Unions Labor over Prisoner Right-to-Work Issue

By Sands, David R. | Insight on the News, September 19, 1994 | Go to article overview

Unions Labor over Prisoner Right-to-Work Issue


Sands, David R., Insight on the News


Private employers aren't the only ones upset about prison labor. Some of their employees aren't thrilled, either.

Labor unions have long complained that prison workers -- sometimes paid as little as 20 cents an hour -- depress wages and working conditions for their own members. And because many prison industries concentrate on low-tech or labor-intensive industries, the pressure on employers in those industries to cut wages or scrimp on health and safety conditions intensifies, the unions charge.

"Allowing prison-made goods to compete with those made by free labor will inevitably cost money," argued Segundo Mercado-Llorens, director of government affairs for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, during a congressional hearing in July "Every job that is lost by law-abiding citizens due to competition from prison labor means lost tax revenues to the states, increases in some form of public assistance to the unemployed, lost skills to free labor and heightened cynicism and hostility toward government in general."

The issue has centered on a key point: Should prisoners be covered under federal minimum-wage laws?

Courts traditionally have held that prison workers are not "employees" as defined in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act and thus are exempt from a whole panoply of federal labor provisions, including the minimum wage, pension law, unemployment compensation, Social Security and collective-bargaining rights.

But in a 1992 Arizona case, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that more than 600 convicts working in Arizona's correctional industries were state "employees" and thus subject to FLSA provisions. Several prisoner lawsuits have maintained the same ideal. (While most Arizona prisoners earn 40 to 80 cents an hour, about 60 prisoners in two special programs receive $4.25 an hour.)

Officials at state correctional industries, which employ about 53,586 inmates nationally, are alarmed by the Arizona ruling. …

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