push for changes.

This is the unfortunate thing. Everyone’s seeing that Netflix documentary on the 13th Amendment, and the majority of America would support saying that kind of exception is ridiculous and needs to be amended. But because there’s so little information available to the public about how these systems operate, that it gets flown under the radar and there’s not a lot of political will or pressure to push for reforms and changes. I think that needs to change, and we need to start figuring out where we can raise these workers’ voices and address the human rights violations that are going on on a daily basis in this country.

Mansa Musa:  And I think that’s what we’re trying to do with Rattling the Bars. We’re trying to educate people, understand that you hear when a person is incarcerated and you get this distortion, information coming out, that when a person that’s actually locked in and locked up is living a lavish life because they might have certain amenities that people in society might frown on. But when it comes down to prison labor and the exploitation of prisoners’ labor, it’s systemic in the regard that, in the federal system, they got UNICOR, and UNICOR is an industry that has first rights to all labor that the federal government wants. So it could be anything from manufacturing wiring for jet planes to making spoons for the military. But anything that the federal government wants produced, UNICOR has gotten into a position where they get first priority over it.

Which brings me to this point. Do you think that there should be a connection between the labor movement in society and there should be a coalition or effort should be made to organize a relationship between both the union and the prison labor movement?

Michael Sainato:  I absolutely do think so, because I think all the unions and everyone within the labor movement is kind of aware that our existing labor laws are antiquated. They were all developed in the 1930s. They have a lot of racist exemptions, not just for prison workers, but for farm workers and gig workers and things like that. And I think you have to start from the most exploited. I don’t think ignoring large swaths of employees in this country, which, it’s like two thirds or more of all prisoners in this country are working while in prison. And that’s something that’s completely ignored by the labor movement. It’s ignored in popular culture. You watch a TV show. I have never seen prisoners working or those kinds of conditions. You watch Shawshank Redemption, movies like that. Those things don’t exist within those worlds, it’s just completely disregarded and not looked into. So I think a lot of people are either unaware of it or just completely disconnected from the violations of human rights and the exploitation that’s going on within these systems.

This is the worst of the worst. In the prison system, you basically have what the labor movement fought for over a hundred years ago. It’s just running full steam ahead and operating without any sort of oversight in terms of that. The 13th Amendment was just a racist relic after the Civil War to appease the South.

And that’s spread around the country. It’s not just in the South. The South, I think, is a lot worse in terms of some of the conditions and some of the things they get away with. But in New York state, for example, they were using prison labor to make hand sanitizers and things like that during the pandemic, to make masks and things like that. Like you said, anything the government wants to be made cheaply and quickly, they have prison workers to do that without anyone speaking up for those workers. They have no voice. They have no one on their side defending them or saying these need to be the parameters or the conditions where that’s made. It’s just, no, it’s all up to those prison systems to impose those conditions and the productivity quotas onto those workers.

Mansa Musa:  We were organized in Maryland in particular, and we were trying to organize the union for Metro, the metropolitan bus system. And so what we did, we did a survey, and the design of the survey was to see how many workers, Metro workers, had family members that were incarcerated. And we found out in the Metropolitan, dealing with the Metro transit system, we found out that 75% of the members of the union had family members that are incarcerated. Which opens the door for the conversation on how many people throughout the country have family members that are incarcerated, that are in unions. Have you ever considered looking into that, or have you ever come across that in your journalism or in your reporting?

Michael Sainato:  I haven’t come across it, but I think that’s a really interesting aspect. And I think it’s something that labor unions should look into more and figure out ways to expand and not just focus on their memberships, because even labor unions, especially the large ones, they are politically involved, but prison labor has not been on their radar. I haven’t seen a labor union address it at all. And it affects them whether they like it or not, whether their members have family members incarcerated, or a lot of these prisoners are being forced to do jobs that could be union jobs.

Where I live in Florida, if you’re driving around Florida, you can see a sign that says prison labor, and they are doing construction. And they’re getting paid pennies on the dollar for… Typically the construction industry workers, labor unions have been pushing to organize that. It’s pretty well organized in many parts of the country and those workers get paid good wages. But these are parts of the economy where the labor unions are missing opportunities, I think, to raise all boats and not only improve the lives of their members, but of communities. Because I think people are starting to become aware of that, having these systems work in communities.

I’ve seen, where I live in Gainesville, Florida, there’s been a lot of local activism against the University of Florida using companies that rely on prison labor and things like that, and that’s been over the past few years. Whole Foods got in big trouble for sourcing food that was made in Colorado using prison labor. I think it needs to extend beyond those holding companies accountable to holding systems accountable, or pressuring the politicians and the public agencies that have the authority and the power to make reforms and changes to do so.

Mansa Musa:  And I think that’s a good observation, because when we look at the unions, and as you just observed, a lot of the labor that’s being provided by prisoners is contracts that legitimate unions could have, but the capitalist America, corporate America, they do an end around by using prison labor. One, you don’t have to give no health benefits. Two, you have no binding contract with them. Three, you don’t have to give them a living wage. It’s a whole myriad of things that you don’t have to do with prisoners that you have to do with people in society. And I think the labor movement would be really well served if they really did look at or make a connection between the labor movement and prison and the labor movement overall.

But Mike, you have the last word on this. What do you want to tell our viewers about this upcoming Labor Day and how they should really look at understanding labor and Labor Day and the labor movement?

Michael Sainato:  I think people need to be more aware of how expansive the labor movement is, and far-reaching in terms of our society. People think of the typical job, it’s a lot more than that. And prison labor and all the different kinds of exploited labor that comes out of the prison system, because it’s not just those in prison, workers are exploited when they come out of prison. They’re exploited in the beginnings of the prison system.

A couple years ago in Mississippi, a big story came out where jails were using local employers and forcing people to work off debts from fines and fees, and fines and fees are a big part of that as well. It’s expensive to be poor in this country, and that is exploited. And those groups of people are exploited by the prison system. So it’s not just labor, it’s not just companies like McDonald’s that are exploiting workers, it’s our public institutions as well. And I think that awareness needs to come up. Corporations are the face of capitalism, and there’s certainly merited criticism and anger from the public, but I think more so it’s our public institutions that enable and empower those corporations and really do the same kind of exploitative practices that people hate Amazon for.

I think it’s becoming more aware of that and just learning and figuring out if there are politicians receptive to this and what’s going on. And that’s been the case, I think it’s been difficult, and there’s only a few people speaking up. And those that do don’t get a lot of attention for it. And I found this in covering who were the politicians that were pushing for police reform. And while Democrats and Republicans have been trying to get cops more money and that comes on the back end in terms of, if you’re giving cops more money, they’re going to put more people in prisons, and that’s what’s been happening. Our prison population has been increasing under Biden, and who’s talking about that? Who’s criticizing that and holding him accountable? And just because they have a D next to their name, it’s not something that should go without push back.

Mansa Musa:  And there you have it, the real news about Labor Day. Marxists coined the term “Workers of the world, unite! And then this Labor Day, we want to emphasize that when we look at corporate America and capitalism, we all recognize that in this country, it’s a lot of poor people. A lot of people in society that don’t have living wages and can’t get living wages because of corporate America and capitalism and the scientific manner in which they’re busting unions. But more importantly, we have to recognize also that 1.2 million people are incarcerated, and that’s free labor for corporate America at the expense of people in society that could have them jobs and get living wages, and, more importantly, could help to abolish the prison-industrial complex and end slavery as we know it.

Thanks, Mike, for coming on, joining us for Rattling the Bars.

Michael Sainato:  Of course, thanks for having me.

Mansa Musa:  And I urge everyone to continue to support The Real News and continue to support Rattling the Bars. You can go to our website and learn how you can support us and continue to support The Real News and continue to rattle the bars. Thank you.

Mansa Musa

Mansa Musa, also known as Charles Hopkins, is a 70-year-old social activist and former Black Panther. He was released from prison on December 5, 2019, after serving 48 years, nine months, 5 days, 16 hours, 10 minutes. He co-hosts the TRNN original show Rattling the Bars.