Last night, Durham hosted a loud brass band concert benefiting a strike fund for prisoners joining up with the national strike in September. Folks distributed writings by prisoners and read their words over the mike in between songs. The show was capped off when a 17-piece brass band and banner-holders led a small march to the downtown jail. Prisoners responded by waving lighters or banging on their windows. The band finished off the march with a rousing and nostalgic rendition of “Pony” by Ginuwine. Really.
In the next week there’s a teach-in scheduled with former prisoners on the history of prison resistance as well as another jail demo, this time hosted by Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee folks. Both are geared towards raising awareness about the upcoming strike and getting folks pumped to be in the streets when September arrives.
The IWW’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee is coming along powerfully and is getting closer and closer to a movement moment where we explode onto the national scene through the work of our powerful inside organizers and outside supporters.
Yet we have some significant holes in IWOC’s infrastructure and hope some of you have suggestions for people–inside or outside of the IWW–who could help fill some of the most important ones, or ideas for how to best focus our efforts in those areas.
1. Delegate Mentors: people with significant IWW-style on the job organizing experience who want to help mentor delegates in prisons. This would likely be remotely via phone and letters. We could also use people to help mentor in new outside groups. This is the key barrier to us having a collective national temperature and building branches and an Industrial Union.
Across the country freeways are blocked, people take the streets, law enforcement officers are confronted and their buildings are occupied, and more and more people are questioning the institutions of policing and incarceration. In the past month, nearly every major city and many smaller ones have seen some sort of protest, demonstration, or disruption in the wake of ongoing police murders that have recently included two African-American men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Helping set the context for this rebellion has been growing anger at both Trump and Clinton and ongoing resistance to white nationalist and fascist organizing which becomes more and more confrontational. At the same time, talk of abolishing the police and the prison system is no longer a fringe idea, as these positions are being discussed more and more broadly by wide segments of popular social movements. Continue reading →
In the early 2000s, the small but militant Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) launched union drives at Starbucks and Jimmy John’s. At the time, many in the mainstream labor movement scratched their heads. Traditionally, labor groups believed that the high turnover of fast food workers would make them impossible to organize.
Nearly a decade later, fast food workers and the Fight for $15 are a central focus of the mainstream labor movement. And, given IWW’s ability to unionize workers who once seemed out of reach, many labor organizers now look to them as an incubator of new organizing strategies.
Now IWW faces one of the biggest challenges in its history: convincing the broader labor movement to embrace the approximately 400,000 Americans employed as prison labor across the United States.
This spring, the IWW and allied community groups organized prison labor strikes of thousands of incarcerated workers in Alabama, Wisconsin, Texas, Mississippi, and Ohio—all demanding the right to form a union. The IWW Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee has called for a nationwide prison strike on September 9 to mark the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising and claims it has the support of thousands of prisoners throughout the United States.
“It could really shake things up,” IWW organizer Jimi Del Duca told me. “A lot of working-class people are afraid to organize because they have a few crumbs to lose. [Many] prisoners have nothing to lose and that gives them courage. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
However, the barriers to organizing prisoners are high. Communication between prisons is difficult, as most prisoners are not allowed access to e-mail. Even within prisons, inmates are limited in their ability to meet face-to-face. While they are allowed to assemble routinely for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or religious activities, the 1977 Supreme Court case Jones v. North Carolina Labor Prisoners’ Union denied them their First Amendment right to assemble if a warden feels a gathering is a threat to prison security. As a result, wardens block most prisoners’ union meetings.
However, Elon University Labor Law Professor Eric Fink says that prisoners may have another option. The right of prisoners to form a union has never been challenged in a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) union certification case, and Fink believes that prisoners could use the NLRB process to push for the right to meet regularly and form collective bargaining units. He argues that prison workers—employed by private contractors in 37 states—should have the same right to form a union as other workers employed by those contractors. According to Fink, if the IWW were to bring a case before the NLRB, then the board could declare that prisoners are employees who are eligible to join a union.
“I think the Board is capable of saying there are issues that [incarcerated people] have the right to bargain for—such as hours and wages—as any other worker would have the right to do,” said Fink.
As for prison workers who are employed directly by the state, Fink feels they could organize more easily. Under federal labor law, each individual state has a Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) which governs how labor law is applied in the jurisdiction. Often, the leadership of the PERB is heavily influenced by local labor leadership. So, if a public sector union such as AFSCME were to endorse the right of prisoners to form unions, state-level PERBs might be inclined to extend that right.
However, there is a catch: Many public sector unions also represent guards, who may be lukewarm to the idea of prisoners forming unions.
On Tuesday July 5, employees of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) will return from a long holiday weekend of cooking out and summertime patriotism to a day of protest at their workplace. Starting before the office opens and continuing until the DOC commits to stepping down from the use of long term solitary confinement, we will protest in fierce solidarity with the prisoners who have been refusing food since early June.
Cesar DeLeon, LaRon McKinley Bey, Uhuru Mutawakkil kicked off a hunger strike on June 5, they called it the “Dying to Live Humanitarian Food Refusal Campaign Against Torture.” Dozens of prisoners were ready to join them initially, but DOC retaliation, harassment, transfers and threats divided and repressed many of them. Ten or so prisoners were on board on June 10 and 11, when supporters held the first rallies in Milwaukee and Madison. Continue reading →
Siddique Hasan, a current prisoner at the Ohio State Penitentiary, types in his cell block.
Siddique Hasan, a self-described revolutionary from Savannah, Georgia, has been waiting for a moment like this one, when prisoners across the country band together and say “enough is enough” when it comes to being treated like a slave.
“It’s time for a broader struggle,” he told ThinkProgress during his daily phone time in Ohio’s supermax prison. “People have to lift up their voice with force and determination, and let them know that they’re dissatisfied with the way things are actually being run.”
On May 1, prison labor came to a halt in multiple prisons in Alabama, including Holman and Elmore prisons. Starting at midnight that day, prisoners stayed in their dormitories—refusing to show up for work at their assigned posts: the kitchen, the license plate manufacturing plant, the recycling plant, the food processing center, and a prison farm.
The prisoners’ demands were pretty simple: basic human rights, educational opportunities, and a reform of Alabama’s harsh sentencing guidelines and parole board.
The labor strikes are a turn from the most familiar type of political protest behind bars: the hunger strike.
The strike in Alabama was just the latest in a series of strikes at U.S. prisons. On April 4, at least seven prisons in Texas staged a work strike after a prisoner sent out a call with the help of outside organizers. About a month earlier, prisoners in multiple states including both Texas and Alabama, as well as Virginia and Ohio, called for a national general strike among prisoners on Sept. 9, 2016, the 45th anniversary of the Attica Rebellion, where guards and inmates died during a prison revolt in upstate New York. Continue reading →
Eric Bergstrom and several other inmates at the Estelle Unit in Huntsville, TX are facing severe retaliation after demanding their basic human rights be met. Estelle is especially notorious for their excessive use of physical violence against inmates. Currently, the Prison Justice League has an open case against them. Read the report here: http://prisonjusticeleague.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Cruel-Usual-Punishment-PJL-Final.pdf
Eric’s wife wrote to us, detailing this specific incident.
On April 27th, work was called off due to heavy rains and the field bosses came in to shake down the wing. The inmates starting voicing their concerns and talking about how they were the next unit to go on a worker’s strike*. The inmates were forcibly extracted from their cells, tear gased, and one man was nearly beaten to death by a guard. According to his wife, the senior Warden, Tony O’Hare came to their wing to supervise the situation. She states “Eric spoke about getting their good time, unsafe working and living conditions, and the other fact that other states pay their workers and that all that had happened that day was partially his fault because he was not there for all of it. Eric was then singled out from everyone to either become a martyr or to be used as an example by the warden. He was pulled from the cell the warden hit him in his knees with a baton, which was documented by medical, then Eric was given disciplinary charges, for ‘inciting a riot’ all his property was confiscated” Continue reading →