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Labor In and Out of Prison

Photo Source Richard Elzey | CC BY 2.0

What accounts for the general lack of interest among American labor unions in the 2018 national prison strike of women and men in federal, immigration, and state prisons who stopped work, sat-in and boycotted across Canada and the U.S. from August 21 through September 9? We turn to Brooke Terpstra, an organizer in Oakland with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, and a member of the national prison-strike media team.

“First is that most labor unions gave up any notions of “social unionism” long ago,” he said. “Maintained by a professionalized corps of staffers, the mainstream of organized labor is engaged in highly compartmentalized defensive actions, trying to protect their own shops not engage in larger social battles.”

The Democratic Party plays a key role in this defensive politics, propelled by the time and money of labor unions. The bottom line, economically, is this. The DP and GOP take corporate money near equally, thus back the military-industrial complex with its endless wars, Big Pharma and of course Wall St. capital.

A countercurrent to such status-quo economics and politics formed during Occupy Wall St. Its brilliant rhetoric of the one percent and the 99 percent touched hearts and minds towards class-conscious politics, the inverse of anti-social unionism. This is progress, with much more to go, perhaps the understatement of 2018.

Terpstra continues. “Second is that there is no commitment to class struggle among them (unions) anymore. There has been 100 years of attrition and institutional grooming by the bosses and the state so that most unions by now only represent middle class aspiration and defensiveness to the near total exclusion of liberatory, working class concerns.”

This assessment rings true, as corporations have beat down labor unions. In 1973, 24 percent of wage and salary workers were union members versus 11.9 percent in 2017.  Unemployment is an 18-year low as wages stagnate. Fear and its handmaiden despair stalk the land as the job security of the postwar era fades from popular memory, replaced by the cold-water reality of union-free at-will employment, a wet dream for employers.

The notion of “An injury to one is an injury to all” remains an unrealized ideal among large parts of the working class. Meanwhile, an authoritarian GOP president feeds off white resentment, sowing division, with no small success. Blaming nonwhite working families for systemic failures is a tried and true political tactic to grab and hold the reins of power as the system careens into the periodic crises that are essential to renewed growth and profits.

System-friendly ideology borne of concrete living and working conditions loom large. “I think the staffers and the rank-and-file are subject to the same forces that successfully demonize and demote “The Prisoner” as a non-human amongst the general public,” Terpstra said. “Propaganda works. In addition, to question the legitimacy of
incarceration is to question the legitimacy of the whole power structure. Belonging to a union does not magically bestow an immunity to propaganda or to the cultural violence that disappears black, brown, and poor whites to prisons. But we see much more solidarity from the rank and file than we do from staffers and it is staffers these days that control much of union direction.”

Against that backdrop, the Industrial Workers of the World, North America, International Confederation of Labor-ICL/Confederación Internacional del Trabajo-CIT, Teachers for Social Justice, Illinois, UAW Local 4121, Washington and UNITE HERE Local 2, San Francisco did join the national and global endorsers of the 2018 prison strike.

The Oakland Local of the IWOC reached out to the United Auto Workers Local 2865, University of California Student-Workers Union, which represents 17,000-plus academic student employees, from readers, tutors, graduate-student instructors, teaching assistants and research assistants across the nine UC campuses. Local 2865 members in part penned missives to state lawmakers supporting the prison strikers 10 demands, while linking policies that fund incarceration and defund higher education.

Meanwhile, prisoners fighting California wildfires and earning as little as a dollar a day next to local and state union firefighter, with no access to related apprenticeship programs upon prison release, crept into public view. The injustice of this hyper-low pay labor system arrived in no small measure due to the sheer numbers of people and property in harm’s way of climate change-fueled wildfires in the Golden State, home of the fifth biggest economy on the planet.

As to the future of labor actions in prisons and support from workers outside, well, as some say, there is room for improvement. “We would welcome their involvement and endorsement,” Terpstra said, “and we welcome the changes that would have to occur in organized labor in order for them to stand in solidarity.”

One thing is clear. Such change will happen from the bottom up and not the top down. Labor unity is easy to say and less so to do.

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Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email sethsandronsky@gmail.com

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