Some prison guard unions have come under criticism, sometimes deserved, for narrowly pursuing their members’ short-term interests in a manner which put them at odds with broader social change movements. That’s what I’d call a craft union approach, and there’s a reason that craft unions never left the kind of impact on this country that the trade union movement – through broad-based organizing – has. Here’s a Madison prison guard local providing a powerful example of the potential of organizing with a broader social vision:

At a meeting recently with four correctional officers, the union’s strategy was laid out in a presentation that will serve as the bargaining unit’s negotiating road map…Far from the “nuts and bolts” wages and benefits, the correctional officers said they will attempt to identify budget problems, how they affect their jobs and why those problems are not the making of the rank-and-file officers. These problems, they say, should not be cited when the state makes what they claim are inadequate economic offers. The officers referred to 1997 Wisconsin Act 283, the state’s Truth in Sentencing Law, that provides for extended supervision and increased penalties for various offenses. The officers claim Wisconsin’s Truth in Sentencing Law was created from model legislation developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council. They say ALEC is a politically conservative organization which held seminars on criminal justice issues such as Truth in Sentencing. The officers say the seminars were sponsored by private sector businesses with an interest in corrections. They named Corrections Corporation of America, a prison-building company that houses Wisconsin inmates out of state, as having ties to ALEC.

…During the presentation, the correctional officers indicated that Truth in Sentencing had contributed greatly to the state’s overcrowding problems. They claimed that the law’s author, then Rep. Scott Walker, patterned Wisconsin’s law after the ALEC model, which was developed by a task force led by private sector firms such as CCA…The point of all this, officers said, is that the prison population explosion was caused in large part by a new law mandating lengthy sentences, and that law was influenced by private companies which directly benefit from greater prison populations. In fact, the officers pointed out, more than 3,000 Wisconsin inmates were incarcerated in out-of-state CCA facilities. Overcrowding is not to be taken lightly, the officers said. It’s a contributing factor to prison riots and other lesser incidents which greatly threaten the safety of employees and inmates alike. A so called “tough on crime” approach is not always productive, the officers said. “Wisconsin correctional institutions are becoming increasingly hostile due to inmate take-a-ways and inmate idleness,” they said. “These actions, by and large, have been enacted by legislators eager to be ‘tough on crime’ with little understanding of the potential ramifications in the correctional setting.”

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