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Ending Mass Incarceration Can Help Build the Labor Movement

Workers caught in the grip of the criminal justice system aren’t just denied their human rights by oppressive police and judges — they’re held under the thumb of their bosses. Mass incarceration is devastating for the labor movement.

A fence surrounds the Cook County jail complex on April 9, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Nearly everybody understands that having a criminal record hurts an individual’s ability to find work. Those on the Right justify this by saying employers have a right to refuse employment to criminals. Those on the Left disagree, arguing for immediate reforms like “banning the box” as well as overall decarceration. But while the responses may differ, the reality that incarceration has negative economic consequences for individuals is recognized across the spectrum.

A lesser-understood aspect of incarceration is its aggregate effect on workers’ collective ability to secure higher wages, along with better benefits and working conditions. A new paper in the American Journal of Sociology, “The Disciplining Effect of Mass Incarceration on Labor Organization” by Adam D. Reich and Seth J. Prins, takes up the question. The authors find that mass incarceration has a significant chilling effect on the labor movement, making decarceration a critical undertaking for a renewed socialist movement that recognizes the necessity of workplace organization.

Reich and Prins acknowledge that broad shifts in the economy are fundamental to the decline of the labor movement in the United States. But at the end of the day, unions are formed by people who must personally take initiative to organize and join them. Therefore, alongside an evaluation of the changing economic terrain, it’s necessary to ask what disposes people to workplace organizing as a means of solving their individual problems — and in turn what makes them disinclined to organize. This is the level at which mass incarceration comes into play.

Unique Pressures

Reich and Prins contend that workers with criminal records are likely to be more fearful of retaliation for workplace organizing than their counterparts. This is because the economic consequences for them are greater, precisely because having a criminal record so drastically limits job opportunities. If they lose their job as punishment for taking a stand, there’s no guarantee there will be another one waiting for them.

The authors also enumerate other factors that are likely to play a role in diminishing formerly incarcerated workers’ likelihood of joining a union, including parole obligations that require steady employment, as well as the well-documented depoliticizing effect of exposure to the criminal justice system in general. Together, these unique pressures increasing the perceived risks of collective action create a dampening effect on labor organizing among formerly incarcerated people.

Reich and Prins’s research bears this out, finding that “high rates of criminal justice exposure are negatively associated with involvement in labor organization.” The researchers examined data from OUR Walmart’s efforts to organize workers at Walmart, which is the nation’s top employer and which also hires people with criminal records. Controlling for other factors, they found that both community incarceration rates and individual exposure to the criminal justice system corresponded negatively and significantly with people’s odds of joining the OUR Walmart campaign.

The researchers also compared county incarceration rates with the success rate of union representation elections. Again, controlling for other factors, they found that “high levels of community-level criminal justice exposure are negatively associated with workplace-level organizing success, regardless of whether individuals in the unit have themselves been involved in the criminal justice system.”

This means all workers in a particular bargaining unit are negatively impacted by the chilling effect of justice system contact on workplace organizing. And because unions raise wages and improve conditions for workers across whole industries, including nonunion workers, the entire working class is materially undermined when workers’ incarceration history stops them from joining their coworkers in voting to form a union.

Finally, Reich and Prins looked at national labor data and found that having been incarcerated “persistently decreases one’s odds of quitting one’s job, which we interpret as evidence that, at the individual level, the experience of incarceration increases the extent to which a worker is beholden to an employer.” This supports the notion that “workers’ exposure to the criminal justice system increases employers’ power over them, making workers less likely to advocate for themselves on the job” and therefore less likely to organize collectively, connecting all their other findings.

Defund the Police

Right now, in every city in the United States and as well as many suburbs and small towns, people are demanding an end to racist police violence. Political organizers are trying hard to help people justifiably outraged by the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis see that the solution is not simply reformed policing, but fewer police and prisons altogether.

The demand that’s emerging in real time, supported by many criminal justice activists and socialists as well as an astonishingly large number of previously politically inactive people, is to defund the police and divert the resources to necessary social programs. Socialists already have good reasons to support this push to defund the police, but Reich and Prins’s research adds an additional dimension and urgency to this initiative.

Socialists believe an organized and united working class that can exert power by withholding its labor is the key to egalitarian social transformation. It follows from the importance socialists place on the organization of the working class, particularly at the point of production, that we must work strategically to clear obstacles to that organization. One of those obstacles is mass incarceration, which makes it all the more urgent to work for decarceration — for its own sake, yes, but also for the sake of the labor movement.