The New Slave Revolt October 12, 2016Posted by rogerhollander in Labor, Prison Industrial Complex, Race, Racism, slavery, Uncategorized.
Tags: american slavery, cheap labor, chris hedges, pic, prison industrial complex, prison labor, prison revolt, prison strike, private prisons, roger hollander, slave labor, slave revolt, slavery, unpaid labor
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Roger’s note: the nationwide prisoners’ revolt is not something you are likely to read about in the mainstream media. Nor is it an issue that is likely to come up in the presidential debates. Can you imagine Clinton and Trump discussing the massive incarceration of the underclasses (almost entirely, African American, Latino and Native American) in the brutal American Gulag? Regardless of who become the next president, this hidden brutality will continue until the prison revolts are successful. Most Americans have no idea that actual slavery exists in the country on such a grand scale. Inmates are subjected to inhuman periods in the torture chamber know as solitary confinement. If inmates are paid for the forced labor they perform for corporations, it is peanuts; and these earnings are pitted against fines and grossly overcharged commissary items. This is a national shame. But in a nation that routinely bombs civilians in foreign lands, supplies armaments to repressive regimes around the globe, condones torture, and tolerates the fact that millions of its citizens live in poverty and without adequate health care or housing, should we be surprised? Did I mention that the United States is the wealthiest country in the history of the world and it spends over half its discretionary budget on the military?
Severe state repression and a near-total press blackout make it impossible to determine how many prisoners are continuing the national work strike that began on September 9th. The core demand is an end to prison slavery: the forced low-or-no-wage employment extracted from inmates. “Once we take our labor back,” said an organizer, “prisons will again become places for correction and rehabilitation rather than centers of corporate profit.”
by Chris Hedges
This article previously appeared in TruthDig.
“The kryptonite to fight the prison system, which is a $500 billion enterprise, is the work strike.”
A nationwide prison work stoppage and hunger strike, begun on Sept. 9, the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising, have seen over 20,000 prisoners in about 30 prisons do what we on the outside should do—refuse to cooperate. “We will not only demand the end to prison slavery, we will end it ourselves by ceasing to be slaves,” prisoners of the Free Alabama Movement, the Free Ohio Movement and the IWW Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee wrote in a communique.
This round of prison strikes—there will be more—has had little outside support and press coverage. There have been few protests outside prison walls. Prison authorities—unlike duringthe 1971 Attica uprising when the press was allowed into the yard to interview the rebellious prisoners—have shut out a compliant media. They have identified strike leaders and placed them in isolation. Whole prisons in states such as Texas were put on lockdown on the eve of the strike. It is hard to know how many prisoners are still on strike, just as it is hard to know how many stopped work or started to fast on Sept. 9.
Before the strike I was able to speak to prisoner leaders including Melvin Ray, James Pleasant and Robert Earl Council, all of whom led work stoppages in Alabama prisons in January 2014 as part of the Free Alabama Movement, as well as Siddique Hasan, one of five leaders of the April 1993 uprising at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility at Lucasville, Ohio. (The Ohio revolt saw prisoners take control of the facility for 11 days after numerous grievances, including complaints about deaths allegedly caused by beatings from guards, went unanswered.) Now, authorities have cut off the access of these and other prisoner leaders to the press and the rest of the outside world. I have not been able to communicate with the four men since the strike began.
These prison strike leaders put no hope in a “national conversation” about race and mass incarceration. They know that corporations, the courts and politicians will never halt the lethal police violence against unarmed men and women of color or dismantle the vast gulags for the poor that dot the country. The mechanisms of repression are by design. They are the logical consequence of deindustrialization. The corporate state uses fear, police violence and huge networks of jails and prisons to keep hundreds of millions of underemployed and unemployed poor people from revolting.
“They know that corporations, the courts and politicians will never halt the lethal police violence against unarmed men and women of color or dismantle the vast gulags for the poor that dot the country.
“We have to shut down the prisons,” Council, known as Kinetik, one of the founders of the Free Alabama Movement, told me by phone from the Holman Correctional Facility in Escambia County, Alabama. He has been in prison 21 years, serving a sentence of life without parole. “We will not work for free anymore. All the work in prisons, from cleaning to cutting grass to working in the kitchen, is done by inmate labor. [Almost no prisoner] in Alabama is paid. Without us the prisons, which are slave empires, cannot function. Prisons, at the same time, charge us a variety of fees, such as for our identification cards or wrist bracelets, and [impose] numerous fines, especially for possession of contraband. They charge us high phone and commissary prices. Prisons each year are taking larger and larger sums of money from the inmates and their families. The state gets from us millions of dollars in free labor and then imposes fees and fines. You have brothers that work in kitchens 12 to 15 hours a day and have done this for years and have never been paid.”
These strike leaders say that, inside and outside the prison walls, rebellion is the only option.
“We are not going to call for protests outside of statehouses,” Ray said. “Legislators are owned by corporations. To go up there with the achy-breaky heart is not going to do any good. These politicians are in it for the money. If you are fighting mass incarceration, the people who are incarcerated are not in the statehouse. They are not in the parks. They are in the prisons. If you are going to fight for the people in prison, join them at the prison. The kryptonite to fight the prison system, which is a $500 billion enterprise, is the work strike. And we need people to come to the prisons to let guys on the inside know they have outside support to shut the prison down. Once we take our labor back, prisons will again become places for correction and rehabilitation rather than centers of corporate profit.”
These striking prisoners are far more effective, and far more threatening to the corporate state, than the outside multitudes entranced and manipulated by the Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Goon Show. Denied the right to employment, to vote and to public assistance because of felony convictions, denied the right to justice because they are poor, and denied a voice because they have been silenced by state censorship and a bankrupt media, these prisoners were some of the first to understand the totalitarian nature of the corporate state.
“We do not believe in the political process,” said Ray, who spoke from the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, Ala., and who is serving life without parole. “We are not looking to politicians to submit reform bills. We aren’t giving more money to lawyers. We don’t believe in the courts. We will rely only on protests inside and outside of prisons and on targeting the corporations that exploit prison labor and finance the school-to-prison pipeline.”
“Prisons each year are taking larger and larger sums of money from the inmates and their families.”
The 2.3 million human beings, most of them poor people of color, who are locked in cages across the country provide billions in salaries and other revenues for depressed rural towns with large prisons. They provide billions more in profits to phone card companies, money transfer companies, food service companies, merchandise vendors, construction companies, laundry services, uniform companies, prison equipment vendors and the manufacturers of pepper spray, body armor and the many other medieval instruments used for the physical restraint of prisoners. They also make billions for corporations—Whole Foods, Verizon, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Sprint, Victoria’s Secret, American Airlines, J.C. Penney, Sears, Wal-Mart, Kmart, Eddie Bauer, Wendy’s, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Fruit of the Loom, Motorola, Caterpillar and dozens of others—that collectively exploit 1 million prison laborers.
Why pay workers outside the walls the minimum wage when you can pay workers behind walls only a couple of dollars a day? Why exploit sweatshop workers in countries like Bangladesh when you can exploit sweatshop workers in U.S. prisons? Why permit prison reform that would impede profits? Why not expand a system that reduces labor costs to slave wages?
“The beauty of a work stoppage is that the prison administrators have to bring in compensated labor,” Hasan told me last year when I visited him on death row in Ohio. “This is what happened in the Georgia prison system in 2010 when the prisoners held a work stoppage for six days. It cost the state a lot of money.”
Prisoners are the ideal workers in corporate America. They earn from 8 cents to about 44 cents an hour. In some states, such as Alabama, they earn nothing. They receive no Social Security, pensions or other benefits. They do not get paid overtime. They are prohibited from organizing or carrying out strikes. They always show up on time. They are not paid for sick days or granted vacations. They cannot complain about poor working conditions or safety hazards. If they protest their meager wages or working conditions they instantly lose their jobs and are placed in isolation cells. They live in an environment where they daily face the possibility of torture, beatings, prolonged isolation, sensory deprivation, racial profiling, rancid food, inadequate medical care, little or no heating and ventilation, and rape. In short, they are slaves.
The bondage that prisoners endure is, little by little, being imposed on us. The fight inside prison walls is our own. And the harsh repression inside prisons to halt the new strike mirrors the harsh repression that awaits us if we resist.
Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, the minister of defense of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party (Prison Chapter), sent this message out of his Texas prison a few days ago:
Monday, September 5, 2016: Labor Day. Here at the William P. Clements Unit, a prison in remote Amarillo, Texas, the prisoners awoke to a late breakfast. A single PBJ sandwich, a small bowl of dry cereal, and no beverage.
This grossly inadequate meal, which is our common fare during institution-wide lockdowns, signaled that a weeks—or months—long lockdown was in effect. Hunger pangs set in almost immediately.
“Why exploit sweatshop workers in countries like Bangladesh when you can exploit sweatshop workers in U.S. prisons?”
Such lockdowns are routinely imposed twice yearly so guards can conduct a prison-wide search of each prisoner’s living area and property. But this was not a routine lockdown. For one, those lockdowns almost never occur during holidays (however minor). If a holiday is set to fall during the period of a scheduled lockdown, the lockdown is postponed until the day after the holiday. Secondly, those lockdowns happen exactly six months apart, almost to the day. The next one wasn’t due until mid-October, making this lockdown over a month ahead of schedule. Thirdly, for a couple months preceding this lockdown, officials had been rejecting a lot of mail and media on grounds that it contained information on or “advocating” “prison strikes,” “prison disruption,” or “work strikes.” During late August and early September I received a number of these rejections, including for letters from the editor of the San Francisco Bay View newspaper, Comrades from the Houston, TX branch of the Industrial Workers of the World, and others.
Officials were also illegally opening and reading privileged legal and media mail outside my presence. They were obviously focused on discovering, scrutinizing, and blocking any information coming into the prison about the work stoppage/strike planned for prisons across the U.S. in protest of prison slave labor and perpetual abuses, which were set to begin on September 9, 2016—the 45th anniversary of the uprising at Attica State Prison, that exposed to the world the inhumanity and savage brutality that Amerika imposes on those it imprisons.
And here we find the clue to this untimely lockdown which officials here have been falsely portraying to us as just another routine lockdown.
The actual aim of this lockdown was/is to pre-empt the prisoners at this Unit from participating in the September 9th protest by confining everyone to their cells in advance of it, and well into the period during which it might last.
Johnson and other prison strike leaders see through the political theater and illusions that the corporate elites employ to mask Americans’ surrender of freedom. They are not fooled by the clever branding—including the presidency of a black man and possibly the presidency of a woman—used to cover over oppression.
“It does not matter if we have a black or white president.”
“To say that we have a black president does not say anything,” Melvin Ray said. “The politicians are the ones who orchestrated this system. They are either directly involved as businessmen—many are already millionaires or billionaires, or they are controlled by millionaires and billionaires. We are not blindsided by titles. We are looking at what is going on behind the scenes. We see a coordinated effort by the Koch brothers, ALEC [the American Legislative Exchange Council] and political action committees that see in prisons a business opportunity. Their goal is to increase [corporate] earnings. And once you look at it like this, it does not matter if we have a black or white president. That is why the policies have not changed. The laws, such as mandatory minimum [sentences], were put in place by big business so they would have access to cheap labor. The anti-terrorism laws were enacted to close the doors on the access to justice so people would be in prison longer. Big business finances campaigns. Big business writes the laws and legislation. And Obama takes money from these people. He is as vested in this system as they are.”
Items once provided to prisoners, such as shoes, extra blankets and toilet paper, now often must be bought from the prison commissary, run by corporations such as Keefe Supply Co. These commissaries are, in effect, company stores where prices are exorbitant and the buyers are hostage. Companies such as GTL force prisoners to pay phone rates five or six times higher than those on the outside. JPay, a money transfer service for prisoners, imposes fees as high as 25 percent. The incarcerated are increasingly being charged for electricity and room and board. This bleeds the prisoners and their families of the little income they possess. Those who run out of money are forced to take out prison loans to buy medications, cover legal and medical fees and purchase commissary items such as soap and deodorant. Debt peonage is as common among prisoners as it is among the wider public. And when prisoners are released they often owe the state thousands of dollars in debt they incurred while locked up. When they can’t pay it back they are tossed back into prison. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 75 percent of released prisoners are rearrested within five years. This keeps the perpetual cycle of neoslavery lubricated.
“For years we were called niggers to indicate we had no value or worth and that anything could be done to us,” Ray told me. “Then the word ‘nigger’ became politically incorrect. So they began calling us criminals. When you say a person is a criminal it means that what happens to them does not matter. It means he or she is a nigger. It means they deserve what they get.”
Chris Hedges, spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.
Still the Deporter-in-Chief Obama’s Fake Immigration Reform November 30, 2014Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Immigration, Labor, Racism.
Tags: border protection, capitalism, cheap labor, immigrant deport, Immigration, Immigration policy, immigration reform, john orland, labor, labour, obama hypocrisy, racism, roger hollander, undocumented, Undocumented Immigrants, undocumented workers
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Roger’s note: when it comes to deceit and hypocrisy, Barack Obama continues to fail to disappoint. The corporate media and much of the progressive blogosphere usually goes along with the chicanery. Until reading this article, I sort of accepted as fact that the president indeed had taken a step, if a small one, towards humane treatment of undocumented immigrants. Silly me.
WEEKEND EDITION NOVEMBER 28-30, 2014, http://www.counterpoint.org
by JOHN ORLAND
The Great Deporter’s new executive order for a “sweeping overhaul of the immigration system” deserves no praise. If there is anything “sweeping” about President Obama’s immigration policy, it is his six years of deporting 2.4 million immigrants, his repeated lies regarding his so-called legal incapacity to issue presidential executive orders to mitigate the horrors that immigrant communities have been subjected to, and his total failure to pursue anything resembling “comprehensive immigration reform.”
What Obama did do, as with his all-pervasive surveillance system, was to order the implementation of a vicious program to criminalize immigrants in order to jail or deport them at will and to spend countless additional billions to militarize the border to keep them out.
Obama made clear that his executive order was “no different than all previous Democrat and Republican Party presidents over the past half century.” This statement alone immediately conjures up the heinous “bracero programs” of decades past, when strictly controlled cheap or near slave-wage labor was systematically imported from Latin America to serve the needs of the nation’s major agricultural titans and their associated industries.
The price to be extracted by Obama’s “promise” to refrain for three years from deporting undocumented immigrant parents of children born in the U.S. is a requirement that all such immigrants officially register their names, addresses, employment records, wages, salaries, and other data with the government, thus subjecting them to immediate persecution or deportation if they don’t pass Obama’s muster. Those with previous felony convictions or perhaps lesser “infractions” of America’s racist system of “law and order” remain subject to immediate deportation.
Obama’s decree, purportedly affecting four to five million undocumented immigrants, was described by administration officials as prioritizing the deportation of “felons, not families,” as if the remaining seven to eight million immigrants not covered by his plan were little less than dangerous criminals. Indeed, immigration officials will be instructed to prioritize the hunting down and deportation of so-called “gang members, felons, and suspected terrorists.”
“Today our immigration system is broken and everybody knows it,” Obama said. But Obama’s “fix” to date has been to deport more immigrants than any and all previous U.S. presidents combined!
Obama’s order supposedly offers those who qualify the chance to remain in the U.S. temporarily for three years, as long as they pass background checks and pay back taxes—to be determined, no doubt, by tax collectors who will have the final word. Not a single immigrant will be offered a “path to citizenship” nor will any be eligible for federal benefits or mandated health-care coverage.
Obama failed to mention that these same immigrants have often had state and federal taxes deducted from their salaries or wages by merciless employers while simultaneously being denied benefits supposedly mandated to all taxpayers! Obama’s order will demand the extortion of back taxes but there will be no retroactive back payment to immigrants for their exclusion from the benefits of paying these taxes. Obama’s program is worse; it will now demand that back taxes be deducted from those who register to comply, while all benefits will still be denied.
To demonstrate his fidelity to his Republican “critics,” who will undoubtedly appreciate Obama’s supplying corporate America with a steady supply of cheap, no-benefit labor who will be required to pay enormous sums in “back taxes” for future corporate plunder, the president issued his decree in condescending and threatening language: “If you meet the criteria, you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law. If you’re a criminal, you’ll be deported. If you plan to enter the U.S. illegally, your chances of getting caught and sent back just went up.”
But Republican “critics” were nevertheless more than willing to partake in the great American charade that passes for real politics. “Instead of working together to fix our broken immigration system, the president says he’s acting on his own,” Republican House Speaker John Boehner said in a YouTube video released before the president’s speech. “The president has said before, that he’s not king and he’s not an emperor. But he’s sure acting like one.”
In truth, what Obama “unilaterally” proclaimed was likely what the twin parties of capital had previously agreed to during their multi-year “debate” on immigration legislation. All sections of the ruling class understand well that cheap labor with zero benefits is a prized commodity. Obama’s supposed three-year reprieve from government deportation is little more than existing policy, in which immigration officials, in collusion with corporate America, selectively determine who will be deported and who are still urgently required to service corporate interests.
This unofficial selective persecution and deportation policy serves capitalism well. Lower wages, if wages are paid at all via employer pre-planned deportations arranged before pay day, to immigrants always exercise a downward pressure on the wages of all U.S. workers, including and especially union members. The wage differential also serves capitalism’s need to divide workers by race and legal status, with the ruling class ever placing the blame for unemployment not on its failing system but rather on immigrants who “illegally” take the jobs of “Americans.”
Government-promoted reactionary patriotism is routinely employed to scapegoat the most oppressed and exploited. Obama’s spokespersons took great care to stress that the new plan was both temporary and subject to cancellation at any time by any president.
“Deferred action [that is, postponing deportation punishment] is not a pathway to citizenship. It is not legal status. It simply says that for three years, you are not a law enforcement priority, and [we] are not going to go after you,” said one senior official. “It is temporary and it is revocable.”
Working people have nothing to gain by faint praise or other attributions of support to Obama’s racist and anti-immigrant policies—in this case, a policy likely announced with great fanfare to crudely manufacture Obama’s future “legacy” as a humanistic president concerned with the plight of the poor and oppressed.
All “reforms” extracted from corporate America are derived from the independent self-organization and fightback of working people. To date, the growing immigrant rights movement has increasingly demanded an immediate end to all deportations, immediate amnesty and legalization, full benefits to all undocumented workers, and an immediate end to the militarization of the borders. The unity of the broad working class in defense of full rights for immigrants is a prerequisite to winning real victories for all the oppressed and indeed, for all workers.
Subordination of this critical struggle to support for “The Great Deporter,” or any other posturing politician, only furthers illusions in the credibility of the racist capitalist system.
The massive mobilizations in virtually every U.S. city, in which people expressed their rage against the racist grand-jury decision in the case of the police murder of the unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., was an important step toward awakening the American people to the real source of oppression in the United States.
Similarly, the five million immigrants who struck nationwide in 2006 against the racist immigration bill proposed by Republican Congressmen James Sensenbrenner and Peter King entitled, “Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act” offered a living example of the power of mass opposition and protest that raised the level of political consciousness of all. It is no coincidence that Obama’s executive order employs Sensenbrenner-type language—“terrorism, border protection, and immigration control.”
Obama’s fake decree was nothing less than a ruling-class effort to set the stage for the next round of electoral debate, in which the “lesser evil” will be once again counterposed to the so-called greater evil. But the massive 2014 election abstention rate of Latino workers—and indeed, the vast majority of all the oppressed and youth—was a stinging rebuke to Obama’s across-the-board policies of austerity, racism, environmental destruction, endless war, and atrocities against immigrants.
There are no capitalist “saviors.” The gap is narrowing between the growing hatred of capitalism’s brutality and the still modest number of acts of resistance. The prospect of explosive events that can bring millions into the streets and into the political arena—making use of a new fighting labor movement, mass organizations of struggle, and independent working-class political parties was significantly advanced when tens of thousands took to the streets nationwide to express their solidarity with Ferguson’s Black community and to condemn the inherent racism of corporate America and its militarized police-state-like criminal “justice” system.
John Orland is an immigration rights activist and staff writer for Socialist Action. He can be reached at: SocialistAction@lmi.net
Tags: chain gangs, cheap labor, incarceration rates, labor, labour, modern day slavery, prison industrial complex, prison labor, prison population, prisoners, racism, rania khalek, slave labor, slavery, unicor, us prisons
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strategy in the eternal quest to maximize profit.
are able to get away with paying them wages that rival those of third-world
sweatshops. These laborers have been legally stripped of their
political, economic and social rights and ultimately relegated to second-class
citizens. They are banned from unionizing, violently silenced from
speaking out and forced to work for little to no wages. This
marginalization renders them practically invisible, as they are kept hidden from
society with no available recourse to improve their circumstances or change
They are the 2.3 million American prisoners locked behind bars where we
cannot see or hear them. And they are modern-day slaves of the
It’s no secret that America imprisons more of its citizens than any other
nation in history. With just 5 percent of the world’s population,
the US currently holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. In 2008,
over 2.3 million Americans were in prison or jail, with one of every 48
working-age men behind bars. That doesn’t include the tens of
thousands of detained undocumented immigrants facing deportation, prisoners
awaiting sentencing, or juveniles caught up in the school-to-prison
pipeline. Perhaps it’s reassuring to some that the US still holds
the number one title in at least one arena, but needless to say the
hyper-incarceration plaguing America has had a damaging effect on society at
According to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy
Research (CEPR), US prison rates are not just excessive in comparison to the
rest of the world, they are also substantially higher than our own longstanding
history. The study finds that incarceration rates between 1880 and
1970 ranged from about 100 to 200 prisoners per 100,000
people. After 1980, the inmate population began to grow much more
rapidly than the overall population and the rate climbed from about 220 in 1980
to 458 in 1990, 683 in 2000, and 753 in 2008.
The costs of this incarceration industry are far from evenly distributed,
with the impact of excessive incarceration falling predominantly on
African-American communities. Although black people make up just 13
percent of the overall population, they account for 40 percent of US prisoners. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), black
males are incarcerated at a rate more than 6.5 times that of white males and 2.5
that of Hispanic males and black females are incarcerated at approximately three
times the rate of white females and twice that of Hispanic females.
Michelle Alexander points out in her book The New Jim Crow that more black men are in jail, on probation, or on parole than were
enslaved in 1850. Higher rates of black drug arrests do not reflect higher rates
of black drug offenses. In fact, whites and blacks engage in drug offenses,
possession and sales at roughly comparable rates.
Clearly, the US prison system is riddled with racism and classism, but it
gets worse. As it turns out, private companies have a cheap, easy labor market,
and it isn’t in China, Indonesia, Haiti, or Mexico. It’s right here
in the land of the free, where large corporations increasingly employ prisoners
as a source of cheap and sometimes free labor.
In the eyes of the corporation, inmate labor is a brilliant strategy in the
eternal quest to maximize profit. By dipping into the prison labor
pool, companies have their pick of workers who are not only cheap but easily
controlled. Companies are free to avoid providing benefits like
health insurance or sick days, while simultaneously paying little to no
wages. They don’t need to worry about unions or demands for
vacation time or raises. Inmate workers are full-time and never
late or absent because of family problems.
If they refuse to work, they are moved to disciplinary housing and lose
canteen privileges along with “good time” credit that reduces their
sentences. To top it off, the federal government subsidizes the use
of inmate labor by private companies through lucrative tax write-offs. Under
the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC), private-sector employers
earn a tax credit of $2,400 for every work release inmate they employ as a
reward for hiring “risky target groups” and they can earn back up to 40 percent
of the wages they pay annually to “target group workers.”
Study after study demonstrates the wastefulness of America’s
prison-industrial complex, in both taxpayer dollars and innocent lives, yet
rolling back imprisonment rates is proving to be more challenging than ever.
Meanwhile, the use of private
prisons and now privately contracted inmate labor has created a system that does
not exactly incentivize leaner sentencing.
implications of such a system mean that skyrocketing imprisonment for the
possession of miniscule amounts of marijuana and the the expansion
of severe mandatory sentencing laws regardless of the conviction, are policies
that have to potential to increase corporate profits. As are
the“three strikes laws” that require courts to hand down mandatory and
extended sentences to people who have been convicted of felonies on three or
more separate occasions. People have literally been sentenced to life for minor crimes like
Reinvention of Slavery
The exploitation of prison labor is by no means a new
phenomenon. Jaron Browne, an organizer with People Organized
to Win Employment Rights (POWER), maps out how the exploitation of
prison labor in America is rooted in
slavery. The abolition of slavery dealt a devastating economic
blow to the South following the loss of free labor after the Civil
War. So in the late 19th century, an extensive prison system was
created in the South in order to maintain the racial and economic relationship
of slavery, a mechanism responsible for re-enslaving black
workers. Browne describes Louisiana’s famous Angola Prison to
illustrate the intentional transformation from slave to inmate:
“In 1880, this 8000-acre family plantation was purchased by the state of
Louisiana and converted into a prison. Slave quarters became cell units. Now
expanded to 18,000 acres, the Angola plantation is tilled by prisoners working
the land—a chilling picture of modern day chattel slavery.”
The abolition of slavery quickly gave rise to the Black Codes and Convict
Leasing, which together worked wonders at perpetuating African American
servitude by exploiting a loophole in the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which reads:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for
crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the
United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
The Black Codes were a set of laws that criminalized legal activity for
African Americans and provided a pretext for the arrest and mass imprisonment of
newly freed blacks, which caused the percentage of African Americans in prison
to surpass whites for the first time. Convict
leasing involved leasing out prisoners to private companies that paid the state
a certain fee in return. Convicts worked for the companies during
the day outside the prison and returned to their cells at
night. The system provided revenue for the state and profits for
plantation owners and wasn’t abolished until the 1930s.
Unfortunately, convict leasing was quickly replaced with equally despicable
state-run chain gangs. Once again, stories of vicious abuse created
enough public anger to abolish chain gangs by the
1950s. Nevertheless, the systems of prisoner exploitation never
Today’s corporations can lease factories in prisons, as well as lease
prisoners out to their factories. In many cases, private
corporations are running prisons-for-profit, further incentivizing their stake
in locking people up. The government is profiting as well, by
running prison factories that operate as multibillion-dollar industries in every
state, and throughout the federal prison system, where prisoners are contracted out to major corporations by the
In the most extreme cases, we are even witnessing the reemergence of the
chain gang. In Arizona, the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in
America,” Joe Arpaio, requires his Maricopa County inmates to enroll in chain gangs to perform various community services or
face lockdown with three other inmates in an 8-by-12-foot cell, for 23 hours a
day. In June of this year, Arpaio started a female-only chain gang made up of women convicted of
driving under the influence. In a press release he boasted that the
inmates would be wearing pink T-shirts emblazoned with messages about drinking
The modern-day version of convict leasing was recently spotted in Georgia,
where Governor Nathan Deal proposed sending unemployed probationers to work in Georgia’s
fields as a solution to a perceived labor shortage following the passage of the
country’s most draconian anti-immigrant law. But his plan backfired when some of the probationers began walking off
their jobs because the fieldwork was too strenuous.
There has also been a disturbing reemergence of the debtors’ prison, which
should serve as an ominous sign of our dangerous reliance on prisons to manage
any and all of society’s problems. According to the Wall Street Journal more than a third of all U.S. states allow
borrowers who can’t or won’t pay to be jailed. They found that judges signed off
on more than 5,000 such warrants since the start of 2010 in nine
counties. It appears that any act that can be criminalized in the
era of private prisons and inmate labor will certainly end in jail time, further
increasing the ranks of the captive workforce.
Prior to the 1970s, private corporations were prohibited from using prison
labor as a result of the chain gang and convict leasing
scandals. But in 1979, Congress began a process of deregulation to restore private sector involvement
in prison industries to its former status, provided certain conditions of the
labor market were met. Over the last 30 years, at least
37 states have enacted laws permitting the use of convict labor by private
enterprise, with an average pay of $0.93 to $4.73 per day.
Federal prisoners receive more generous wages that range
from $0.23 to $1.25 per hour, and are employed by Unicor, a wholly owned
government corporation established by Congress in 1934. Its
principal customer is the Department of Defense, from which Unicor derives
percent of its sales. Some 21,836 inmates work in Unicor programs. Subsequently,
the nation’s prison industry – prison labor programs producing goods or services
sold to other government agencies or to the private sector — now
employs more people
than any Fortune 500 company (besides General Motors), and
generates about $2.4 billion in revenue annually. Noah Zatz of UCLA law school estimates that:
“Well over 600,000, and probably close to a million, inmates are working
full-time in jails and prisons throughout the United States. Perhaps some of
them built your desk chair: office furniture, especially in state universities
and the federal government, is a major prison labor product. Inmates also take
hotel reservations at corporate call centers, make body armor for the U.S.
military, and manufacture prison chic fashion accessories, in addition to the
iconic task of stamping license plates.”
Some of the largest and most powerful corporations have a stake in the
expansion of the prison labor market, including but not limited to IBM, Boeing,
Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq,
Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern
Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, and
many more. Between 1980 and 1994 alone, profits went up from $392 million to $1.31 billion. Since the
prison labor force has likely grown since then, it is safe to assume that the
profits accrued from the use of prison labor have reached even higher levels.
In an article for Mother Jones, Caroline Winter details a
number of mega-corporations that have profited off of inmates:
“In the 1990s, subcontractor Third Generation hired 35 female
South Carolina inmates to sew lingerie and leisure wear for Victoria’s
Secret and JCPenney. In 1997, a California
prison put two men in solitary for telling journalists they were ordered to
replace ‘Made in Honduras’ labels on garments with ‘Made in the
According to Winter, the defense industry is a large part of the
equation as well:
“Unicor, says that in addition to soldiers’ uniforms, bedding,
shoes, helmets, and flak vests, inmates have ‘produced missile cables (including
those used on the Patriot missiles during the Gulf War)’ and ‘wiring harnesses
for jets and tanks.’ In 1997, according to Prison Legal
News, Boeing subcontractorMicroJet had
prisoners cutting airplane components, paying $7 an hour for work that paid
union wages of $30 on the outside.”
Oil companies have been known to exploit prison labor as well. Following the
explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers and irreparably
damaged the Gulf of Mexico for generations to come, BP elected to hire Louisiana prison inmates to clean up its
mess. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of any state in
the nation, 70 percent of which are African-American men. Coastal residents
desperate for work, whose livelihoods had been destroyed by BP’s negligence,
were outraged at BP’s use of free prison labor.
In the Nation article that exposed BP’s hiring of inmates, Abe
Louise Young details how BP tried to cover up its use of prisoners by changing
the inmates’ clothing to give the illusion of civilian workers. But
nine out of 10 residents of Grand Isle, Louisiana are white, while the cleanup
workers were almost exclusively black, so BP’s ruse fooled very few
Private companies have long understood that prison labor can be as profitable
as sweatshop workers in third-world countries with the added benefit of staying
closer to home. Take Escod Industries, which in the 1990s abandoned plans to open
operations in Mexico and instead moved to South Carolina, because the wages of
American prisoners undercut those of de-unionized Mexican sweatshop workers. The
move was fueled by the state, which gave a $250,000 “equipment subsidy” to Escod
along with industrial space at below-market rent. Other examples include Ohio’s Honda supplier, which pays its prison workers
$2 an hour for the same work for which the UAW has fought for decades to be paid
$20 to $30 an hour; Konica, which has hired prisoners to repair its copiers for
less than 50 cents an hour; and Oregon, where private companies can “lease”
prisoners at a bargain price of $3 a day.
Even politicians have been known to tap into prison labor for their own
personal use. In 1994, a contractor for GOP congressional candidate Jack Metcalf
hired Washington state prisoners to call and remind voters he was pro-death
penalty. He won his campaign claiming he had no knowledge of the
scandal. Perhaps this is why Senator John Ensign (R-NV) introduced a bill earlier this year to require all
low-security prisoners to work 50 hours a week. After all, creating a national
prison labor force has been a goal of his since he went to Congress in 1995.
In an unsettling turn of events lawmakers have begun ditching public
employees in favor of free prison labor. The New York
Times recently reported that states are enlisting prison labor to close budget gaps to offset cuts in
federal financing and dwindling tax revenue. At a time of record
unemployment, inmates are being hired to paint vehicles, clean courthouses,
sweep campsites and perform many other services done before the recession by
private contractors or government employees. In Wisconsin, prisoners are now taking up jobs that were once
held by unionized workers, as a result of Governor Scott Walker’s contentious
Why You Should Care
Those who argue in favor of prison labor claim it is a useful tool for
rehabilitation and preparation for post-jail employment. But this
has only been shown to be true in cases where prisoners are exposed to
meaningful employment, where they learn new skills, not the labor-intensive,
menial and often dangerous work they are being tasked with. While
little if any evidence exists to suggests that the current prison labor system
decreases recidivism or leads to better employment prospects outside of prison,
there are a number of solutions that have been proven to be
According to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, having a history of
incarceration itself impedes subsequent economic success. Pew found that past incarceration reduced subsequent wages by 11
percent, cut annual employment by nine weeks and reduced yearly earnings by 40
percent. The study suggests that the best approach is for state and
federal authorities to invest in programs that reconnect inmates to the labor
market, as well as provide training and job placement services around the time
of release. Most importantly, Pew says that in the long term, America must move
toward alternative sentencing programs for low-level and nonviolent offenders,
and issuing penalties that are actually proportionate with real public safety
The exploitation of any workforce is detrimental to all
workers. Cheap and free labor pushes down wages for
everyone. Just as American workers cannot compete with sweatshop
labor, the same goes for prison labor. Many jobs that come into
prison are taken from free citizens. The American labor movement
must demand that prison labor be allowed the right to unionize, the right to a
fair and living wage, and the right to a safe and healthy work
environment. That is what prisoners are demanding, but they can
only do so much from inside a prison cell.
As unemployment on the outside increases, so too will crime and incarceration
rates, and our 21st-century version of corporate slavery will continue to expand
unless we do something about it.
Governor Crist: It’s Time to End Slavery in Florida March 22, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Immigration, Labor.
Tags: bernie sanders, burger king, cheap labor, farm workers, florida, florida agribusiness, florida slavery, florida tomatoes, food justice, governor crist, human rights, immokalee, jeb bush, jim goodman, mcdonalds, roger hollander, slavery, subway, taco bell, taco bell boycott, tomato growers, whole foods, worker rights
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Published on Sunday, March 22, 2009 by CommonDreams.org
“The extreme is slavery, the norm is disaster.”
–Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders as he described the conditions in Immokalee Florida last year.
As a farmer and part of a Food Justice delegation to Immokalee earlier this month I would say that Senator Sanders was spot on. Poverty wages, abusive labor conditions, overpriced dilapidated housing; collectively humiliating the workers and stripping them of their basic human rights. Immokalee, little more than a labor reserve of immigrant farm workers from Mexico, Haiti and Guatemala supplying cheap labor to keep the winter vegetables flowing to northern markets.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) was formed in 1992 to organize the workers, help them defend their rights and rise above the daily abuse. Their community organizing eventually led them to, as Senator Sanders put it, the extreme, slavery, over 1,000 men and women held under conditions of modern day slavery since CIW was formed.
Initially the fight for worker rights was more a struggle for human rights, a struggle for the worker to be recognized as something other than merely a cog in the machinery of Florida agribusiness. CIW started with a general work strike, then in 1997 a hunger strike asking for dialog with the growers, but as one grower put it “a tractor doesn’t tell the farmer how to run the farm”. While the power of the growers seemed insurmountable there were other avenues to pursue.
Starting at the top of the food industry seemed like a David vs. Goliath task, yet the CIW saw promise, for indeed David had defeated Goliath. Their Campaign for Fair Food targeted the corporate buyers of Florida tomatoes, Taco Bell (part of YUM Brands) and later McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway and Whole Foods.
Initially there was silence, no response from Taco Bell. A year later with still no response, a successful four year national boycott was launched with the cooperation of organized labor, religious, student and non-profit groups. The demands: worker rights, zero tolerance for slavery and a penny more per pound of tomatoes passed directly to the workers. It was a ground breaking victory.
While the ensuing campaigns were still met with resistance, the corporate targets reached agreement faster and with what appeared to be genuine support for worker justice. Yet the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange remains united in their rejection of worker justice.
The growers said (in 2007) they wanted to develop “more impactful, comprehensive” ways of improving the lives of the farm workers and their families. Still the workers wait. The growers claimed the penny per pound deals violated racketeering laws, laws I am sure they understand.
Clearly, the penny a pound campaign was a success with vast popular appeal nationwide. The agreements would nearly double the wages of the workers and cost the Florida Tomato Growers nothing, yet would allow the corporate buyers to develop a business model based on social consciousness and worker participation that could go a long way to ending slavery in South Florida.
The growers, by their refusal to participate in the program, deny the workers what would be their first wage increase in nearly thirty years. By denying the workers a fair wage they also deny them fair working and living conditions, thereby endorsing the ongoing human rights abuses that allow slavery to exist.
One final question needs yet to be answered, what role will Governor Crist play in all of this? Something finally got through to the Governor, whether it was the CIW’s action in Tallahassee on March 9, their two years of repeated requests for a meeting with the Governor, or as Abraham Lincoln might have put it, the guidance of the better angels of his nature. When Governor Crist meets with the CIW this week, will he listen to those better angels?
To his credit Governor Crist held out against any sort of dialog for only two years, his predecessor Jeb Bush remained resolute for eight years. Still, this sudden willingness of Crist to meet with the CIW will mean little without executive action. Agreeing to a meeting is a start, but the true measure of the Governor’s moral compass will be seen in what actions he takes after the meeting.
Even More than Race, the South Is About Exploiting Workers March 16, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Labor.
Tags: anti-union, auto industry, blue collar workers, card check non-union, cheap labor, cio, corker, dixiecrats, eastland, exploitation, free choice act, George Bush, jim crow, joseph atkins, labor, labour, mitch mcconnell, oligarchy, roger hollander, senate, sharecropping, shelby, south, south history, southern conservatism, southern economy, southern republicans, thurmond, uaw, union wages, united auto workers, wage cuts, Wall Street bailout, workers
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Cheap labor. Even more than race, it’s the thread that connects all of Southern history—from the ante-bellum South of John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis to Tennessee’s Bob Corker, Alabama’s Richard Shelby and the other anti-union Southerners in today’s U.S. Senate.
It’s at the epicenter of a sad class divide between a desperate, poorly educated workforce and a demagogic oligarchy, and it has been a demarcation line stronger than the Mason-Dixon in separating the region from the rest of the nation.
The recent spectacle of Corker, Shelby and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky leading the GOP attack on the proposed $14 billion loan to the domestic auto industry—with 11 other Southern senators marching dutifully behind—made it crystal clear. The heart of Southern conservatism is the preservation of a status quo that serves elite interests.
Expect these same senators and their colleagues in the US House to wage a similar war in the coming months against the proposed Employee Free Choice Act authorizing so-called “card check” union elections nationwide.
“Dinosaurs,” Shelby of Alabama called General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler as he maneuvered to bolster the nonunion Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai and other foreign-owned plants in his home state by sabotaging as many as three million jobs nationwide.
Corker, a multi-millionaire who won his seat in a mud-slinging, race-tinged election in 2006, was fairly transparent in his goal to expunge what he considers the real evil in the Big Three and US industry in general: unions. When the concession-weary United Auto Workers balked at GOP demands for a near-immediate reduction in worker wages and benefits, Corker urged President Bush to force-feed wage cuts to UAW workers in any White House-sponsored bailout.
If Shelby, Corker, and McConnell figured they were helping the Japanese, German and Korean-owned plants in their home states, they were seriously misguided. The failure of the domestic auto industry would inflict a deep wound on the same supplier-dealer network that the foreign plants use. The already existing woes of the foreign-owned industry were clearly demonstrated in December when Toyota announced its decision to put on indefinite hold the opening of its $1.3 billion plant near Blue Springs in northeast Mississippi.
The Southern Republicans are full of contradictions. Downright hypocrisy might be a better description. Shelby staunchly opposes universal health care—a major factor in the Big Three’s financial troubles since they operate company plans—yet the foreign automakers he defends benefit greatly from the government-run health care programs in their countries.
These same senators gave their blessing to hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to the foreign automakers to open plants in their states, yet they were willing to let the US auto industry fall into bankruptcy.
In their zeal to destroy unions and their hard-fought wage-and-benefits packages, the Southern senators could not care less that workers in their home states are among the lowest paid in the nation. Ever wonder why the South remains the nation’s poorest region despite generations of seniority-laden senators and representatives in Congress?
Why weren’t these same senators protesting the high salaries in the financial sector when the Congress approved the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street? Why pick on blue-collar workers at the Big Three who last year agreed to huge concessions expected to save the companies an estimated $4 billion a year by 2010? These concessions have already helped lower union wages to non-union levels at some auto plants.
The idea of working people joining together to have a united voice across the table from management scares most Southern politicians to death. After all, they go to the same country clubs as management. When Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker warned of Democratic opponent Ronnie Musgrove’s ties to the “Big Labor Bosses” in this year’s US Senate race, he was protecting the “Big Corporate Bosses” who are his benefactors.
The South today may be more racially enlightened than ever in its history. However, it is still a society in which the ruling class—the chambers of commerce that have taken over from yesterday’s plantation owners and textile barons—uses politics to maintain control over a vast, jobs-hungry workforce. After the oligarchy lost its war for slavery—the cheapest labor of all—it secured the next best thing in Jim Crow and the indentured servitude known as sharecropping and tenant farming. It still sees cheap, pliable, docile labor as the linchpin of the Southern economy.
In 1948, when the so-called “Dixiecrats” rebelled against the national Democratic Party, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina declared war on “the radicals, subversives, and the Reds” who want to upset the Southern way of life.
Seven years later, Mississippi’s political godfather, the late US Sen. James O. Eastland, told other prominent Southern pols during a meeting at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis that the South will “fight the CIO” (Congress of Industrial Organizations) and unionism with just as much vehemence and determination as it fights racial integration.
Eastland, Thurmond and their friends lost the integration battle. Their successors are still fighting the other enemy.
Joseph B. Atkins is a veteran journalist, professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi and author of Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press (University Press of Mississippi, 2008), a book that details the Southern labor movement and its treatment in the press. A version of this column appeared in the Hattiesburg (Miss.) American and the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger.
The American Worker November 27, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis, Labor.
Tags: 401k, benefits, boss law, Bush, cheap labor, corporate bosses, Economic Crisis, economic meltdown, globalization, health care, labor, labour, McCain, Obama, overtime, part-time, rick kepler, roger hollander, strike, unions, wealth, workers
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Friday 21 November 2008
by: Rick Kepler, t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Members of the United Auto Workers at a monthly benefit meeting. (Photo: Getty Images)
I am an American worker, and you are damn right I want the wealth to be shared and spread. I am talking about the wealth my hard work helped to create, but was taken from me by George Bush’s base, the very rich, or as I know them, my corporate bosses. For the past eight years I have watched W.’s and McCain’s (Country Club First) base grab the largest share of our country’s wealth. Where did they take it from? They took it from my family’s pocketbook, and my co-workers’ families’ pocketbooks. They stole the wealth that I was trying to build for me and my family when they stripped my pension plan from me and told me to invest in a 401k. Then they stole most of that 401k and other workers’ 401k savings with this economic meltdown. This was a massive transfer of wealth from the workers’ pockets into the already stuffed pockets of the rich. My retirement savings and my coworkers’ savings all across America have been looted by the corporate bosses, who just got bailed out while we got left out. Again!
The American worker, whether black, brown, white, red, yellow, or rainbow color, has been fleeced over these past eight years. We are the ones who go to work every day. We don’t own our places of work, nor do we help manage them. We just go in and do the job. And we must be doing one hell of a good job because we are told that we are the most productive workers in the world. We are working longer and harder, but our paychecks keep shrinking! Where are those productivity gains going then? Not into our pockets. Our standard of living has been going down these past eight years ($2,000 less in family income since W. took office) This is another damn transfer of wealth into the hands of the extremely rich.
Their greed is insatiable. Take our family’s health care. They do. They keep passing on their increased costs to us, or they just drop coverage for the worker completely. That means we either join the 50,000,000 who have no health care, or we end up having to buy it privately, thus eating up a huge portion of our family’s income. If we manage to hang onto our health care plans, our deductibles, co-pays, and out-of-pay contributions keep skyrocketing. This amounts to another massive transfer of wealth from our pockets into the overflowing pockets of our corporate bosses.
The list goes on for the American worker. We saw overtime pay stripped from millions of workers during this past nightmare eight years. The worker was still working overtime, but due to a new “boss law” passed by W. and McCain’s party that assists these thieves, the workers didn’t receive overtime pay because they were declared exempt. They also weakened the workers’ health and safety standards or just plain didn’t enforce the laws already on the books. As a result, the American worker pays the price in lost days due to accidents from unsafe conditions or from lingering, expensive illnesses suffered from unhealthy working conditions. This too is a massive transfer of wealth from our pockets into our corporate bosses’ bulging pockets.
To further sweeten their own pots, they took full-time jobs and converted them to part-time with no benefits, or they just made their employees line up and reapply for their exact same jobs at half the pay. Are we beginning to see what a true transfer of wealth looks like? So, do I want to see a spreading of the wealth? You bet your sweet hind-end I do. But all I ask of Obama is to give me and my co-workers the ability to retrieve some of the wealth that has been stolen from us.
Strengthen the laws that give workers the right to organize and bargain for a contract with our bosses. The current laws on the books have been torn to shreds by W. and McCain on behalf of their base. This is just part of their attack on American workers. Under globalization, the bosses seek a much cheaper workforce, which always means non-union, which means “can’t fight back.” That is why they have gutted the laws that protect workers. The laws that once gave us a level playing field with our bosses have been rendered useless, including our legal right to strike. That law said I had a right to strike, and could.
The American worker doesn’t want a handout. Never did. We do want a hand up from our government. We still believe and have hope that this is a government of, by and for the people. We do want to know that our government will finally stand with us against this onslaught, this Robin Hood in reverse, being conducted by the bosses against the workers. The bosses know that W. and McCain have been on their side for the past eight years – and so do we workers. We just want our government to now stand on our side as we stand up against this corporate attempt to create third world working conditions right here in America. Restore our right to fight for a better living for ourselves and our families, and let the power of pissed-off workers, united in struggle, spread corporate America’s stolen wealth back into the pockets of those whose pockets got picked these last eight years – the American worker.
Rick Kepler has driven beer trucks in New Orleans, Louisiana; Colorado Springs, Colorado and Oakland, California. He has tended bar in San Francisco, and worked on the railroad and loading docks in Ohio. Currently he’s a Teamsters organizer who speaks to thousands of unorganized workers every year.
Free Trade May Not be Fair Trade: The Pacts are Always Biased Toward the Economically Stronger Nations August 26, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Free Trade, Political Essays (Roger).
Tags: cheap labor, economic exploitation, economic hegemony, export subsidies, Fair Trade, Free Trade, Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, Free Trade Latin America, IMF, Latin America, mexican corn, Mexico, NAFTA, poverty, protectionism, roger hollander, third world, trade tariffs, World Bank, wto
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(I had been asked by its organizers to try to arrange for Canadian representatives to the “Hemispheric Conference of Parliamentarians” that took place in Quito in 2002. The subject of the conference was free trade and the impact it would have on Latin American countries. I spoke by phone with the offices of several Canadian New Democratic Party (N.D.P.) MPs, without success. Not being a member of any parliament myself, I was therefore invited by the organizers to be an official observer of the Conference.
There were members of parliaments from most Latin American Countries in attendance, including supporters of the Chávez government in Venezuela and oppositionist Senators from embattled Colombia. Meeting them and hearing their opinions was what I found most interesting. I was put up at a small hotel with some of the other attendees, and I had lunch with the executive assistant of an Ecuadorian congressman whose name was, no kidding, Fidel Castro.
Several months later I was in Los Angeles studying much of the material I had brought back from the Conference and thinking about what I had learned. The article that follows, which was published as an opinion piece in the “Los Angeles Times,” November 20, 2003, was a result of this experience. It was picked up and reproduced by a number of Internet web sites – including a porno [!] site which I suppose must have only seen and misunderstood the word “trade.”)
By taking a look at how free trade works, we can see why virtually every labor, ecological and anti-poverty organization in Latin America is strongly opposed to the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, which is the subject of this week’s Miami gathering of trade ministers from Western Hemisphere nations.
The critics see thing this way: Let’s say that the Newcastle mining industry in Britain can produce a ton of coal at the cost of $10, which it sells on the domestic market. The industry thrives. At the same time, coal mining in Pennsylvania is just as efficient, but with transportation and British import tariffs the cost to export coal to Britain would be $15 a ton. No deal. But the Pennsylvania mining interests, desperate for export markets, have powerful lobbyists in Congress, which in turn enacts the “Coal Law,” providing a government subsidy of $5 a ton. Further, with a free-trade agreement between the U.S. and Britain abolishing the $2-a-ton tariff, there would be a net gain of $7 a ton for the Pennsylvania mining industry. Now its actual – if artificial – cost of production is $8 an exported ton, $2 cheaper than the $10-a-ton Newcastle coal. Voila! Coals to Newcastle. Goodbye Newcastle mining industry. Hello massive British unemployment.
The logic is simple. There are two ways to “protect” local industry: import tariffs and export subsidies.
Free trade eliminates tariffs, giving the economic advantage not only to those producers that are more efficient production-wise (largely because they are more capitalized) but also to those industries blessed with governments capable of delivering massive subsidies. In other words, to the already industrial and wealthy nations.
Coal miners in Newcastle may not have to worry about my hypothetical example, but corn growers in Mexico have every reason to panic.
Grains are to Mexico as coal was to Newcastle. Since the initiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement among the U.S., Canada and Mexico in 1994, the earnings of Mexican growers of corn, wheat and rice, along with beans, have plummeted, while the cost to the Mexican consumer has risen by 257%.
Mexico, the land where corn was first domesticated centuries ago, is now importing “cheap” subsidized U.S. agribusiness corn. Coals to Newcastle indeed.
With a dramatic difference in industrialization (70 U.S. tractors, for example, for every Mexican tractor) and the powerful agricultural lobby in Washington maintaining enormous subsidies, it is no wonder that Mexican farmers cannot compete once the protective tariffs are eliminated.
In theory, free trade should make everyone more competitive, replacing the inefficient with the efficient. The idea is that everyone should do what they are best at and purchase from their neighboring countries what those countries do best. Everyone gains.
In reality, for historical and geopolitical reasons, what Third World countries are “best at” is having their natural resources extracted and exported to the industrialized nations (which in turn sell back manufactured products at high cost) and having their populations exploited for cheap labor.
Advocates of free trade – the already developed industrialized nations and those in the Third World countries who do their bidding – argue in the abstract, taking advantage of words with positive connotations such as “free” and “trade.” In the real world, however, economics is not a matter of ideology but rather of production and markets and the intervention of government. Bilateral agreement between unequal partners are inherently biased in favor of the stronger – and the greater the disparity, the greater the bias.
This is exactly the situation that exists between the U.S. and Latin American Republics.
The World Trade Organization treaties and the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas are characterized by undemocratic processes, such as secret and semi-secret pre-agreements and unrealistic deadlines, and economic blackmail including threats to withhold the International Monetary Fund and World Bank funding upon which the weaker nations’ governments have become dependent. Rapidly expanding U.S. military presence worldwide only serves to reinforce the economic hegemony.
The impoverished nations of the Western Hemisphere have much to fear from the proposed trade agreement.