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Strategic Thoughts on How to Unionize Exploited Prisoners

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) president Mary Kay Henry recently stated in a USA Today opinion-editorial that her union’s endorsing of a 2020 presidential candidate will be conditioned on the candidate’s support of her union’s “Unions for all” initiative. This is an initiative to get the U.S. to adopt a new set of all-inclusive labor laws.

Henry further stated that due to nearly half of all U.S. workers being legally excluded from the right to bargain collectively, that it was time for the U.S. “to update our [labor] laws,” that is, so that disengranchised workers can be granted the legal right to negotiate for the earning of a fair wage.

Outlining her union’s agenda, Henry pointed out that U.S. labor laws, which were established by way of 1935’s National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), were brought into existence to “encourage collective bargaining” for the benefit of the manufacturing industry. Back then, this was America’s largest industry, composed of mainly an all-White male labor force.

Excluded from the collective bargaining table, however, were the industry sectors that employed mainly women and people of color, such as sectors of agriculture and domestic service work. Henry said that the labor laws written in 1935 are responsible for the marginalization of millions of workers today in the U.S. who, under federal law, aren’t entitled to union rights.

Henry and her union’s initiative to unionize all workers, most certainly, is a progressive agenda. Without including the demand that America’s most ignored and exploited class of working people — that is, prisoners — be granted the legal right to bargain collectively for a fair wage, it is also an incomplete and indisputably hypocritical one!

As a prisoner who has been imprisoned almost 26 consecutive years, by no means am I under any illusion that the U.S. status quo would ever willingly relinquish their stronghold that they have on America’s exploited and imprisoned working class. With hundreds of thousands of prisoners being exploited and forced to work for a meager wage, or even worse, for nothing at all, the booming business of exploiting prisoners is too lucrative an industry for the status quo to do an about face solely for the sake of morality. Systems of oppression must be made to stop their oppressive ways by some show of force.

With that said, it is my belief that the only way that U.S. captive prisoners are going to ever earn a fair wage and bring about an end to being exploited is by organizing and forming their own Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) prison labor union chapters. These chapters would then stage coordinated labor strikes as needed.

If it wasn’t for the hijacked labor of prisoners who cook the food, cut the grass, collect the trash, clean the cellblocks, shovel the snow, and operate the sweatshops for billion-dollar corporations such as Walmart and McDonald’s, prisons would not be able to operate efficiently.

In a time when many prisoners are easily distracted, discouraged, and intimidated by oppressive prison administrations, the organizing of captive laborers is something that calls for critical strategizing and practical application.

A strategic idea that I’m cultivating and seeking to implement is the launching of a grassroots outreach initiative to generate the support of dozens of radio stations nationwide who would be willing to allow prisoner rights labor representatives, such as the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) to broadcast weekly programs to a targeted prisoner audience.

It’s my belief that prisoners would regularly tune-in and begin to organize unions and union chapters if they were to hear on the radio that people in society are truly seeking to help them empower themselves. Plus, in addition to prisoners gaining organizational insight and having their morale elevated, the vehicle of broadcast radio would also circumvent prison administration’s capability to censor and interfere with the conveying of information to prisoners. It would also most certainly contribute to the broadening of the national dialogue about the massive incarceration of poor people of color.

With this in mind, I conclude by saying that in spite of what the racist language in the 13th Amendment states, that there shall be no slavery or involuntary servitude in the U.S. except for the punishment of a crime, prisoners are not slaves or leasable human beings. Their labor, as well as their mind, body, and soul, belong to them!

Power, as all revolutionaries know, belongs to the People.

We need Unions for All. It’s a bold agenda for helping everyone get ahead in our economy.

Mary Kay Henry Opinion contributor Published 8:43 AM EDT Sep 2, 2019

America’s labor laws were established 84 years ago on the basis of a racist compromise. And these laws, which were incomplete when they were written, are now completely useless to millions of workers — black, brown and white — who are demanding a union on the job.

The landmark 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which among other things was meant to “encourage collective bargaining,” was written for a different economy when manufacturing was the biggest industry. And to satisfy the demands of white supremacists in Congress, it excluded agricultural, domestic and various other service workers from the very start, as they were industries dominated by women and people of color.

In today’s economy, millions of other Americans — including gig or app-based workers, so-called independent contractors and some public sector employees — are denied union rights under federal law.

Let gig, service workers join unions

Today, according to our research at the Service Employees International Union, a staggering share of all workers in the country — up to 45% — are legally excluded from the right to bargain collectively. It’s time to update our laws to fit an economy where most people work in service jobs.

That’s why members of our union — 2 million people who are janitors, health care workers and public service workers — are calling on all candidates for president to put forward serious plans to empower all workers to form unions, no matter what kind of job they do.

A Service Employees International Union member protests in Los Angeles in 2014. Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

We are looking for more than lip service from political candidates and elected leaders about how much they support the broken laws we already have. Instead, we need big ideas about how to empower more people to join together in unions so everyone, no matter where they live or work, can negotiate for things like better pay, more affordable health care and more family-friendly schedules.

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Demand for joining a union is at a four-decade high: Nearly half of all nonunion workers in the United States now say they would join a union if they could, according to a recent survey by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And a solid majority of all Americans today say they support unions.

More unions with more power

Workers across the country are demanding unions and fair contracts in a way I’ve never seen in my 40-year career in the labor movement. They include public school teachers from West Virginia, Oklahoma and Los Angeles. Amazon workers. Stop & Shop workers. Child care workers. Cooks and cashiers at McDonald’s and other companies across the $200 billion fast-food industry.

That’s why our endorsement in the 2020 election will be conditioned on support for “Unions for All,” a bold agenda to give working people more power in our society. Our demand for Unions for All is focused on four big changes.

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First, we want the next president to use the power of the Oval Office to bring employers, workers and their unions together at industrywide bargaining tables to negotiate pay, benefits and working conditions nationwide, with government involvement, where necessary, to help close the huge income inequality gap.

Second, give states and cities the freedom to innovate and create new laws that empower workers to organize in a union more easily than federal law allows.

Unions can help transform economy

Third, government should use its spending power to require that any job funded by taxpayer dollars pays at least $15 an hour and allows workers to join together in a union for a bargaining process that can truly improve their lives.

Fourth, any major economic proposal — including plans for universal health care or the “Green New Deal” — must put good union jobs at the center.

Democrats are already taking notice. We’ve seen Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas propose bold solutions to unrig our economy and rewrite our labor laws, plans that are not just more of the same. We expect more 2020 presidential candidates to follow suit.

“Unions for All” is a demand we are making on behalf of working people who are fighting for their families, not just in our union but all across the country. Empowering more workers to join unions will give us the power to transform our economy into one where all of us can get ahead, no matter what our color or where we come from.

It’s a demand that will make the right to a union a reality not just for some, but for all.

Mary Kay Henry is president of the Service Employees International Union. Follow her on Twitter: @MaryKayHenry Published 8:43 AM EDT Sep 2, 2019

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