Mass incarceration and working class interests: Which side are the unions on?


From Labor Studies

Mass incarceration has been one of the most important social policy failures in the U.S. in the last half century. This process has driven millions of members of the poorest sectors of the working class to prison and jails with African-Americans and more recently Latinos being the chief victims. While trade unions would be logical organizations to contest mass incarceration, they have consistently ignored the importance of mass incarceration for working class communities of color, instead choosing to defend the jobs of their members, even when their members are complicit in locking up innocent people and subjecting them to onerous conditions. This article is one of the first attempts to define mass incarceration as a working class issues and critique the trade unions general failure to take responsibility for poor people against the War on Drugs, truth in sentencing laws, racial profiling and other measures that have enabled the incarceration of millions of marginalized workers.

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Since the early 1980s mass incarceration has become a critical fixture on the U.S. social landscape. Prison and jail populations have increased almost fivefold since 1980 with similar increments in the ranks of those under parole and probation. Historically many labor analysts and unions have regarded incarcerated people as an aberrant sector of the working class. Labels such as “lumpen proletariat,” “criminals,” and the “undeserving poor” have often been applied. In some instances, people doing poorly paid production work while incarcerated have been categorized as “scabs” who undermine hard won union gains. Such thinking is at odds with current realities, if it ever was appropriate. The recent patterns of criminalization have led to the imprisonment of significant swaths of working class people of color, largely the targets of the War on Drugs or anti-immigrant repression. Despite the fact that this racialized roundup now holds millions of workers captive, the process remains largely outside the scope of those concerned with labor and working class organization. Old stereotypes still keep “ex-convicts” and “felons” at the margins of labor organization and analysis. This article argues that unions and labor-oriented organizations need to oppose mass incarceration and adopt new strategies to incorporate a broad working class perspective in their approach to the criminal justice system. The author emphasizes that such an approach would compel unions to act in the interests of the broad working class, which at time may even be in conflict with the immediate interests of their members.

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Article details
Kilgore, J. (2013). Mass Incarceration and Working Class Interests: Which Side Are the Unions On? Labor Studies Journal, 37 (4), 356-372 DOI: 10.1177/0160449X13482732

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