Mass Incarceration and Working Class Interests: Which Side Are the Unions On?

Source: James Kilgore, Labor Studies Journal, Vol. 37 no. 4, December 2012
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From the abstract:
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.