FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The New Business Model

by DAVID MACARAY

There are several ways to look at prison labor.  We can view it the way guards and wardens do, as having a salutary effect on inmates who would otherwise be doing nothing or, worse, getting into mischief; we can view it the way sociologists do, as providing inmates with marketable skills; we can view it the way taxpayers do, as a way for these useless reprobates to earn their keep instead of bleeding us dry; or we can view it the way working people do, as a genuine threat to their jobs.

While there’s an argument for each of those perspectives, one thing is certain: Because the U.S. leads the world in the number of people living behind bars, and because businesses already realize that plentiful, dirt-cheap prison labor could be a panacea, prison labor is not only going to continue, but as more inmates are “harvested,” as more of them are trained in diverse industries, it’s likely to expand exponentially.

The U.S. used to be recognized as the entrepreneurial capital of the world.  Today (thanks largely to our unenlightened drug laws), we’re recognized as the prison capital of the world.  Just as Mr. Chocolate and Mr. Peanut Butter fortuitously met to form Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, the obvious next step was to combine the two.  Prisoners, meet your new employers.

Take the U.S. federal prison system, for example.  The trade name for Federal Prison Industries (FPI) is UNICOR.  As part of FPI’s charter, UNICOR is required by law to be the authorized vendor for many government agencies.  Prison inmates working for UNICOR are responsible for the manufacture of military apparel and metal office equipment (file cabinets, desks).  By law, private companies aren’t allowed to compete (even if they could).

Created by Congress in 1932, UNICOR not only makes the uniforms and caps that our soldiers wear, they do it for about one-tenth the wages that private textile workers would earn.  And because, as we all know, private textile workers ain’t exactly an overpaid profession, that means that there is no way in hell for America’s private sector textile industry to compete for that business.  Ever.

In flush times, this artificially lop-sided arrangement might not have been hugely important, but with the recession still stubbornly hanging on and with unemployment hovering at just under 9-percent, it’s a fairly big deal.  More ominously, UNICOR has not only been handed these federal contracts on a silver platter, they’ve been allowed to expand.

No longer confined to supplying government agencies, UNICOR is now permitted to manufacture certain other products if they can be shown to compete with off-shore manufacturers.  In other words, if UNICOR can make consumer products as cheaply as a company in Singapore can, they will be allowed to compete in the open market.

There are about 218,000 inmates in U.S. federal prisons, and about 13,000 of them work for UNICOR, whose revenue in 2011 was estimated at $900 million.  But this barely scratches the surface.  This only speaks to the federal prison system.

When we consider state and privately run prisons, the figures are astounding.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), there were more than 2,266,000 adults in U.S. federal and state prisons and county jails at the year-end, 2010.  A workforce composed of labor that potentially cheap is simply too rich a resource, too powerful a temptation, to leave untapped.  The demand for prison labor could explode.

The day could come where America’s burgeoning prison population is responsible for a significant amount of the country’s manual labor.  Of course, the irony in that is overwhelming.  The thought that those “call centers” in India were once considered a major threat to our economy seems almost quaint by comparison.

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd Edition), was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net.

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is “Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories.” He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

May 04, 2016
Kshama Sawant
It’s Not About Bernie: Why We Can’t Let Our Revolution Die in Philadelphia
Conn Hallinan
Baiting the Bear: Russia and NATO
Joshua Frank
Hanford’s Leaky Nuke Tanks and Sick Workers, A Never-Ending Saga
Paul Craig Roberts
TIPP: Advancing American Imperialism
Ted Rall
Hillary to Bernie Supporters: Don’t Vote for Me!
Eric Draitser
Hillary Clinton and Wall Street’s Neoliberal War on Latin America
Leslie Scott
The Story of Jill Stein: Putting People, Peace and the Planet Before Profits
Ann Garrison
Building the Greens Into a Mass Party: Interview with Bruce Dixon
Tom Clifford
Crying Rape: Trump’s Slurs Against China
Lawrence Davidson
Getting Rid of Bad Examples: Andrew Jackson & Woodrow Wilson
Ellen Brown
Bank of North Dakota Soars Despite Oil Bust: A Blueprint for California?
Nelson Valdes
Is Fidel Castro Outside or Part of Mainstream Thinking? A Selection of Quotes
Jesse Jackson
Don’t Send Flint Down the Drain: Fix It!
Nathan Riley
Help Bernie Keep His Halo
Rivera Sun
Remembering Nonviolent History: Freedom Rides
Clancy Sigal
Rachel and the Isolationists: How Maddow Blew It
Laura Finley
Changing the Conversation About “The Woman Card”
CJ Hopkins
Coming this Summer … Revenge of the Bride of Sophie’s Choice
May 03, 2016
Gary Leupp
Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Policy Resumé: What the Record Shows
Michèle Brand – Arun Gupta
What is the “Nuit Debout”?
Chuck Churchill
The Failures of Capitalism, Donald Trump and Right Wing Terror
Dave Marsh
Bernie and the Greens
John Wight
Zionism Should be on Trial, Not Ken Livingstone
Rev. John Dear
A Dweller in Peace: the Life and Times of Daniel Berrigan
Patrick Cockburn
Saudi Arabia’s Great Leap Forward: What Would Mao Think?
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Electoral Votes Matter: Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders vs Donald Trump
Chris Gilbert
Venezuela Today: This Must Be Progress
Pepe Escobar
The Calm Before the Coming Global Storm
Ruth Fowler
Intersecting with the Identity Police (Or Why I Stopped Writing Op-Eds)
Victor Lasa
The Battle Rages on in Spain: the Country Prepares for Repeat Elections in June
Jack Rasmus
Is the US Economy Heading for Recession?
Dean Baker
Time for an Accountable Federal Reserve
Ted Rall
Working for US Gov Means Never Saying Sorry
Dave Welsh
Hunger Strikers at Mission Police Station: “Stop the execution of our people”
John Eskow
The Death of Prince and the Death of Lonnie Mack
May 02, 2016
Michael Hudson – Gordon Long
Wall Street Has Taken Over the Economy and is Draining It
Paul Street
The Bernie Fade Begins
Ron Jacobs
On the Frontlines of Peace: the Life of Daniel Berrigan
Louis Yako
Dubai Transit
Bill Quigley
Teacher, Union Leader, Labor Lawyer: Profile of Chris Williams Social Justice Advocate
Patrick Cockburn
Into the Green Zone: Iraq’s Disintegrating Political System
Lawrence Ware
Trump is the Presidential Candidate the Republicans Deserve
Ron Forthofer
Just Say No to Corporate Rule
Ralph Nader
The Long-Distance Rebound of Bernie Sanders
Ken Butigan
Remembering Daniel Berrigan, with Gratitude
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail