As the implications of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attack on collective bargaining begin to sink in, some local officials have eagerly embraced one possibility opened up by the new anti-bargaining law: replacing union workers with convict labor.
This is not a new idea, at least not in Racine County. Last summer, budget problems led the county to try to replace unionized seasonal workers with prison labor. Teamsters Local 43 sued, arguing that the move violated the union contract. The judge sided with the union, but changes in the state’s collective bargaining law since that time have altered the legal picture, and Racine County administrators are taking another look at the idea.
How has the new law changed things? Not only did it strip unionized workers of their right to negotiate over health care and retirement issues, it also removed their contractual rights to their jobs – in the sense that they can no longer claim that certain jobs fall within the scope of the union contract and should be filled by union workers. This gives state and local officials the ability to hire private contract workers and even prison inmates to take those positions.
This is a "win-win" situation, according to Racine County Executive Jim Ladwig. While conceding that the idea is unpopular, he argued that "once people see things are still running smoothly, running efficiently, a lot of the fears will be alleviated." While the prisoners do not get paid for their work, they may earn time off their sentences, he said.