Prisoners Who Work are Organizing into Unions and Plan to Strike

Did you know that prisoners who work while behind bars are organizing into unions and plan to strike?

I didn’t know this until last week.

The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) announced plans to organize demonstrations inside every prison, jail, and ICE detention facility in North America.

IWOC is part of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, aka “Wobblies”), a union representing 9,000 workers from all industries in the US.

Prisoner-led unions are not recognized by the NLRB. That’s probably why I didn’t know about them until last week.

The prisoner unions have four demands
* Repeal of the Thirteenth Amendment
* Closure of most jails and prisons in all states, including federal prisons
* Closure of all private prisons
* Release of all political prisoners in US prisons.

These are lofty goals. I’m probably not the only one who thinks they are unattainable.

Repeal the Thirteenth Amendment, though? That’s the Amendment that abolished slavery. Why would they want to repeal that?

Because the 13th Amendment abolished slavery everywhere in the US except as a punishment for crime. I guess I never knew that second part. I certainly never equated prisoners doing time for their crime to slavery as we know it from the 1700s and 1800s.

Apparently 900,000 inmates work full-time in American prisons for little or no compensation. Most states don’t pay them anything. Of the states that pay prisoners, most starting wages are around 20 to 30 cents per hour.

With respect to prisoners joining unions, this law was settled nearly 45 years ago when the United States Supreme Court held that the First Amendment does not afford incarcerated workers the right to unionize. See, Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union, Inc. The Court noted, “It is clear beyond argument that no association of prisoners may operate as a true labor union pursuant to the NLRA.”

So basically, while interesting, this is much ado about nothing.


Matt Austin is a nationwide management labor lawyer. Labor laws govern virtually all private-sector employees regardless of union membership. Proactive management of labor relations is critical to maintaining flexibility and increasing profit.

Matt also runs Austin Legal’s HR Legal Compliance Program that, for a small monthly fee, ensures HR decisions are protected by the attorney-client privilege.

Matt’s experience is deeply rooted in helping manage many aspects of his clients’ businesses. To effectively manage labor relations, he must also manage budgets, forecasts, new growth areas, and projected market corrections. High emotional intelligence is also critical to negotiating union contracts and to properly advise HR Legal Compliance members through the nuances of the law, its application to their companies, and how it will be received by employees.

You can reach Matt via email at