On September 9th, prisoners all over the country went out on strike against slavery in the United States.
You read that right. It may sound like an exaggeration, but slavery continues to this day across the US, made legal by the 13th amendment.
“But the 13th Amendment abolished slavery,” you might be thinking. You’d be at least partially correct. The 13th Amendment ended the traditional use of chattel slavery that had been the backbone of the South’s economy in the lead-up to the Civil War. However, it left open a very big loophole for slavery to continue in a new form.
To quote the amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime … shall exist within the United States.” This meant that slavery could be moved into the prisons, with prisoners sometimes even working the same plantations that had once been worked by slaves.
Just as slaves resisted their own servitude, prisoners today are fighting for their freedom too, engaging in strikes that have involved at least 20,000 inmates nationwide. These strikes, which were called for by the Incarcerated Worker Organizing Committee (IWOC), represent an incredibly important step in the movement against mass incarceration in the United States.
For years people have talked about challenging mass incarceration, about uprooting the New Jim Crow, even about abolishing the prison industrial complex. But the strategies for challenging these structures have been few and far between, and almost none of them have centered on the agency of prisoners themselves… until now.
Now, prisoners are proving their own collective strength, their own capacity to change the situation they find themselves in. They are transforming prison abolition from a principle into a program, from a motto into a movement.
Across the country, fast food workers have been building their own movement through the Fight for $15. These are workers who work erratic hours, without benefits, and always, always for low wages. What many of these workers are unaware of is that the uniforms they wear, the patties they serve, and the cutlery their customers eat with are all made by prisoners who earn even less than they do.
Inmates who work in prison often make only pennies per hour, and some make nothing at all.
Some may remember the name Scott Walker. In 2011, Governor Scott Walker attempted to break the backbone the labor movement in Wisconsin, a state that has traditionally been home to some of the most vibrant and, at times, militant unions in the country. Some might remember what his new law meant to the labor movement, and might better remember the reaction that workers had towards it. However, most people never heard about the part of the law that said unions would lose the ability to maintain “union-only” jobs.
That meant that many jobs that were once held by union workers would now be given to incarcerated workers in Wisconsin, a state with the highest rate of black male incarceration in the country. These incarcerated workers didn’t just earn less – they earned nothing at all.
That’s slavery. That’s slavery. And it’s being carried out on the backs of the rest of the working class.
Fast food workers won a recent victory, finally winning a path to $15/hr in NYS. Though it may be obvious, it should be said that this wasn’t simply a gift from a benevolent governor. It was a hard-fought concession that was won through wave after wave of strikes carried out by countless courageous fast food workers.
Now, incarcerated workers have picked up that mantle. But just like fast food workers, they can’t win it alone. Join the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, get organized, and help build a movement on both sides of the bars.