Big Brands making a killing from inmate labor, a slavery replacement

prison laborVery neatly written exposition of how prisons have replaced slavery as a means of augmenting the wealthy of the wealthy – on the backs of society’s most vulnerable.

“Insourcing,” as prison labor is often called, is an even cheaper alternative to outsourcing. Instead of sending labor over to China or Bangladesh, manufacturers have chosen to forcibly employ the 2.4 million incarcerated people in the United States. Chances are high that if a product you’re holding says it is “American Made,” it was made in an American prison.

On average, prisoners work 8 hours a day, but they have no union representation and make between .23 and $1.15 per hour, over 6 times less than federal minimum wage. These low wages combined with increasing communication and commissary costs mean that inmates are often released from correctional facilities with more debt than they had on their arrival. Meanwhile, big businesses receive tax credits for employing these inmates in excess of millions of dollars a year.

A lot more good information here .. and for those who wish to understand the entirety of the prison-industrial complex machinery, there’s Michelle West Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow.

Christie’s dismal record on union/labor rights just got worse

Christie, sweeney, bookerChristie has assaulted vulnerable New Jersey residents and labor rights all the years of his governorship. Next City shares the low-down on what Christie’s gotten away with, and how he’s done it.

Take public education: having promised when he was campaigning to take care of New Jersey’s teachers, after getting into office Christie proceeded to systematically destroy public ed, along with teachers’ and students lives and the bloodshed is far from over. Newark and Camden have been among the communities hardest hit.

Christie has now taken his assault to an entirely new level by wrangling a court victory for his refusal to fund state pensions. It seems clear that Christie wants to make sure that union workers – whose organizations finance Democratic candidate’s campaigns – won’t have comfortable lives or enough money to wage battle.

New Jersey Law Journal writes:

A divided New Jersey Supreme Court ruled June 9 that Gov. Chris Christie is not bound by a 2011 pension reform law that he championed and trumpeted as a highlight of his administration … The ruling, authored by Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, is a clear win for Christie, who will not be required to repay nearly $2.5 billion that he diverted from the pension system the last two years in order to balance the state’s budgets.

So, who is fighting GOP darling Christie? Civil rights groups are taking a bold stand against him for education, worker’s rights and the environment, aren’t they? Well, not exactly. Justice is why it seemed to be such a stunning betrayal of what the NAACP stands for when the New Jersey NAACP President secretly invited Chris Christie to keynote at the 2015 convention luncheon. Some members were appalled, citing damage Christie has caused to people of color in the Garden State. Daniel Hardwick of Camden told the Star-Ledger:

He’s abolished our school district. He’s disenfranchised 77,000 people of color. We no longer can vote for our school board, like all the other cities … So, Chris Christie? As keynote speaker? Everything he’s done is completely contrary to what our organization has fought for.

Christie’s traveling companion the day of the convention lunch was none other than New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Democrat. If you have asked yourself why Dems never take a stand against the harm Christie dishes out, the friendly relationship between these two gentlemen and between Dem Sen. Cory Booker and Christie, might be the answers you’ve been seeking. The friendship should cool now that Christie has shown the breadth of his considerable backside to Sweeney and union members over pension benefits … but will it? The GOP doesn’t rely on union votes to elect its candidates, but the Dems sure do. It seems high time for New Jersey’s Dem politicians to wake up and smell the coffee.

In a different article, New Jersey Law Journal’s Michael Booth shares Sweeney’s reaction to the NJ Supreme Court ruling (emphasis mine),

…Democrats who backed the (pension) reform law received criticism from the public-sector unions, who believed that their interests had been sacrificed for political gain.

But if immediate reaction to the ruling is any indication, Christie’s invitation to the Democratic leadership and the unions to resume pension reform talks might prove to be wishful thinking.

The cooperation of Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, was vital in reaching the 2011 agreement. But at a press conference held after the court’s ruling was released, he made it clear he was not open to further negotiations with Christie.

“I listen to the governor say come back to the table,” Sweeney said. “Who in their right mind would come back to a table and negotiate with someone that didn’t keep the first part of the deal?”

We can only pray that Sweeney’s state of mental health remains intact and that he has finally decided to advocate for the wellbeing and rights of the people who elected him.

Congressman Bill Pascrell says NO WAY to TPP at press conference

Pascrell rally against TPPAt a press conference at UFCW in Clifton, Congressman Bill Pascrell on 28 May 2015 announced his opposition to “Fast-Track authority” of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is now headed for Congressional vote. Although the bill to Fast Track the TPP bill was recently approved by the Senate, New Jersey’s Bob Menendez and Cory Booker voted against it, and now Cong. Pascrell will have his chance to do the same.

Truthout offers an explanation of what Fast Track is and why Americans should rally against it.

When Congress votes on whether to grant the president “fast-track authority” to negotiate the TPP – which would bar Congress from making any changes to the secret pact after it’s negotiated – it will effectively be a vote to pre-approve the TPP itself.

Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders draws our attention to ways Americans will be harmed in his TPP fact sheet. He says,

Let’s be clear: the TPP is much more than a “free trade” agreement. It is part of a global race to the bottom to boost the profits of large corporations and Wall Street by outsourcing jobs; undercutting worker rights; dismantling labor, environmental, health, food safety and financial laws; and allowing corporations to challenge our laws in international tribunals rather than our own court system. If TPP was such a good deal for America, the administration should have the courage to show the American people exactly what is in this deal, instead of keeping the content of the TPP a secret.

Truthout quotes Alan Beatty, who points out that the TPP’s text isn’t secret to everybody – it’s just secret to the public:

Keeping the negotiating texts secret isn’t keeping other countries from getting secret knowledge about the US position in negotiations. They already have this information. “It’s the public that are being kept in the dark,” Beattie wrote. Who or what was harmed when WikiLeaks published the TPP chapter on intellectual property claims?

It does seem a bit counterintuitve that both Bernie Sanders and Cong. Pascrell offer up the financial and physical abuse of foreign workers in their home countries as one of the several reasons that Americans should rally against the TPP. It is certainly true that moral Americans care that the human and economic rights of foreign workers paid 60¢ an hour or less are being exploited, and that we lament the loss of thousands lives to workplace disasters caused by lack of safety protections. But, it is also true that American workers are being forced to compete for jobs with these extremely low-paid workers, so Pascrell’s call for Americans ought to champion “leveling the (workforce) playing field” by calling for protection of these workers doesn’t exactly jibe with the concept of protecting American jobs.

On the other hand, however, I sit up and listen when veteran politicians like these men, with impressive voting histories demonstrating clear support for fair labor and social equality in America, tell me that the secret TPP treaty would send even more American jobs overseas and result in less protections for American workers. I’m also a firm believer that human rights practices benefit all of us, so I fundamentally support their message.

Cong. Pascrell emphatically urged audience members he recognized as residing in several New Jersey Congressional Districts, to contact each of our House Representatives and tell them we want them to vote NO to TPP fast track approval. The Congressman explained, “Politicians don’t just wake up one day and say to themselves, ‘Gee, I’m going to vote against that bill.'” They vote because constituents have been able to make these busy people focus a few minutes’ attention on the importance of a particular issue. He said that we must now reach out to our Congressman and make them understand the dangers of the TPP and our reasons for opposing it – and ask them to vote against it … and then ask our friends and family members to take action as well. Pascrell urged, “Don’t wait for someone else to do (this) for you.”

This is a position with which I wholeheartedly agree. As I often say, democracy isn’t free – and its price tag is our obligation to educate ourselves on the important issues facing our society and voice our opinions about them. Although I know that my Congressman supports legislation like the Trans Pacific Partnership that favors Big Money and the corporate agenda, I also know that this man wants to be elected again. So I make the calls asking Cong. Garrett to vote my way on issues that matter to me. I’ve already asked him to vote NO on the TPP and will continue to let my preferences as a voter in his district, be clearly heard. I have a voice and a vote, and intend to use them both judiciously.

Phone calls are a powerful way of communicating your wishes to elected officials. Use this page to find out who your Congressional Representative is by entering your zip code or address. And here’s a list of Congresspeople’s phone numbers.

Prison to Whole Foods Pipeline: artisanal foods crafted by inmates

Prison work in progress
Flickr: kathrynsdays / Via Kathryndays Flickr
Fortune publishes the oddest stuff. This intriguing article covers the burgeoning artisanal food prison business, thriving because its labor force is prison inmates that earn – get this – 60¢ an hour. Although, Colorado Corrections Institute director Steve Smith points out, a whole $3-400 a month can be earned with incentives (emphasis mine). Naturally, the prison industry itself profits handsomely from these relationships as middleman and overseer, making it pretty clear what has been driving Big Money’s strategy to lock up 1% of the United States population. The US is returning to a slave labor model … and calling it “help” for prison inmates. UK politics professor Genevieve LeBaron says,

The practice has long been controversial. Prisoners earn meager wages and have no recourse if they’re mistreated, LeBaron argues. Plus, they can take jobs from law-abiding citizens. “It’s hugely concerning in the face of economic instability and unemployment.”

Artisanal Foods

Buzzfeed writes: 8 Artisanal Foods You Didn’t Know Were Made By Prisoners: “Inmates help make a surprising amount of the feel-good food products you eat, from cage-free eggs to goat cheese sold at Whole Foods.” Artisanal foods are the high-priced items sold in elitist markets like Whole Foods, and their high price tags are supposed to reflect intensive care and handling by skilled workers. Here’s a definition of artisanal I like:

In Ye Goode Olde Days, most things people owned and consumed were made by hand. Artisans were skilled craftspeople who created products that required extensive training and specialization to produce. In Medieval Europe, artisans formed guilds to set standards for their crafts and prevent competition. But when production moved to factories, machines and factory workers replaced skilled craftspeople. The mechanization of food processing came later, but today, most foods sold in the United States are processed in factories. Obesity and diabetes followed.

Dissent Magazine shares public reactions to the Forbes exposé.

It’s not clear what shocked people most about the report in Fortune that Whole Foods Market sells goat cheese and tilapia prepared with prison labor—the horrendous exploitation of prisoners for a base rate less than one-tenth of Whole Foods’ starting wage, or the fact that even after paying prisoner-workers sixty cents an hour, that tiny wheel of goat cheese still costs upward of seven dollars. Whichever reason it was, for many the story disturbed the experience that Whole Foods carefully cultivates…

So when customers found out that prisoners were being paid appallingly low wages for helping to create some of the artisanal foods that line the store’s shelves, they were outraged. Why shouldn’t they be? Beyond exploiting a vulnerable population of workers housed in the nation’s prisons, Whole Foods had essentially defrauded these customers.

The pretty image of Whole Foods’ good labor practices has been ripped away, and now customers are getting a glimpse at the ugly reality beneath it.

Makes me glad I’m never tempted to pay the exorbitant prices for artisanal food products and don’t shop at Whole Foods.

Nike continues a long tradition of youth exploitation

Nike child labor exploitation

Nike child labor exploitationSome kids buy Nikes. Others kids make them.

When I shared this graphic on Facebook, friend Leen de Weerd-Mosley commented that Nike’s long history of youth exploitation,

… all started with their logo. They held a competition, and paid 50 euros to the student who designed it. Nope, no royalties … Paid $35 in 1971; offered 500 shares worth $150 when it really became public in 1983

The Daily Mail tells us

At the party in her honour in 1983, an early Nike employee joked, ‘As everyone here knows, (Carol Davidson) invented the Nike swoosh and got paid the outrageous sum of $35 bucks for it’


Davidson was eventually gifted 500 shares of Nike stock worth $150 at that time, that are today valued at nearly $650,000.

Postpone Colombian trade agreement until workers are treated right

It’s hard to understand why the Free Trade agreement the US has made with Colombia is a bad thing, but this article lays the issues out pretty well. Basically, workers aren’t treated too well down in Colombia and when labor activists try to step in and organize unions for the workers’ protection, the activists are, “assassinated, threatened, and intimidated, and the perpetrators enjoy almost complete impunity.”

Union leaders and other worker advocates, seem to be saying that the US should throw its weight behind trade embargoes to force Colombia to improve conditions for its country’s work force. That means a US moratorium on trade with Colombia and agreements to trade, until worker conditions are put right. A few days ago, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka wrote President Obama asking him to, “postpone indefinitely the implementation of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement”. How about it, Prez?