Wisconsin: Will It Be “Cool Hand Luke” Or “Norma Rae”?

Posted by on July 13, 2011

As the implications of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attack on collective bargaining begin to sink in, some local officials have eagerly embraced one possibility opened up by the new anti-bargaining law: replacing union workers with convict labor.

This is not a new idea, at least not in Racine County. Last summer, budget problems led the county to try to replace unionized seasonal workers with prison labor. Teamsters Local 43 sued, arguing that the move violated the union contract. The judge sided with the union, but changes in the state’s collective bargaining law since that time have altered the legal picture, and Racine County administrators are taking another look at the idea.

How has the new law changed things? Not only did it strip unionized workers of their right to negotiate over health care and retirement issues, it also removed their contractual rights to their jobs – in the sense that they can no longer claim that certain jobs fall within the scope of the union contract and should be filled by union workers. This gives state and local officials the ability to hire private contract workers and even prison inmates to take those positions.

This is a “win-win” situation, according to Racine County Executive Jim Ladwig. While conceding that the idea is unpopular, he argued that “once people see things are still running smoothly, running efficiently, a lot of the fears will be alleviated.” While the prisoners do not get paid for their work, they may earn time off their sentences, he said.

And, in fact, inmate labor of one sort or another is traditional practice in the U.S. penal system. It has even become part of popular culture. Many film buffs have seen the old 1930’s classic movie, “I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” based the book by Robert Elliot Burns, who escaped and wrote a book about his experiences in Georgia. Most will also have seen “Cool Hand Luke,” starring Paul Newman, George Kennedy, and Dennis Hopper. And Sam and Charles Cooke wrote “Chain Gang”, a classic R&B tune that is still performed. But the practice of chaining convicts on work crews was much diminished by the end of the 20th Century.

Chain gangs were briefly revived in the 1990’s, in a few states, but not for long. Interestingly, Wisconsin was one of the states. In fact, Wisconsin drew the attention of Amnesty International during that period, because it included minors – a 17-year-old – among the manacled prison workers. Amnesty argued that Wisconsin was violating international “rights of the child” laws.

But let’s face it: In Wisconsin, the prisoners will be mowing lawns, performing upkeep on county parks, and other such tasks. To the best of my knowledge, they will not be chained to the mowers or to each other (at least not yet). And the idea of prisoners making things besides license plates as part of their rehabilitation dates to 1913 in Wisconsin, where, as in other states, prison labor was seen as a “boon” to the economy. And it is indeed “big business” in Wisconsin. Today, Badger State Industries offers extensive work options and even vocational training opportunities for inmates (apparently, the notion of “college for all” does not include convicts).

One can see that Wisconsin has a long, storied, and creative record in the field of prison labor. Replacing union workers is just the latest chapter. Could qualified inmates replace teachers, police officers, fire fighters or school nurses? With a few tweaks in state law regarding employment of convicted felons, I suppose they could.

But if Scott Walker and other state officials think they’ve solved their union problem, I draw their attention to the Missouri Prison Labor Union (MPLU), a group that has organized support from international anarchist groups. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the MPLU has never received official recognition. But the movement for union representation of inmate labor is international in scope. In the United Kingdom and elsewhere, prisoners have also sought to have their voices heard. For these inmates, the most encouraging development has been the efforts of ConFederation, the Canadian Prisoners’ Labour Union, Local 001. Based in Vancouver, British Columbia, this group, which began organizing earlier in 2011, is gathering signatures to petition to the Canada Labour Board for recognition. Their goal? They want safe and proper equipment to do the work that they’re assigned to do. Canadian officials are cautious, but the Canadian Supreme Court has already ruled that prison inmates remain citizens, with rights that must be respected. ConFederation’s organizers hope that those rights include the right to union representation.

Admittedly, Scott Walker’s Wisconsin is a far more hostile to union rights than is Canada. But still…Wisconsin unionists have proved to be a creative, resilient bunch, with deep roots in the community. The developments in Canada may be food for thought.

- Randall Garton


1 Comment posted so far

  • But if Wisconsin is supposed to be “Open for Business” according to Walker, and the Republicans are all about being job creators, how is using prison labor going to help “get Wisconsin back to work?” The two goals seem to be at odds with each other…which leads me to think that getting Wisconsin back to work is not really their goal.

    Comment by Melissa
    July 14, 2011 at 12:12 PM

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