Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Slave Labor - In the trenches comparing treatment between the Haves and Have-Nots...

I think we should all step back for a moment and take a closer look at the manipulations that have occurred over the past two years involving our collapsing economy, corporate involvement and how that relates to the current tensions in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and elsewhere. Today there is no doubts left in anyone's mind that corporations such as JP Morgan, Bank of America, Leahman Brothers and other financial institutions were responsible for the collapse of the housing bubble, and the economy in general. Many of us lost our retirement savings, 401K's and other investments due to these machinations that collapsed everything.

The Government bailed all of these corporations out, feeling that unless they did - with our money - the financial sector would completely dissolve bankrupting the rest of our economy and creating a financial chaos in the U.S. of previously unknown proportions.

Now I have to admit I'm no economist and this is probably an amateurish description of how all this came about and resulted in where we are today. That being said, please follow this train of thought a moment of two longer before hitting the back button...

We bailed out these banks and investment corporations to the tune of more than 3/4 of a trillion dollars. This was money belonging to the taxpayers. Much of it has been transferred to our children and their children and this will be paid for by them in the future. Instead of loaning that money out to those in need of loans, the banks and investment firms used the money to acquire other financial companies or corporations that were floundering. At the same time they rewarded themselves with huge bonuses paid to top executives out of the "bail-out money" the government made available to them.

I believe that another use of the billions we've provided to these corporations has been used to fund lobbying and many campaigns of predominantly conservative Republican politicians that advance the agendas of these corporations at the state and national level(s). As I wrote earlier this week, Koch Industries had an unusual and cozy relationship with Kathleen Sebilius in Kansas when she was Governor, going so far as to "loan" her an economist to provide advice on cutting government spending in that state. As that diary also reported, Sebilius as our Secretary of the U.S. Health and Human Services subsequently approved an application submitted by Koch Industries for a cut of the $5 billion set aside for the Early Retiree Reinsurance Program offered under President Obama's Healthcare initiative. After fighting against the healthcare program from the start, Koch was one of the first in line with their hands out to take money available from that very program. At the same time they continued to fund conservative efforts of repealing the program altogether through direct individual political donations, lobbying and support of candidates that share the same conservative ideology as the Koch brothers.

Throughout it appears that our money provided to these corporate interests (such as Koch Industries) in the bail-out and other initiatives, is being used to further the goals of those corporations against us. Where Republicans have taken office - swept into Governorships, Senate and House seats in 2010, there has been a concerted effort of furthering the goals and agenda of the likes of these corporate elite. One of the more important parts of that agenda is the elimination of Unions and collective bargaining. Another is the matter of abortion and freedom of choice issues. Conservatives have continued battles on these issues for years now. They refuse to accept the opinions of the Court in actions such as Row V. Wade and those involving Unions and collective bargaining and right to work initiatives. They have managed to keep their views and arguments before the public for many decades now as they pursue a reversal of the laws pertaining to both.

In the run-up to the election last year, and even today, both of these key issues remain at the core of the Conservative agenda. Now some may ask how can the issue of fair wages and collective bargaining be related to prison privatization and prison industries - and my least favorite topic, Slave Labor? It is connected in a couple of ways that may not be immediately apparent to most.

First, since the mid 1990's corporations have been using federal laws to merge their production and manufacturing with prison industry operations. Under the PIE program they have been allowed to "partner" with those various state prison industries to use cheap inmate labor to manufacture their products. As these partnerships increased, more and more operations were moved out of the private sector and into the prison environment. This removed jobs from the private sector and put them in the hands of inmates. The prison setting prohibits unionizing, collective bargaining and striking for better or even fair wages by the inmate work force. They are paid no benefits; health insurance, unemployment protection, paid vacations or paid time off. In many states OSHA is not allowed to inspect or become involved in work-place safety or investigate accidents. Inmate workers hurt on the job are treated by the prison medical staff - not by outside work comp physicians or facilities (at the expense of the state taxpayer). In short, all of those things sought by corporate employers and fought for on their behalf by conservatives were found in the prison industries. This was recognized by companies as the nirvana sought by them; low wages, no unions, no benefit or retirement packages and responsibility for worker injuries and upkeep subsidized by the taxpayer. Does all this not sound exactly like what their end goals are for American workers?

How good are the products produced by prisoners in these industries? Are their products efficient and of the same quality as those produced in the private sector? Should we be afraid to fly on aircraft manufactured by Boeing that has dozens of sensitive electronic and cabling products made by prisoners? I say no to the quality and yes to the question of safety. Let's take a look at one example of why I answer these questions as I have.

Republicans - and in general, all politicians and the general public proudly profess that we support our troops fighting in Afghanistan and Irag. As I wrote in a previous diary, many - in fact most - of the equipment and materials being used by our troops today are made in prison. The Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR) has a near monopoly on armed forces gear and materials. Many of these products are manufactured in the prisons, wholesaled to Halliburton (or similar companies) and then retailed to the Department of Defense. One of those products made by the prisoners and distributed to the military serving overseas now, is helmets. Of course helmets have been a necessary part of any armed force, army or military body since the first World War.

Recently a private manufacturer received a government contract to manufacture some of those products for the Army and nearly all of them for the Marines. The contract called for this private manufacturer to utilize UNICOR to manufacture part of the orders (obviously to reduce costs) and it did so, using one of the factories owned by UNICOR in Texas. When many of the helmets made by the prison industry were inspected they immediately failed ballistics testing. Forty-four thousand of more than 600,000 such helmets were immediately recalled. Then it was learned that in 2007-08 UNICOR was awarded non-competitive contracts by the government to manufacture all of the helmets for the U.S. Army and Marines. Questions of safety were raised - along with those of using inmate labor at a time when our economy is in the tank, and millions of American workers were out of jobs and needed employment. Here is a quote taken from an article written by Derek Gilna that came out today in Prison Legal News:
"It is not widely known that UNICOR utilizes poorly paid and often indifferently supervised prisoners to manufacture not only goods for use in the federal prison system, but also products that are in direct competition with private-sector businesses. In the past UNICOR has obtained multiple contracts to make ballistic helmets for the U.S. military, and in 2007 it was awarded a non-competitive Army contract pursuant to a provision in federal procurement regulations.

"UNICOR was awarded another non-competitive contract in 2008, which comprised 100% of the helmet needs for the U.S. Marine Corps and effectively shut out private industry. According to Rep. Carney’s office, in both cases UNICOR’s products failed to pass first article testing – the process that is designed to ensure the equipment meets specifications – and after an 18-month delay, not a single acceptable helmet had been delivered.

“Because the inmates were making the helmets, the cost was down, but the main concern was the product being substandard,” said Rep. Carney. He also was critical of the fact that UNICOR was awarded the contracts during a time when the industrial and manufacturing sections of the U.S. economy were shedding private-sector jobs. “At a time when our economy is rebounding, there are other private firms eager and able to take on this important work, which will lead to the creation of crucial jobs in the United States,” Rep. Carney noted."

Even in the face of issues such as safety for our military personnel, the government is comfortable with awarding such non-competitive contracts for the manufacture of such important and critical equipment as helmets, necessary to keep our troops safe - to prison inmates. This is the federal prison side of the slave labor topic. The PIE program is the state side of the same subject and the government - specifically the Department of Justice is bullish on using state prison inmates to manufacture private sector products that all of us use daily. As I've done previously, here again is the link to the recruiting video used by the National Correctional Industries Association, the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the DOJ to recruit and encourage more private sector manufacturers to move their operations into a "nearby prison industry" to take advantage of highly skilled and willing prisoners...

This PIE Program allows private U.S. corporations to gain access to the vast number of prison inmates as a labor source. It not only allows it, the DOJ and the prison industries encourage it by informing companies that they don't have to outsource jobs overseas where shipping of their products back to the states cut into their profits. Instead they tell them to simply move entire operations into prison industries in the U.S. to take advantage of cheap but skilled labor and allow them to continue to use "Made in the U.S.A." labeling. At the same time the DOJ works hard to hide the use of prison labor by these participating corporations by not enforcing requirements that prison made goods be clearly marked as "Made in Prison by Prison Labor" labels on packaging.

By being allowed access to this captive work force, more and more jobs in the private sector have been steadily lost over the past 15 years. Private sector companies and businesses competing against those using slave labor have slowly been disappearing from the job and sales markets as pricing for their products were underbid or undercut time and again. Another example of this is occurring in Montana as I write this.

Because these same corporations that are using foreign labor to make their products are tiring of paying for shipment of those products back to the U.S., they moved operations into the high profit arena of prison industries to eliminate those costs. At the same time they are supporting an agenda to lower wages and eliminate any form of collective bargaining - public and private - in the U.S. so they can move their operations from inside our prisons and back from China and elsewhere. The obvious purpose of eliminating any form of unionized labor in America is to implement the same wages and conditions they enjoy from those other sources of labor. Just today MSNBC had a report on jobs in the U.S. and reported that jobs are available now, but the wages are much lower and the good paying jobs will never return. This clearly shows how effective this conservative agenda on behalf of their corporate sponsors has been.

As Conservative Republicans win governorships, senate and house seats across the U.S., this agenda I'm speaking of, has been promoted by the likes of ALEC and the Koch brothers and introduced in each state where they prevailed. No need to discuss Wisconsin here, we already know the agenda is in place there and that a phone call from a "Koch" will be quickly answered by Governor Walker as demonstrated yesterday. Down in Florida, Rick Scott won the gubernatorial election there last year and is calling for privatizing most/all of the prison system in that state - even with 8,000 empty beds in state run facilities - and privatization of education and other state programs. Same thing is happening in Indiana and Ohio regarding right to work legislation, union busting and privatization. In these states, conservative leaning media trumpet the benefits of passing such legislation with articles filled with statistics, facts and statements from supporters. Many of these facts and statistics are questionable and avoid informing us of the impact upon wages and employment is such legislation becomes law.

This site provides much information on the progress of privatization of state assets and programs, and the problems that followed. The truth is we have been involved in a war over wages and privatization for more than two decades now but the public has been blissfully unaware of the actual implications of what the issues mean to them as taxpayers and workers. With the explosion of protesting and demonstrating across the Midwest, many have finally been awakened and realize what is being jeopardized by the privatization and right to work initiatives advanced by the Conservative factions in their states.

What many still do not realize though, is that the assets owned by the states are the property of the taxpayers. This includes prisons and prison industries. Once an asset belonging to the citizens is sold, it is gone. It now becomes the property of the buyer to do with as they please. With prisons that cost millions of tax dollars to build, the transfer of those facilities to corporate ownership removes that asset from state ownership, but the taxpayers continue to pay the costs of imprisonment of inmates, but the money goes to the owners of the prison. Once they have control of the facilities it's a done deal and from there on out, the state and taxpayers are held captive to calls for increased spending to continue to house and provide care for the state inmates. While in this time of corporate driven economical downturn, the last thing we should be doing is giving/selling/transferring more and more taxpayer owned assets over to these corporations. We've already given them more than they deserve and they continue to stand before us with their hands outstretched, not satisfied until we also relinquish all right to our jobs and fair wages.

Now Louisiana is proposing to turn two of the state's prison facilities over to county Sheriff's to reduce state costs of incarceration while two more are about to be sold to private prison corporations that already run them under contract. A Google search about privatization efforts of state prisons returns numerous articles informing that this trend is widespread. There is no benefit to these privatizations to either the state or their taxpayers. Many articles, reports and other studies reveal time and again that there is no real savings through privatization and recidivism is not reduced by using private prison operations. Additionally, most states are now suffering serious financial and budgetary shortfalls and as many now realize the first cuts that are made are within the prisons themselves followed quickly by cuts in education, health programs and finally senior programs. Colorado is no exception and as this article informs, at the top of the list are cuts to prison programs.

At the same time these budgetary measures are being made, reducing private sector jobs along with rehabilitation programs to the inmates, each state is increasing their corrections budgets, led by Arizona. Governor Brewer turns every spare penny available in that state over to the DOC and the private prisons operated in that state. Even as lawmakers and Governors promise reducing their prison costs, they increase the budgets more each year. Today Corrections is one of the largest line item expenditures in most state's budgets, yet the "return" on the money spent is negligible as recidivism continues to climb. We're just not getting the bang for our buck that is necessary to impact upon reducing incarceration. We've already decreased arrests and crime in the U.S. since 1990, but can't get a grip on incarceration. The number one reason why is the involvement of corporations and profits derived by keeping prison populations at an all time high. There is absolutely no incentive for corporations to want to reduce the rates of incarceration and put themselves out of business. Why can't our Democratic lawmakers and the public see this?

In conclusion it boils down to simple terms. To drive down wages, companies have moved their operations overseas and into prisons. As the jobs disappeared, more and more Americans have been put upon unemployment and other social programs. This is all driven by the top 1% in the U.S. who hold all the wealth. They use the funds generated from profits to pay lobbyists to buy our legislative members to further their goals. Their bought lawmakers - mostly conservative - use ALEC (funded in part by Koch Industries and their foundations) to propose and enact legislation favorable to the corporations. These legislative efforts include(d): increased criminal laws, truth in sentencing, mandatory minimums, abolishing parole, and expansion of prison industries among others. Using the inmates those laws incarcerate, the companies move operations into the prison industries to take advantage of that large workforce to avoid having to pay standard wages to American workers. Conservatives have worked overtime to put their corporate masters in the cat-bird seat regarding imprisonment and profiting from that incarceration through privatization of prisons.

Now, again using the profits generated from a captive work force, the same companies fund conservative efforts of stifling private sector wages through initiatives proposed by the same lawmakers they always rely upon. They are funding the current legislation to increase privatization, eliminate Unions and collective bargaining rights. In the place of those they are promoting right to work legislation to now make it possible to have access to civilian labor at far reduced wages. All of this is in pursuit of more profits to make themselves richer and richer...and us poorer and poorer to the point we will be willing to work in skilled jobs for minimum wage. But wait, they're even pushing for the elimination of minimum wages in many states. So even that safety net is in jeopardy to workers. Now they believe the time is right to take over for our governments - state and federal - on most issues, believing there is no real need for government involvement in our society, as corporations can run it better.

Somehow we must realize that giving this cabal more and more tax dollars and the power and influence they purchase with those dollars is self-defeating. We should never have bailed out the banks and Wall Street as they brought the entire thing down around their own necks. We now see the kind of reward they have for our bailing them out - enslavement.

We have to wake up to the threats to our freedoms, jobs, livelihood, wages and fundamental rights before we're all working as slave laborers at wages comparable to China...for that's what these insidious bastards want for all of us. In the current the Unions go, so go we. Hate 'em or love 'em, without 'em we lose all voice in opposition to the course planned for us by the likes of Charles and David Koch, ALEC and their conservative lawmakers serving as lackeys...

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