Prison Labor

Slavery Rears its Ugly Head (Again)

On June 22, 1865, the final shot in the Civil War was fired, effectively putting an end to chattel slavery in the continental United States and dumping the carcass of that accursed system in the deepest tomb of history. Or, so we thought. Down in Dixie, as well as up North, the horrors of slavery have once again scratched and clawed their way out of the hole we thought we’d left them in. The victories of the workers, soldiers and slaves of the past are being encroached upon.

In Alabama, where the governor passed one of the harshest anti-immigrant laws in the country, a mass exodus of immigrant workers has led to huge labor shortages, especially in agriculture. The labor shortage problem, caused primarily by the extreme poverty wages that agribusinesses paid to undocumented workers to begin with, has become such a major problem that a radical “new” alternative has been proposed by the governor and supported by the agricultural lobby—the use of prison labor. Private prison labor.

Prison LaborThat’s right, the undocumented workers placed in privately-owned prisons in Alabama and Georgia can now be “farmed out” to do field work at zero cost to the owners of the farms. Moreover, the states pay these private firms to keep prisoners held in cramped, overcrowded and inhumane conditions. The bill is simply shoved off onto the working taxpayers. Instead of being owned by individual plantation owners, these modern slaves are simply rented out from the massive “corrections” companies on a farm-by-farm basis.

Over the last few decades, in nearly every state in the Union, hundreds of thousands of jobs have been whittled away and transitioned toward free prison labor. Sightings of chain gangs in the South have become a normal, almost hum-drum occurrence for motorists. And everyone knows where their license plates are made. Meanwhile, the new collective bargaining laws in place in Wisconsin have been used as cover to replace unionized public sector workers with an ever-increasing amount of prison labor. The same is true in Connecticut, Georgia, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Virginia, among others.

As we approach the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the idea of slave labor in the United States should sicken and infuriate every one of us. There is no place for such barbarism in modern times. Our ancestors knew this and fought a civil war to destroy it. If we begin fighting back now against all the attacks on workers’ rights, there is a good chance we won’t have to do the same.

If we organize and mobilize, the labor movement—the same labor movement that courageously fought against slavery in the Civil War—we can end this monstrosity, along with all the other barbaric and draconian attacks on our class. But only if we organize.


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