Thanks to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) prison chain gangs are no longer a thing of the past. After successfully ramming through legislation that dismantles almost all collective bargaining rights for civil servants, Walker has now turned to prisoners to fill jobs that used to be held by unionized workers.
According to the Madison Capital Times, part of Gov. Walker’s bill strips unions of the right to claim certain work as a “union only” job. As a result inmates have been able to step in and fill what used to be good-wage jobs not for pay, but for time off of their sentences.
Racine County took advantage of this measure almost immediately, using inmates for landscaping, painting, and other basic maintenance around the county that had previously been done by county workers. Just last year the union had successfully sued to prevent the county from using prison labor in lieu of unionized county workers, but under Walker’s law the union no longer has the right to challenge the move.
This development illustrates how sticky these measures are going to be. Prisoners should have the opportunity to work and develop or maintain skills if we hope for rehabilitation. And obviously paying someone nothing to do work is more affordable to the taxpayer than paying another a good wage.
But this sets up a race to the bottom. Public sector jobs will no longer benefit the public but instead the private prison industry providing the labor. Wages drop and more citizens become part of the working poor.
The move also muddies up traditional labor protections that union jobs guaranteed. With municipalities enjoying a shield of qualified immunity from suit, what happens should a prisoner be injured on the job? How is treatment for those injuries compensated and what happens should a prisoner become permanently disabled in such an accident? The fact that these questions are even again relevant should signal why unions remain critical to the stability and success of the middle class.
Photo from TheGiantVermin via flickr.