Making slave labor fly--
Boeing goes to prison
by Paul Wright
excerpted from Prison Legal News, March
With the repeal of welfare, some political opportunists
and right-wing pundits are turning their sights on questions of
law and order in general and prison "reform" in particular. They
are starting to push Congress to impose the same solution on prisoners
as on welfare recipients: put them to work.
Currently more than 90,000 state and federal convicts
work in a variety of public and private enterprises while serving
time. The majority are employed in state-owned enterprises such
as making license plates or furniture for government offices. Increasingly,
though, private businesses have contracted with at least 25 states
to set up businesses inside prison walls to take advantage of state-supplied
facilities and low-wage nonunion workers.
In one Washington prison, Boeing Corp., headquartered
in Seattle, is discovering the benefits of a captive work force.
Last year, while the world's largest civil aviation manufacturer
made more planes and more money than ever before, it cut the number
of employees on its US payroll. Like most corporations, Boeing has
been cutting costs and countering organized labor's threat to its
bottom line by moving factories abroad and out-sourcing to nonunion
subcontractors in the US. It's search for workers who are unable
to unionize or demand a decent wage took it to two widely divergent
yet strangely similar places: China and the Washington State Reformatory
(WSR) in Monroe.
In China, where Boeing sold ten per cent of its
planes between 1993 and 1995, the company operates at a fraction
of its US costs. According to the Seattle Times, "Employees
live mostly on or next to the factory premises. Workers receive
a salary of about $50 a month. They are forbidden to form independent
trade union. For those who step out of line on the shop floors in
China, there is the notorious Lao Gai 'reeducation through labor'
prison work camps."
The newspaper could have written almost the same
story by traveling 25 miles to the WSR, where MicroJet is employing
prison labor to make aircraft components. Among the recently formed
company's customers is none other than Boeing. MicroJet, which lists
its address as 16700 177 Av. SE--the same address as the prison--currently
employs eight prisoners. They train for minimum wage and progress
to $7 an hour, unlike those pesky machinists at Boeing's Everett
plant who earn up to $30 an hour for the same work. Like all companies
employing prison labor, MicroJet saves further by not paying benefits
such as health insurance, unemployment, etc.
In addition to savings on salaries, prison industries
also enjoy subsidized overhead. MicroJet's rent-free factory is
in a 56,000 square foot industrial building built and maintained
by Washington state. The arrangement offers a "just-in-time" inventory
of labor: Prisoner workers can be simply left in their cells for
weeks on end if there is no work, then be called in on short notice.
Outside competitors have to pay overhead and workers even if no
production is taking place. Moreover, in prison, any attempt at
labor organizing is met with immediate and harsh state repression
which generates even less negative publicity than similar moves
With these competitive advantages, prison industries
can easily underbid any US competitor. The real losers, then, are
the free workers, machinists in particular, whose jobs have gone
to prisoner slave laborers or Chinese workers.
FEW PRISONERS ARE willing to speak publicly against
the program for fear of losing their industry jobs, being blacklisted
by prison industry employers, or incurring retaliation from prison
officials. In any case, most of Washington State's 12,800 prisoners
would probably say that they support prison industries, regardless
of any objective exploitation.
Just like on the outside, people in prison work
at jobs they dislike because they need the money and there are long
waiting lists for the 300 industry jobs available. Their situation
is similar to that of sweatshop and maquiladora workers in South
Asia and Latin America who earn a few dollars a day. While such
wages are exploitative and paltry by First World standards, in the
Third World they make the difference between starvation and poverty
and are thus highly sought after.
Prison industries represent a Third World labor
model in the heart of America. And while $1.50 an hour take-home
pay for work that brings $30 an hour on the outside may not seem
like much, it looks pretty good against the 38 to 42 cents an hour
Washington convicts earn in prison kitchens, laundries, janitorial
services, etc. And even those jobs have eager takers since overcrowding
has created a prison "unemployment rate" of more than 50 per cent.
PRISONERS CAN AND should be given the right to
perform meaningful work for decent wages and the opportunity to
gain job skills and earn money. A sane program that would serve
both society's and prisoners' interest would require that:
-- prisoners keep the wages they earn, subject
to the same deductions as any other citizen;
-- prisoners be paid the same wages as free workers
in comparable industries;
-- prisoners learn job skills that would help
them get decent jobs on release;
-- prisoners have the right to unionize and bargain
-- products be labeled to indicate that prison
labor was used;
-- the use of prison labor to break strikes or
replace striking workers would be outlawed; and
-- prisoners be allowed to live up to financial
responsibilities to those on the outside.
Such a program would pay off in lower recidivism
without driving down wages on the outside.
The right-wing drive to make prisons pay--while
racking up a nice profit for industry--fits well with the continuing
transformation of America into a nation of small government, big
corporations and big prisons. And just like the welfare bill, it
gives the public the false sense that meaningful reform is taking
place. Meanwhile it takes pressure off a system which cannot provide
enough decent jobs and uses incarceration as the remedy of choice
for poverty, unemployment, poor education and racism. If you've
lost your job in manufacturing, garment or furniture manufacturing,
telemarketing or packaging, it could simply have been sentenced
Paul Wright, a prisoner at Monroe State Reformatory,
is legal editor of Prison Legal News. Subscriptions ($20/year)
are available from PLN, 2400 NW 80th St., #148, Seattle, WA 98117.
woodcuts from Mad Man's Drum by Lynd
The Dagger |
Dagger #9 | Dagger #8 | Dagger
#7 | Dagger #6 | Dagger