Why the AFL-CIO Must Address Black Criminalization and (Un)Employment
by Tamara K. Nopper and Kenyon Farrow
Blacks are more likely than whites or Latinos to be members of labor unions. Yet, the AFL-CIO seems not to recognize the multiple challenges that face their most loyal constituency. Big Labor has no position on racial profiling, for example, “nor does the federation appear to prioritize the issue of Black unemployment, which is the highest nationally out of all racial groups.”
Why the AFL-CIO Must Address Black Criminalization and (Un)Employment
by Tamara K. Nopper and Kenyon Farrow
“There is little acknowledgement on the AFL-CIO website that African Americans are in a state of economic crisis.“
In January of this year, a “new sign of the deep dissension” between the labor movement and the Obama administration over immigration enforcement was reported by the New York Times (NYT). As the Immigration Enforcement and Customs (ICE) agency sought to train deportation officers to refocus arrest efforts on immigrants who have been convicted of crimes, some 7,000 deportation officers represented by the National ICE Council were still waiting on permission from their union to participate in the training. Yet it didn’t appear that social justice concerns motivated the council leadership’s prevention of its members’ participation. Rather, they were critical of the Obama administration prioritizing immigrants with convictions. This purported shift was perceived by some as an attempt to pander to immigrant rights groups; as Chris Crane, president of the National ICE Council, was quoted saying, “Law enforcement and public safety have taken a back seat to attempts to satisfy immigrant advocacy groups.”
Although the NYT article didn’t mention it, there were other signs of dissension between the labor movement and the Obama administration over immigration enforcement. A few days before the NYT article ran, the AFL-CIO, with the National Immigration Forum, sent Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano a letter requesting the federal government review and in some cases, terminate, Secure Communities, a program which permits state and local police to check DHS immigration databases when taking fingerprints of people they are booking into jail. Whereas the leadership of the National ICE Council, a local of the American Federation of Government Employees, was concerned about its officers being constrained from arresting more immigrants, the AFL-CIO’s letter, dated January 4, expressed dismay with “a pattern and practice of racial profiling of Latinos” in Arizona and demanded that Secure Communities be terminated in Alabama, as well as other states and suspended nationally per further reforms. It appears, then, that there may not only be tension between the labor movement and the Obama administration regarding immigration enforcement, but perhaps a rift within the labor movement itself as the American Federation of Government Employees is one of the 56 unions represented by the AFL-CIO.
“Blacks are still disproportionately more likely to be members of unions than whites or Latinos.”
Whatever internal strife may exist, it is noticeable that the AFL-CIO has not taken a similar public stance against the racial profiling and criminalization of African Americans. Nor does the federation appear to prioritize the issue of Black unemployment, which is the highest nationally out of all racial groups. Overall, African Americans and the policing and criminalization they disproportionately experience as workers or job seekers seem of little concern to the AFL-CIO.
Some may take issue with our assessment here and point out that Civil and Workplace Rights is listed as an “issue” on the AFL-CIO’s website. They may direct us to read copies of the newsletter Civil Rights News or point out the AFL-CIO joined Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN) on its 2012 Selma to Montgomery March, which reenacted the historic 1965 civil rights march. Or they may mention the AFL-CIO’s campaign to challenge voter ID laws and voter suppression or that they have the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) included in a list of organizations on their Civil and Workplace Rights page. Yet a closer examination of materials related to these topics reveals little consideration of criminalization and Black unemployment.
A search of AFL-CIO’s website show that African Americans are barely mentioned at all. Our review of how Black employment was addressed may not be exhaustive but it was comprehensive: it included an analysis of 1) the three years of the federation’s legislative briefs available to readers (totaling 161 at the time of this writing); 2) numerous pages of results for several search terms related to the criminal justice system (for example, we examined 28 pages of results returned when searching for the word “police” on the website); 3) 10 out of the 11 issues of Civil Rights News published between 2007 to today (one issue was unable to be downloaded); and 4) the 11 minute video featured on the Civil and Workplace Rights page and other posts reporting on the 2012 Selma to Montgomery March. When African Americans are mentioned or featured in these materials, it is usually as the dead, heroic martyrs of the past (as seen in references to Martin Luther King, Jr., historic civil rights organizations, and the Selma to Montgomery March), as disenfranchised voters (but not as workers), or as allies bearing witness and speaking out against the racial profiling and circumscribed job opportunities experienced by today’s immigrants (most notably the “AFL-CIO-sponsored delegation of prominent African American labor leaders who traveled to Alabama last month to see firsthand the law’s devastating impacts on immigrant workers and their families”).
Indeed, with the exception of a graph showing “African Americans are more likely to experience downward mobility” on their Civil and Workplace Rights page (which is noticeably posted without any accompanying report or announcement of a campaign agenda) and some mention of the impact of the foreclosure crisis on African American homeowners, there is little acknowledgement on the AFL-CIO website that African Americans are in a state of economic crisis. That Blacks work, seek jobs, and belong to unions is barely recognized when in fact, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Blacks are still disproportionately more likely to be members of unions than whites or Latinos. Related, there is little mention of the impact of racial profiling and criminalization on African Americans’ employment status. This is extremely curious given that the AFL-CIO openly opposes voter disenfranchisement, which involves addressing the impact of felony convictions on African Americans’ right to vote in many states and works with the NAACP, who has pushed for felony reentry policies conducive to employment opportunities.
“A search of AFL-CIO’s website show that African Americans are barely mentioned at all.”
In hopes of pushing the AFL-CIO to expand its agenda, we want to address here why the two issues of police targeting of African Americans and Black (un)employment are intertwined. This is more than a theoretical exercise given the aforementioned Black unemployment rate—which is higher in each state than the overall rate—and the fact that African Americans have a higher arrest rate, a higher imprisonment rate, and a disproportionate number under some type of community supervision than other racial groups. While the AFL-CIO is of course not the only labor organization in the United States, we purposefully address our concerns to the federation as it involves 56 national and international labor unions representing 12.2 million people in a country with only 16 million people represented by a union (those who are union members or have jobs covered by unions or employee association contracts). Thus, the AFL-CIO is one of the largest and most powerful labor organizations in a country and world experiencing one of the worst financial crises in decades.
This position statement addresses four issues related to the criminalization of African Americans and Black (un)employment: 1) arrest and conviction records and what this means for job applications and licensing; 2) surveillance on the way to work; 3) the health impact of criminalization and what this means for Black employment status; and 4) mass incarceration and prison labor. Our goal is to synthesize some of the ways the criminalization impacts African Americans’ efforts to seek work or maintain employment and also encourage the AFL-CIO to prioritize addressing the Black unemployment crisis.
Arrests, convictions, job applications, and licensing
Research studies on employers’ attitudes shows that African Americans tend to be the least favored job applicants due to racist stereotypes of being lazy, unmanageable, and having bad attitudes. When they are hired, African Americans are twice as likely to be laid off from jobs compared to whites even when other factors, such as human capital and job characteristics, are equal. Anti-discrimination law and affirmative action policies have had limited impact on addressing racism in the private sector and the latter are not applicable to most small businesses, which have been touted by the federal government as the engine of new American jobs. Even if anti-discrimination laws and enforcement were effective remedies to anti-Black discrimination from employers, it would not address the impact of the criminal justice system on the employment prospects of African Americans given that “in many states, discrimination against ex-felons is legally mandated.” While the AFL-CIO is concerned with ex-felons getting the right to vote, it has not prioritized—or barely even mentioned—how ex-felons fare in terms of employment. But the federation needs to prioritize this issue for several reasons.
First, as of 2011, all 50 states banned, to an extent, ex-felons from public employment, a sector often considered an alternative from the private sector’s discriminatory practices against African Americans. While some states apply ex-felon bans for convictions of certain crimes or restore the right to public employment after a period of time, most states “treat ‘felons’ as an undifferentiated group for the purposes of restricting access to unemployment.” Second, while employers in the private sector may be willing to evaluate a felony conviction against other factors—such as the type of crime an applicant was convicted of, how long ago the conviction happened, the ex-felon’s record since, and other aspects of an applicants’ story—licenses are required to participate in a variety of professions. As “formal permission granted by a governmental body, generally for a fee, to a person, firm, or corporation, to legally pursue some occupation or to legally carry on some business,” occupational licenses are required for many unskilled and semi-skilled occupations. One such skill is barbering, a profession in which many African American men and some women participate as Black barber shops and hair salons are a niche market that Blacks, to an extent, still control. Third and related, not only are ex-felons banned from occupational licenses, but failing to obtain one and still working in professions that require them can result in legal action being taken against the worker, including arrest, as seen in the sweeps in 2010 of at least nine Black and Latino barbershops in Florida. In these sweeps, armed agents, under the authority of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation inspectors, entered the shops without warrants and had barbers sit on the ground handcuffed while they rifled through work stations and inspected licenses. Ultimately 37 people were arrested in the sweeps. While the agents, including narcotics officers, claim they found evidence of guns, drugs and gambling, the overwhelming majority of the 37 were charged with nothing more than failing to have a license. For those who may have been barbering without a license while on parole, it can mean a return to prison. Taken together, ex-felons are “barred from more than eight hundred discrete occupations by laws regulating public-employment hiring or licensing.”
“The AFL-CIO has not prioritized—or barely even mentioned—how ex-felons fare in terms of employment.”
While all ex-felons, regardless of race, are vulnerable to limited employment prospects, African Americans in particular are negatively impacted by policies towards ex-felons for three reasons. The first is that as a group, Blacks have a higher imprisonment rate, a larger number under some type of community supervision, have a higher number of former prisoners, and based on previous incarceration rates, are projected to have a larger portion of their population incarcerated in their lifetime. The second reason is there is more surveillance of Blacks when they apply for jobs, including employers asking African Americans point blank if they have conviction records but not always asking other races the same or being more likely to verify an African Americans’ application in terms of the honesty of its reporting. Research studies have shown this as have stories from workers. Regarding the latter, an African American mentioned to one of us that at his job a white man, a fellow busboy, bragged openly how he had been in jail but never reported it on his application because he knew employers wouldn’t check because he was white. Third, because ex-felons can be legally excluded from some employment—despite no law requiring they be excluded from all jobs—racist employers can use felony convictions to legally exclude African Americans even when they may be open to hiring white ex-felons as well as undocumented immigrants—who may have felony convictions or questionable employment histories but are unable to be traced without documents attesting to their real identities. Although, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), convictions should only be taken into consideration if it is related to the job, enforcement of EEOC policies tends to be limited.
Along with felony convictions, the criminal justice system impacts job seekers in other ways. In one of its few blog posts addressing how felony convictions impede employment—in which they mention how African Americans and Latinos are particularly impacted—the AFL-CIO announces new EEOC guidelines on the consideration of criminal background checks in hiring decisions. Notably, the EEOC’s Q & A about its guidelines addresses how revisions were necessary due to “disparate impact discrimination”—where a particular racial group could be disproportionately impacted by convictions even if background checks are conducted uniformly—and technology, which “made criminal history information much more accessible to employers.” The AFL-CIO blog posts also mentions how the National Employment Law Project (NELP), one of the groups pushing the EEOC to make these changes, conducted a 2011 report emphasizing the use of technology by companies to exclude ex-felons from applying for jobs. Today, an estimated 90 percent of employers, including those in low-wage sector employment, conduct criminal background checks, and in doing so often outsource this task to companies who provide a pass/fail judgment and do not provide other details. Also, these reports may provide false information as “commercially prepared background checks have been found to be rife with inaccuracies.” These screenings do not just target those with convictions but also those who have been arrested. Despite EEOC guidelines stating that arrests not resulting in convictions should rarely be considered by an employer, a criminal record can include arrests, including those that were dropped because of factual innocence.
“There is more surveillance of Blacks when they apply for jobs, including employers asking African Americans point blank if they have conviction records.”
Taken together, as NELP reports, a staggering 65 million individuals with records of arrests or convictions are vulnerable to being excluded from jobs or fired from them due to criminal background checks and the outsourcing of them to companies with limited reporting procedures. A good share of this 65 million is African American as they have an arrest rate that far exceeds other groups. Given that employers openly defy EEOC guidelines regarding criminal backgrounds, which includes posting ads in sources such as Craigslist dictating “‘no arrests’ or ‘clean’ or ‘clear’ criminal records,” the AFL-CIO, as a labor organization, also needs to consider how the EEOC guidelines that it reports on its blog are not sufficient for addressing the impact of the criminal justice system on Black employment.
Surveillance on the way to work
The issue of racial profiling and police programs disproportionately affecting people of color has garnered attention from many different communities and organizations over the last several decades. Testimonies, research studies, and organizational reports show African Americans are disproportionately impacted by racial profiling, and this includes not only in terms of being stopped and arrested but also killed by police and those representing extrajudicial organizations. Surely the AFL-CIO must know this reality since some of their material mention that racial minorities have a tenuous relationship with the police and it issued a brief statement on the murder of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. Yet it is only the enforcement programs targeting undocumented immigrants, immigrants, and Latinos that have gotten attention among the AFL-CIO in their campaigns, legislative briefs, and other materials.
Just as it has openly questioned immigration enforcement programs such as Secure Communities, the AFL-CIO needs to denounce racial profiling and specific programs, such as Stop and Frisk, which focus primarily on African Americans in urban cities. We are opposed to police harassment if the person is working, on the way to work, or just “standing on the corner,” as no one deserves to be targeted and profiled. But we want to encourage the AFL-CIO, as a labor organization, to consider the impact policing has on African Americans’ employment status. Getting back and forth from work is a hassle because of police harassment for many African Americans, particularly those living in cities with Stop and Frisk programs. For example, in a video about Operation Clean Halls, a part of the New York Police Department (NYPD) Stop and Frisk program in which the NYPD patrols private apartment buildings, residents, including Black women, talk about the hassle of leaving and entering the building and how it makes them not want to leave their homes, including for work. Even when police programs don’t originally begin as a formal part of Stop and Frisk, they can take on a similar function in terms of racially profiling African Americans.
“It is only the enforcement programs targeting undocumented immigrants, immigrants, and Latinos that have gotten attention among the AFL-CIO in their campaigns, legislative briefs, and other materials.”
For example, in New York City, the Taxi/Livery Robbery Inspection Program (TRIP) was reported by the NYT to be “routinely detaining and searching livery passengers without suspicion of any unlawful activity.” Given that “‘livery cars are the only cabs available outside of Manhattan, virtually everyone who is a victim of this program is either black or Latino.’” The NYT story describes the experience of Terrence Battle, a Black radio executive who was returning home from work in the early morning hours and stopped by police outside his front door because, as they told him, his “mere entry into a cab with a [TRIP] decal opened him to their search.” Of course police harassment of African Americans on the way to work occurs in cities without Stop and Frisk or other specific police programs. A case in point: one of us knows a white person who manages a factory in the Midwest who told us that his employee, an African American, was stopped by the police when walking to work and detained. Eventually, this factory manager had to intervene and get the company lawyers involved. The African American employee now walks around with a letter on official company stationary stating that he is an employee and providing his work hours, with the business card of the manager attached. This letter is meant to deter an arrest of the Black man if he is stopped again but it will not make him less vulnerable to being harassed or even save him from an arrest.
Another way that police harassment affects the employment status of African Americans is by making them get tangled up in the system and forcing them to take time away from work if they are employed. For example, in a report documenting “the human impact” of the NYPD Stop and Frisk Program, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) points out that Stop and Frisk arrests “often leave people languishing ‘in the system’ as they are moved from the precinct to the courthouse where they wait to appear before a judge”—a process that can “take days, even if the charges are dropped or dismissed right away.” Employees have to explain their absences from work, including time they might have been locked up in jail, time to go to court, and time to meet with an attorney if they have one. Lost time for many who work in hourly wage work, as do many African Americans, is lost money earned. And it can also make you vulnerable to being fired. As one victim of Stop and Frisk in New York City comments in the CCR report, “People actually lose their employment because they weren’t able to come into work. And since jobs are so hard to get right about now, employers don’t want to hear, ‘Oh, you can’t come in today because you [were] just arrested.’” Having to explain to an employer absences due to an arrest will be stressful for anyone as it may cast suspicion on one’s work ethic, morality, criminality, and reliability. However, given that dominant racist stereotypes of Blacks as lacking a work ethic, being prone to criminality and unsafe, this perception may weigh especially heavy on the shoulders of African Americans who have been arrested and must explain their time away from their job for legal affairs.
Racial Profiling and Mental Health/Physical Health
Clearly, racial profiling and criminalization create situations where Blacks are barred from employment, harassed on the way to and from work, and have their physical movements surveilled and controlled to the point of limiting or discouraging movement outside of one’s immediate neighborhood. But racial profiling, massive imprisonment, and criminalization also affect the physical and mental health of Blacks, most of whom live under the constant fear of arrest.
Science and public health experts have documented the impact of racism and racial profiling on the physical, emotional, and psychological health of African Americans. One need not be the direct recipient of racial profiling to feel its effects either. Other studies point to the stress related to knowing one is a part of an oppressed group, or that one’s racial identity has been historically targeted. Put another way, many African Americans do not have to have a personal bad experience with police in order feel the stressful impacts of racial profiling.
City Limits reported on a public hearing in Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York where residents clearly named the physical, psychological, and economic impacts of NYPD’s Stop and Frisk policy. A young Black man at this hearing spoke while “anger rattled his voice” and said he’d been stopped over fifty times, and given as many tickets for offenses like loitering and disorderly conduct. “I’ve got fifty tickets in my house and I ain’t got fifty dollars,” he said.
Here, we see a young Black man clearly reliving the rage he felt. Further, receiving fifty citations for someone who “ain’t got fifty dollars” creates an additional financial burden, and if gone unpaid, could result in higher fines, a drivers’ license suspension, or jail time for simply leaving his home. Creating a situation where it is difficult to leave home to even travel to and from work, the mounting bills from tickets and the overall experience likely fuels anxiety, rage, and potentially, physical symptoms of stress (like high blood pressure and hypertension) that African Americans disproportionately suffer from.
“African Americans do not have to have a personal bad experience with police in order feel the stressful impacts of racial profiling.”
Even if someone works with colleagues and bosses who are sympathetic and won’t judge your character based on how the police treat you, racial profiling can impact African American workers in other ways. For example, one of us knows a Black man who was stopped late one night when he was going to a corner store on a still busy street to buy some cookies. He was surrounded by police with guns drawn and made to put his hands on a patrol car. A person had reported that a Black man with a puffy coat on—which this man was wearing—had robbed them. Having left his home without his driver’s license since he was walking to a store just around the corner, this Black man was cast as more suspicious by the police, even as he could hear the police talking about the suspect wearing a hoodie of a particular color when he was only wearing a white tee shirt under his coat. At a certain point, another patrol car pulls up, this pointing a bright light into his face to purposefully make it difficult for him to see as he was put into a one-man lineup on the street. Nervously, he waited for the person’s identification; fortunately it was correct and he was eventually let go by the police. Before they released him, they asked him what he did for a living. When he responded that he worked for a non-profit organization, one of the cops sneered and commented on the “fancy job” he had.
The next day, while visiting his family, this Black man had a panic attack that made him think he was dying. Literally. He experienced such intense physical pain in his back and arms that he couldn’t sleep for several days in his bed; the little rest he got for the next few weeks was spent sitting in a chair in his living room. He went to his doctor and was put on some temporary medication and told that if he had waited just a little longer to get checked out, he would have had permanent damage to his esophagus. When he told the doctor what happened, the doctor told him his physical ailment was most certainly panic-related and caused by his encounter with the police. This man was “lucky” because he had health insurance, sympathetic colleagues and a boss he could explain his situation to, and the type of job where he could schedule doctor’s appointments. But he nevertheless lost time at work, had to work more later to catch up, and go and back and forth to the doctor’s offices during the workday, all while managing the physical and emotional trauma of what the police put him through. All of this made already stressful work days even more stressful.
“Many of the jobs that require criminal background checks in the US labor market are ones in which African American workers are overrepresented when compared to the entire labor force.”
Of course men are not the only ones dealing with the health and stress related impacts of racial profiling. The City Limits article mentioned above also recounts the story of an older woman, a grandmother, who “said that she was beaten by police officers in 2008 when she could not produce identification. Both of her wrists were broken during the incident.” The NYT also recently reported that in New York City over 46,784 women were stopped; many mention the stress related to the actual Stop and Frisk. An additional layer of this stress, which men can also be subjected to, includes instances of sexual harassment and assault in those interactions.
Not only do these interactions have negative consequences for Blacks in terms of their health and well-being, it also has consequences for the kinds of work Blacks are able to get or keep. Many of the jobs that require criminal background checks in the US labor market are ones in which African American workers are overrepresented when compared to the entire labor force. These include jobs in government public service (15.1% vs. 4.4%), and health care, education and social services (14.1% vs. 5.8%.). While these figures seem to contradict the statement that criminalization of African Americans through racial profiling and stop and frisk techniques impede their employment prospects, we should consider two things. In many cities like New York, Washington, DC, and others with large populations of Black immigrants, we see the increase in jobs (like in health care services) traditionally held by African American workers increasingly held by Black immigrants. While African and Caribbean Blacks are just as likely to be racially profiled, they may be less likely, compared to African Americans, to have established criminal records as a product of racial profiling starting at a young age.
Additionally, when we look at the projects for job growth in the US, we see some potential barriers for African American workers to take advantage of such opportunities in the future. According to the Department of Labor, Black workers disproportionately hold jobs in sectors where there is expected to be the highest rates of job growth from 2010-2020: health/social assistance and education being two of those areas. If we continue to see such high levels of criminalization and racial profiling at younger and younger ages, and with more requirements for drug testing, criminal back ground and credit checks as conditions of employment, will African Americans be able to maintain strong employment numbers in the sectors where they have traditionally been able to maintain not only jobs, but middle class incomes and benefits?
For instance, consider that HIV/AIDS prevention and education programs at community-based organizations are one of the health/social service areas of the economy that employs many African Americans. It is often one of the only ways out of poverty and into income stability that many marginalized Black people (homeless, LGBT, people with HIV, former and active drug users, etc.) are able to attain at all. But doing outreach in the street among homeless, drug users, sex workers, or simply public spaces where Black people congregate on behalf of these community-based organizations can become one of the ways Black people are at risk of coming into contact with law enforcement. One of us knows a young Black transgender HIV/AIDS outreach worker who had been arrested by the police for prostitution when she was doing HIV prevention outreach among Black LGBT youth in NYC. The organization eventually issued work IDs to many of its outreach staff as a way to prevent arrest when they were doing their jobs. But the IDs did not prevent police from arresting her again for “prostitution” because she was carrying condoms as part of her HIV prevention work. Her place of employment had to secure legal assistance for her release from Rikers Island (Human Rights Watch recently documented many cases of police departments using “condoms as evidence of prostitution” across the country).
One aspect of the perpetual criminalization that Blacks experience is imprisonment itself. The labor movement and unions have invested likely millions of dollars in campaigning for “comprehensive immigration reform,” and an end to the criminalization of undocumented immigrants (which can result in imprisonment in detention centers, and ultimately deportation), and protesting free-trade agreements that result in “outsourcing” (the exporting of thousands of manufacturing jobs from the US to exploit cheaper, nonunionized labor in the Caribbean, Latin America and Asia.). But the labor movement is almost completely silent on the issue of “in-sourcing”—the work that US prisoners are doing for little or no money for state and federal governments as well as many of the private corporations that are targeted by the union movement for other kinds of union-busting policies.
Many criminal justice reform advocates often point to the language of the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution that abolished slavery after the Civil War “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” It is after 1865 that we begin to see the expanded relationship of the criminalization of Blacks (in the North and the South) and the use of Black labor as a major part of the prison experience, such as convict leasing, “chain gangs,” etc. Many prisoner advocates point to the “excess labor” caused by de-industrialization and the economic restructuring of the US economy in the 1970s as the explanation for the exponential growth of the prison system and all of its ancillary logic and institutions. We think the labor and economic arguments are insufficient in explaining this phenomenon; at the same time, the glaring silence on the part of labor unions (and the left as a whole) to highlight prison labor as part of the narrative of what has happened to the US economy, makes it worth discussing here.
“The labor movement is almost completely silent on the issue of ‘in-sourcing’—the work that US prisoners are doing for little or no money.”
Prison labor constitutes a $2.4 billion industry. As reported by Rania Khalek for Alternet, employment law scholar Noah Zatz estimates that “Well over 600,000, and probably close to a million, inmates are working full-time in jails and prisons throughout the United States.” Many are working in jobs that help the prison facility operate (laundry, food service, etc.) and many are working for private industry corporations who contract with actual factories located in prison facilities to produce a range of different goods and services that include agriculture and farming, garment making, solar panels, office furniture, auto parts, jet and plane parts, and most ironically, body armor and weapons for prison guards, the US military, and local police forces. Most prisoners make somewhere between $.23 per hour and up to about $5.00 per hour. Between 1980 and 1994 alone, profits went up from $392 million to $1.31 billion. Since the prison labor force has likely grown since then, it is safe to assume that the profits accrued from the use of prison labor have reached even higher levels.
Many prison reform advocates focus their attention on “private prisons,” those facilities owned and operated by corporations, and seem to suggest that government facilities or those without corporate interests are preferable. This is shortsighted advocacy, especially when one considers how labor happens inside federal prisons.
Most federal prisoners work for UNICOR (also known as Federal Prison Industries, Inc. or FPI), for $.23 to $1.25 per day. Prisoners in other facilities may make more. FPI, Inc. was established in 1934 (in a period that most labor advocates mark as a watershed moment in the “protection” of workers because of the passage of the Labor Relations Act of 1935), with the mission to “to employ and provide job skills training to the greatest practicable number of inmates confined within the Federal Bureau of Prisons; contribute to the safety and security of our Nation’s federal correctional facilities by keeping inmates constructively occupied; provide market-quality products and services; operate in a self-sustaining manner; and minimize FPI’s impact on private business and labor.”
The establishment of the FPI was in fact negotiated by the American Federation of Labor, uncomfortable with this new federal initiative that would potentially increase competition with unionized labor. But according to UNICOR’s website, “[AFL Director] Bates and [President] Roosevelt were able to draw out [AFL President] Green’s objections to the proposed legislation as well as his suggestions for improvement, and, ultimately, the American Federation of Labor withdrew its opposition. (Subsequently, AFL Vice President Thomas Rickert became a charter member of FPI’s Board of Directors. Later, William Green’s successor as AFL President, George Meany, also served as an FPI Board member.)”
At the end of 2011, UNICOR operated 94 factories at 70 prison facilities, while using about 15,907 inmates as labor. UNICOR’s products are organized by several areas, including Clothing and Textiles; Electronics; Fleet Management and Vehicular Components; Industrial Products; Office Furniture; Recycling; and Services. UNICOR’s customers were Department of Defense (47%), the DHS (18%), the Department of Justice (9%), the General Services Administration (5%), and the Social Security Administration (5%). Most of these agencies are required to purchase goods from UNICOR.
“Even if a prisoner gains a particular kind of skilled trade while incarcerated, they are far less likely to be able to obtain a job using that skill based on their status as an ‘ex-felon.’”
But it doesn’t end with UNICOR. According to Abe Louise Young in The Nation, “Under the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC), private-sector employers receive a tax credit of $2,400 for every work release inmate they employ as a reward for hiring “risky target groups” and they can “earn back up to 40 percent of the wages they pay annually to target group workers.”
Liberals and conservatives alike often cite the numbers of “unskilled” workers in Black communities as one of the more sympathetic reasons for the high rates of unemployment. But if prisoners are able to produce goods that require highly skilled labor like some of the aforementioned products, why are they not “skilled” enough to do this labor in their own communities and as free human beings? Furthermore, even if a prisoner gains a particular kind of skilled trade while incarcerated, they are far less likely to be able to obtain a job using that skill based on their status as an “ex-felon,” and are barred from many social safety net programs (like public housing and welfare in some states) or from getting federal grants and loans to further their education.
In a 1998 interview with the Washington Free Press, prisoner Paul Wright (then editor of Prison Legal News), responded to the labor movement’s lack of investment in prison labor’s impact on US workers and the economy:
“The U.S. garment industry has gone three places: it’s gone overseas to sweatshops in Southeast Asia and Latin America, it’s done by illegal immigrants here in the United States, and it’s done in prisons. I don’t think they would seriously tell you that Joe Blow got out of prison and now he’s working as a seamster in downtown Seattle’s International District. It’s just not happening. The other contradiction you have here is when you have jobs that don’t fall into the category of sweatshop labor, like the MicroJet jobs. MicroJet is a company that uses very cutting-edge and sophisticated technology. By bringing these jobs into the prisons they’re depressing the economy for everyone else out of prison.”
According to Wright, AFL-CIO did pass a resolution in 1998 opposing prison labor. And the AFL-CIO does mention in some of its materials the work conditions of correctional staff. But why has there been, among mainstream labor unions, no major organizing on the issue of prisoners as workers—even when recent prison hunger strikes in Georgia and California cited labor issues as part of their ongoing problems with the condition of imprisonment? Given the experience of imprisonment, policing and state control as a regular and everyday experience Black life, it begs the us to wonder why unions, if they are worried about their future relevance in US politics, would not seize upon the issue of prison labor (if not for ethical reasons, at least for strategic ones) as a major part of its organizing.
Labor unions have a serious role to play in advancing a social justice agenda beyond the vital bread and butter issues of wages and work conditions. While under serious political attack, labor unions enjoy an overwhelming level of support among African Americans, regardless of union membership. Yet the AFL-CIO, which represents a significant portion of the 16 million people affiliated with unions in the United States, does not appear to take seriously Black unemployment or how criminalization jeopardizes African Americans’ access to work or the conditions under which they labor. As we have demonstrated, racial profiling, criminalization, and imprisonment limit the ability of African Americans to find, secure, or keep employment and yet the AFL-CIO does little to publicly challenge this reality. While individual unions that are part of the federation may prioritize addressing the criminalization of African Americans and Black unemployment, the AFL-CIO has not. As we applaud the AFL-CIO for taking a public stand against immigration enforcement programs such as Secure Communities, and for being part of a larger social justice agenda in terms of defending voting rights, we encourage the federation to prioritize addressing Black workers. Until this happens, we can only wonder, what is it about African Americans that make them undesirable subjects for labor unions to engage and to organize on their behalf