The Prism

"Workfare" And Prison Forced Labor: New Strategies To Reduce Wages

by Mark Cook

In the 1930's, radical activist A.J. Muste organized the Unemployed Leagues, an alliance of the unemployed and the still-employed, to stop bosses from pitting them against each other. The phrase "the man in the rain" was used to strike terror into the heart of any employed worker, particularly anyone considering forming a union.

Recent developments show how valuable Muste's model is now, in forming an alliance of employed, unemployed and welfare recipients.

The New York City Transit Authority, holding out the threat of massive layoffs, has just signed a union contract which allows the Transit Authority to hire welfare/workfare recipients to replace unionized workers in cleaning subway stations.

Across the country, the government is throwing workers out of their jobs and replacing them with prison inmates who obviously have no right to form unions and who are paid, literally, pennies a day.

In both cases, the moves reflect an entirely new effort. The transparent purpose is to push American workers' wages far lower than what has already been done through the dramatic and constant reductions of the past quarter-century.

In the New York deal, the welfare recipients will continue to receive only the pitifully low monthly stipend, far below the minimum wage, which welfare provides.

In the prison deal, inmates will not even receive that. It is an attractive deal for private businesses which are invited into the prisons by the government to pay pennies to working inmates--an even better deal than a factory in Indonesia.

Officials try to sell the public on the scheme by talking about making prisoners pay for their board and keep.

This is in fact a lie. The private businesses do not have to reimburse all or part of the cost of running the prison from the earnings they make off prison labor: taxpayers still pay that.

"Workfare" - Long-running effort

Up to now, New York unions had resisted the "workfare" effort, which has been pushed by the bankers who run New York for the past quarter-century. The unions insisted that any welfare workers employed as "workfare" had to be paid fair wages.

The Transit Workers Union leadership says it was pushed to accept the deal by the Transit Authority's plea that it was flat broke because of state budget cutbacks, and would be forced to resort to massive layoffs if the union did not accept the offer. This claim was spectacularly false [see box].

In the offer, the union protected the jobs of its current members, who supposedly will only be replaced by welfare recipients through normal attrition, but betrayed the next generation of workers and accepted drastic reductions in its union ranks and a mortal blow to its strength as a union.

The union's almost comically feeble and servile leadership has a strong opposition in the ranks, but has openly collaborated with management in dismissing those troublemakers.

Consumer Products "Made in Prison"

The prison labor force is not just being put to work making license plates. Many of the products being made are not even for government use, but are consumer products for sale in the open market.

As even a CBS 60 Minutes program recently noted, U.S. factories are being closed down by the program, and their contracts transferred to prisons. The factory owners can be ruined, and the workers are simply thrown on the slag heap of unemployed.

As a scab labor force, prison workers are ideal. The cannot refuse to take jobs away from unionized workers. They have absolutely no rights.

The idea that a prison facility would have to abide by occupational health and safety regulations, because it is a government facility, is absurd.

Prisons regularly flout basic health standards. Even as well-connected and wealthy a prisoner as Wall Street raider Michael Milken was denied treatment for prostate cancer while inside, though Milken, who has a family history of prostate cancer, was highly alert to the danger.

This is not even to discuss the monstrous conditions in American prisons and the deliberate abuse which takes place inside prison walls.

Hunt's campaign

The new demagogy of "making prisoners work hard," including the reintroduction of chain gangs and roadside work crews, is the natural consequence of massive and lengthy incarceration even for relatively minor offenses, which results in state prison budgets that exceed expenditures for education or health.

Governor Hunt has just received lavishly favorable press coverage across the state for chortling about how hard he is making prisoners work.

That is the sales job being used on the American public to gain acceptance for use of prison labor to displace decently paid workers.

In fact, although this is carefully suppressed in the media, the public is acting against its own interests when it agrees to the creation of a completely controlled scab labor force with no worker rights at all.

Also completely ignored by Hunt and the media is the gruesome record of US prison labor rackets, as recorded by movies like "I Was a Prisoner of a Chain Gang." Another film, "Brubaker," with Robert Redford, detailed how prison labor is handed out free to local business cronies of those controlling the prisons -- and the inevitable trail of abuse that follows, including merciless beatings and quiet murders of inmates.

New York: Even Giuliani embarrassed

The New York City Transit Authority contract was especially shocking to a strong union town like New York, and even embarrassed rightwing Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Giuliani's selling effort for "workfare" was to insist that "workfare" workers, who are paid a sub-subsistence monthly welfare stipend, would not be used to replace regular city workers, especially not unionized workers.

The workfare workers would only be used, Giuliani argued, to do necessary city work, cleaning up parks and so on, that no employed workers were doing.

The translation of this was that the park cleanup crews had been dismissed a few years ago in city budget cuts, so now the City of New York could claim that there was no one doing those jobs.

Going far beyond Giuliani's proclaimed position, however, the Transit Authority, a state/city entity not entirely under Giuliani's control, forced through a labor contract that allowed "workfare" workers to replace unionized subway cleanup crews.

The agreement that workers will be replaced by welfare recipients only through "normal attrition" should not fool anyone. It is an open invitation to create conditions in which workers are virtually forced to quit.

Even if the program works out as union leaders and the Transit Authority claim, the effect would be to reduce the number of decent paying jobs in the city for the next generation.

In France and elsewhere in Europe, wholesale job reductions have been accomplished when owners agree with a union to protect the jobs of existing workers but not hire any new.

The result is a staggering level of youth unemployment.

There has been a Europe-wide effort by governments and the corporate media to pit elements of the population against each other--in this case, young people against their own parents and grandparents.

The campaign resembles the high-octane U.S. propaganda effort, so far an abysmal failure, to enlist younger Americans in a fight against Social Security and Medicare.

The failures have not stymied the effort. In the next Congress, Democrats and Republicans will put aside dishonest campaign rhetoric and renew their bipartisan effort to wreck Medicare and Social Security.

Occasionally, big business media brag about successes in these campaigns. New York Times business page columnist Peter Passell boasted not long ago that the media campaign about "saving" Social Security was a huge success. Social Security was in no need of "saving" and the rescue effort was intended to damage it rather than save it.

In the "rescue effort," Social Security taxes were jacked up enormously. The tax is an extremely regressive one: the wealthy "top out" of their payments a third of the way through the year or less, while ordinary workers pay on to the end.

Just how regressive the Social Security, or FICA, tax is was shown in a 1993 article in the financial journal FW on currency speculator George Soros, whose "earnings" amounted to $650 million that year.

"To put that $650 million in perspective," FW noted, "if you figure a typical 40-hour workweek, it took Soros only five minutes to earn the US median family income-roughly $19,000. At that rate, by the time you waltzed into work on Jan. 2, took off your coat, poured yourself a cup of coffee and said "Happy New Year" to your coworkers, Soros had already earned the maximum income for paying FICA for the year."

The strategy of corporate owners has scarcely changed since the days when A.J. Muste built his unemployed leagues, but a few new things have been added. Among them:

  • an artificially high level of permanent unemployment is maintained through Federal Reserve interest manipulation;

  • workers are laid off, factories and whole cities closed down, with workers or their families eventually ending up on welfare;

  • a heavy-handed campaign is then launched in the media about welfare recipients, along with a media drive to "make prisoners pay" for their incarceration;

  • welfare recipients and prison labor are then herded into scab jobs, replacing fairly paid workers;

  • those dismissed workers are then thrown into the ranks of the unemployed, recycling them down in the same fashion as the welfare recipients who just replaced them.

The solution has not changed much either. Muste's plan for a unity of unemployed and still employed must be broadened to include welfare recipients.

As for prison labor, it is been shown time and again through history that when somebody, government or private agency, can make a profit on prisons, there is an obvious tendency to incarcerate more and more people for longer and longer terms, even on the most frivolous of charges.

Mark Cook is a New York-based free lance journalist.

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