Convict Labor Plan Assailed by Union Leader

Times Labor Writer

The leading labor official in Southern California on Thursday sharply attacked Gov. George Deukmejian’s plan to permit private businesses to hire thousands of prison inmates for a variety of jobs.

“First we had workfare. Now we have confare,” said William R. Robertson, executive secretary of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO) at a news conference.

Deukmejian’s plan, unveiled Tuesday, calls initially for 7,000 prisoners to be employed at the prevailing wage in jobs such as making clothes, sorting garbage or assembling high-technology parts and equipment. In most instances, these would be minimum wage jobs, according to state officials.

Robertson said that the idea of convict labor has been rejected since the Great Depression and that reviving it would be socially irresponsible. He said he was in favor of prisoners doing work such as making license plates, as they have done for years, and training inmates for work they can do when they get out of prison.


Threat to Jobless Seen

However, Robertson said providing private sector jobs for prisoners could take jobs away from thousands of California’s jobless who are looking for work, including many homeless people in Los Angeles.

“We find this repulsive. We think this governor should focus on providing some relief for these homeless people rather than this obscene act,” said Robertson, a board member of the Greater Los Angeles Partnership for the Homeless.

The California Constitution has barred wardens from contracting out convict labor since 1879, according to Robert Holmes, an aide to state Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside).

In order for Deukmejian’s plan to go into effect, it would require a constitutional amendment approved by a majority of the state’s voters. Such a measure could qualify for the ballot either by a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature or by 595,485 voters signing a petition.

Assemblyman William P. Baker (R-Danville) and Presley are co-sponsoring a bill that would put the amendment on the ballot. Robertson said he expected to enlist the aid of legislative leaders in order to defeat the plan. He cited Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and state Sen. President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) as among those whose aid he anticipated.

However, Brown is not automatically opposed to the idea of such inmate work programs, according to his press secretary Susan Jetton. “His reaction has been that the concept is not a bad concept,” Jetton said.

“However, he said we have to be real careful not to take jobs away from working or want-to-be working men and women who are law abiding,” she added. “The speaker said we don’t want to turn this into a ‘Use a Gun, Get a Job’ program.”

Roberti was not immediately available for comment.

Although there is a longtime ban on contracting out prison labor, California prison inmates make a variety of products, most of which are used by state agencies, according to Craig L. Brown, undersecretary of youth and correctional programs. These include toilets, furniture, milk and shoes, he said. Additionally, inmates do some data processing work and microfilming for state agencies.

Moreover, three years ago the Legislature agreed to let private industries begin hiring wards of the California Youth Authority, who are not covered by the constitutional ban against inmate labor. Undersecretary Brown said 53 wards at the Ventura School are taking reservations for TWA for about three hours a day, being paid $5.67 an hour, “which is what TWA pays equivalent people at its Los Angeles reservations offices.”

He said another 40 wards at sites in Whittier and Norwalk are making $4.25 an hour, the minimum wage, packaging utensils for the El Pollo Loco fast food chain.

Brown said about 20 other states have programs of the type being proposed here, but none of them is nearly as large.

Creation of Jobs Expected

Asked about Robertson’s criticism that the program would take away jobs that might be obtained by the unemployed, Brown responded: “We’ll try to target this program to jobs that otherwise would be leaving the country, such as garment making and toy manufacturing.” He also asserted that the program would create “some low-paid, labor intensive” jobs that would not exist otherwise. “El Pollo Loco wouldn’t have set up a packaging plant without us,” Brown said.

In addition to the proposed constitutional amendment, there would have to be five or six other bills passed to get the program started, said Holmes, Presley’s aide. These would include measures giving tax breaks to businesses who agreed to set up businesses inside prison grounds.

Patrick Henning, chief consultant to the Assembly Labor Committee, said the committee will hold a hearing in late February to examine the issue.