Mr. President – You Can Stop the Transfer of Jobs From Private Sector to Prison Slave Labor

by Ex. Dir., Bob Sloan

Today I read an article entitled:

Fayette apparel plant to close; 119 to lose jobs

Though the article opened with the foregoing headline, it didn’t immediately attract a lot of attention.  More and more we read about the loss of jobs due to the closure of small businesses all across the U.S. and such reports about the disappearance of jobs have been commonplace of late.  This one is different in that it clearly identifies one of the issues at the very core of private sector job losses – prison or “slave” labor.

The Federal Prison Industries better known by its trade name, UNICOR (a corporation wholly owned by the U.S. Dept. of Justice) has become the primary manufacturer of thousands of products made for use by government programs, agencies and our armed forces. More and more products are “approved” for manufacture by UNICOR and in each case American jobs are lost as companies employing them are closed, no longer able to sustain operations after losing government contracts.

The wages paid to prisoners falls between $.35 and $1.35 per hour worked.  There are no requirements for UNICOR’s payment of benefits, unemployment or worker’s compensation insurance premiums, no vacations or to provide health insurance.  UNICOR employs more than 16,000 prisoners in more than 100 factories nationwide.  In October 2010 Attorney General Eric Holder issued a “memo” to the heads of all federal agencies and departments, instructing procurement officers:

American Power Source is simply the latest in a long line of companies falling prey to prison labor.  The article linked to above reveals that in addition to the 119 jobs lost in Fayette, another of their plants in Columbus MS. also closed displacing an additional 142 workers…and last May, Selma-based American Apparel, which also makes military clothing, closed its Fort Deposit plant, putting another 175 people out of work. It, too, cited the loss of military contracts.  Altogether 413 jobs have been lost in southern states due to UNICOR taking over the manufacture of products made for the federal government – related to this one case.

This incident in Alabama and Mississippi are merely the tip of an iceberg bearing down on helpless American workers.  Earlier this year the same situation arose in Kentucky involving Ashland Sales and Service, Co. – another apparel manufacturer – making windbreakers for the Air Force.  When Ashland Sales and Service became aware that they were on the cusp of losing their government contracts forcing a closure of their company, they contacted Senate Minority leader, Mitch McConnell.  They asked McConnell to intervene and save 100 American jobs.

McConnell, one of the top Republicans on Capitol Hill, issued a public statement urging Unicor to back off in Kentucky. The next day, it did and the loss of jobs in Kentucky was averted.  Another apparel manufacturer wasn’t so fortunate – or didn’t have the influence of a Mitch McConnell in their corner. Tennier Industries, which is in a depressed corner of Tennessee, lost a $45 million military clothing contract laying off 100 workers. In Indiana Arvin Meritor (manufacturer of truck and heavy duty brake equipment) moved production lines to Pen Products at the Pendleton prison, laying off dozens of Hoosier workers in the process.

Federal inmates are being used to replace Union and private sector workers upon our military bases, such as at the Naval Air Station (NAS) at Pensacola, Florida.  180 workers at Lufkin Trailer Division in Lufkin, Texas lost their jobs to prisoners at a nearby Texas prison making the same products for much less and openly competing in the same markets.

Advocates for private sector companies are loudly campaigning for reform of Unicor’s preferential status.  U.S. Representative Bill Huizenga (R-MI) is sponsoring legislation to reform UNICOR  “in an effort to ensure that prison labor ‘is not taking business away from the private sector.’

UNICOR is controlled by a Board of Directors representing the Dept. of Defense, the Attorney General, Agriculture, Industry, Labor and Retailers & Consumers. These six positions are filled by Presidential Appointment with Congressional confirmation needed.  Once confirmed they serve at the pleasure of the President.  Duties of this board include selection of products manufactured, contracting, oversight of the prison labor program and new factory construction and development.  Encompassed within these duties is that of ensuring that UNICOR’s operations do not unfairly impact upon private sector competitors.

President Obama has been publicly accused of using prison labor to advance his green energy agenda, enriching foreign companies and some of the president’s largest campaign donors in the process.  These accusations are in reference to the solar panel industry that has been developing under the President’s energy agenda.  Critics openly accuse the President and his administration of rewarding campaign donors with lucrative government contracts, as reported at Rep. Huizenga’s website:

“One of the alleged rationales for the program is to allow federal agencies to purchase domestically produced solar panels at an affordable price. UNICOR’s website insists its solar panels “are domestically sourced and produced, meeting the requirements of the Buy American Act, Trade Agreement Act, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.”

“However, the agency signed a five-year $219 million contract in 2009 with Taiwan-based Motech Industries to provide the individual solar cells used to assemble the panels.

“It is a common trick employed to get around “Buy American” restrictions, said Rep. Bill Huizenga (R., Mich.). Products manufactured using foreign components still qualify if they are physically assembled in the United States. “It’s yet another outrage on what is happening with our tax dollars,” he told the Washington Free Beacon. Huizenga has sponsored legislation to reform UNICOR in an effort to ensure that prison labor “is not taking business away from the private sector.

“UNICOR typically partners with private companies to install the panels and help the agencies put in place other energy-saving measures. Major beneficiaries of this system include Constellation Energy, which was recently acquired by the Exelon Corporation, a Chicago-based utility provider with deep ties to the Obama administration.

Less than two week after the two firms finalized their merger, Constellation won a 20-year contract to provide renewable energy to 10 State Department facilities, including its Foggy Bottom headquarters, as well as a portion of the White House campus…

“…Constellation’s new parent company, Exelon, is one of the most politically connected firms in the country, as well as one of President Obama’s top sources of campaign contributions.

“Exelon employees, including a number of current and former top executives, have donated at least $246,000 to Obama since 2007, including at least $83,000 this cycle.

“Chicago-based Exelon stands out as one of the best patrons throughout Obama’s political career,” notes Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn. “Its employees make up the largest group of donors this cycle from the energy and natural resource sector.”

“Exelon was Obama’s fourth-largest campaign donor when he ran for Senate in 2006, contributing more than $73,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The firm donated $326,000 to Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008…”

Obviously some of the Beacon’s accusations and Huizenga’s reporting on Exelon and Constellation are politically motivated – but the fact remains that immediately following “candidate” Obama’s announcement of a green and renewable energy initiative as part of his platform, UNICOR began to tool up factories to manufacture solar and renewable energy components.  Today they are deeply involved in the manufacture of solar panels, wind turbines and other renewable energy products.

The trading of American jobs for campaign donations is not acceptable to most Americans – especially in a time of economic downturn accompanied by high unemployment.  That kind of political chicanery is usually reserved for Republicans who are notoriously pro-corporate in their pursuits and have been stalling any form of job or employment legislation to get more Americans back to work.

The foregoing discussion related to the concerns of private apparel manufacturing companies and UNICOR demonstrates that even when approached by top Congressional officials and asked to cease attempting to displace American workers, UNICOR simply looks to other companies with government contracts they can go after.  As the numbers tell us, the cases of Ashland Sales and Service, American Power Source and American Apparel reveals the loss of more than 500 jobs – just in the apparel industry. Loses due to UNICOR competition for contracts on military equipment (canteens, packs, boots, shoes, belts, underwear and helmets), processed food production, furniture (modular office furnishings, desks, chairs, files) office supplies, even the manufacture of wiring and electronic components for military and commercial aircraft are all unrecorded and without review, analysis or investigation.  Last year I co-authored an article for the ALEC Exposed project; “The Hidden History of ALEC and Prison Labor” for The Nation that touched upon the use of prison labor by UNICOR and listed a sampling of some of the products now being made by prisoners.

Today the DoJ controls more than 85% of all prisoner labor in the United States.  Estimates of the number of inmates being used to provide products and services in the US are between 600,000 and 1 million according to Professor Noah Zatz at UCLA Law:

“According to Noah Zatz at UCLA Law , “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.” We have a word for work without pay—slavery—and we know of a work of fiction that depicts a large powerful nation that used large pools of unpaid labor to produce things: The Gulag Archipelago . Think that’s hyperbole? Perhaps you should consider visiting your local state prison.”

As Professor Zatz advises, maybe it’s time we do in fact visit our prisons and see factually what is being manufactured, the companies involved and who supports this continuously increasing reliance upon prison slave labor.  Here is a video we’ve uploaded to VLTP’s YouTube channel:

 (Found at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cUJHaELZQrc&feature=plcp)

This video was made and distributed by the National Correctional Industries Association (NCIA) in cooperation with and funding from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA).  The NCIA is a private association providing oversight over the entire prison industry program called the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) through a taxpayer grant from the DoJ.  They are being paid to oversee themselves at taxpayer expense.  Since 1995 they have had such a contract and grant and under both have expanded prison industry operations three fold.  Today there are more than 200 state prison industry factories operating nationwide with hundreds of thousands of inmates working for companies such as Boeing Aircraft, Starbucks, Nintendo, Microsoft, Anderson Flooring (owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway company) and AT&T.

Walmart produce supplier, Martori Farms in Arizona has been using forced inmate labor for more than two decades to grow, harvest and ship assorted produce to Walmart stores nationwide.  Female inmates receive $2.00 per diem for their hard labor in terrible conditions and extreme weather.

As shown, thousands of our jobs are being stolen – “Insourced” as I’ve labeled it for years – and turned over to prisoners.  Companies no longer have to “outsource” jobs overseas, they can simply “insource” them to prison labor and save the logistical costs of transporting raw materials and finished goods to/from factory to consumer.  They no longer have to look to China, Taiwan or India for cheap labor – that is now found right here in the U.S. in a huge 2.4 million labor force pool located within our state and federal prisons.

These issues have been provided to President Obama over and over again.  I have personally communicated for several years with the BJA, DoJ and the NCIA in attempts to stop the slow bleeding of American jobs to prison labor.  Most of my efforts continue to fall upon deaf ears at the highest levels.  In response I began a Petition at Change.org calling for reform or to abolish the federal PIECP program: http://www.change.org/petitions/enforce-federal-prison-industries-enhancement-certification-program-piecp-laws where citizens can sign and letters will be sent to President Obama and their representatives.

UNICOR’s Board of Directors does indeed serve “at the pleasure” of President Obama.  The President can instruct the board to discontinue pursuits of acquiring government contracts held by private companies – and in the process save hundreds of American worker’s jobs.  If they balk or refuse, they can be replaced with someone who will follow Presidential orders issued from the Oval Office.

With the voiced concerns about jobs issued from the White House it’s time for the President to step-up and do the one thing he can do to protect American’s from further job losses to prison slave labor – order the UNICOR board to cease the pursuit of contracts that will result in the loss of jobs to American workers and the closure of more small businesses.

If it really is President Obama’s “pleasure” to stop job losses and encourage the creation of more jobs, he can do it with the stroke of a pen on a letter to UNICOR…if instead his pleasure is to continue to enrich campaign donors and cronies by trading our jobs for campaign contributions then his silence or lack of responses on this critical issue will continue – and be noted.

It’s possible the concerns voiced by organized labor about the reluctance of President Obama to support American labor and workers is a result of the continuing loss of good jobs…but they don’t address losses to prison industries.  Union leaders are as guilty of ignoring this problem as is the current administration.  Both are uncomfortable with the positions held by the other and at times get vitriolic in their discussions on labor.  How about Union leadership and the administration address this critical exodus of our jobs to prisoners and solve at least on critical factor in the labor dispute?

So Mr. President what exactly is your pleasure regarding the use of prison labor to steal jobs from america’s workers?  If you sincerely wish to create new jobs and preserve existing jobs still available to Americans…how about weighing in on this issue as you seek reelection – and our support and votes?