December 4, 2009 Volume 110 Number 23

Portland renews use of prison labor in parks

For Portland City Council, it seemed like a routine matter: reauthorizing the use of prisoner labor in city parks. But Laborers Local 483 Business Manager Richard Beetle saw something objectionable about it.

“I think it’s really embarrassing that we have to reduce ourselves to this level to provide services,” Beetle told City Council at an Oct. 28 session. Local 483 represents about 600 city workers, including 92 employed by Portland Parks and Recreation, which is overseen by Commissioner Nick Fish.

Beetle told City Council that the Park bureau’s use of prison labor is just part of a shift toward a “low-road” labor model, with heavy reliance on low-wage part-time temporary seasonal employees. Union employment at Parks and Recreation has fallen one-sixth in the last seven years.

Meanwhile, since 2003, the City has used 10-man work crews from the Columbia River Correctional Institute, a minimum security prison in Northeast Portland. Dressed in uniforms that say “inmate,” they clear brush, pick up leaves, clean up homeless camps and storm damage, spread gravel and bark dust, and dig irrigation ditches. Only lower-level inmates with good behavior are let out for the work, and they’re supervised by a corrections officer.

In the 2008-2009 fiscal year, Parks and Recreation used 71 one-day inmate work crews, totaling 5,399 hours of work, according to figures the bureau provided to the union. In return, the City paid $81,446 to Columbia River Correctional Institute. That works out to $15 an hour per worker.

Prisoners on the Parks work crews get paid in prison scrip valued at $2 an hour, which they spend in the prison commissary. They cannot be unionized.

Parks and Recreation has also used offenders doing court-ordered community service since 1984, including 859 individuals in 2008, for a total of 10,245 work hours.

Beetle was one of four citizens to testify against the reauthorization. John Ross, speaking for the Portland Jobs with Justice Economic Justice Committee, called the practice “exploitative,” and urged the council to end to the use of prison labor by the City and restore the work to union workers at union wages. Doug Nolan, an unemployed University of Oregon grad, brought his résumé and asked that Parks jobs be given to out-of-work Portlanders, not prisoners — particularly at a time when there are so few jobs. “Ted,” a former work crew inmate, said he’s concerned that prison labor displaces other workers.

After the testimony, Commissioner Randy Leonard said he found some of the comments offensive, adding that he would have loved to have had such a labor-friendly council when he was a firefighter union president in the 1990s.

“It’s not exploiting prison labor,” Leonard said. “They are very happy to be outside doing something.”

Mayor Sam Adams said he hadn’t heard any evidence that convict labor is supplanting union jobs.

Council members voted 5-0 to renew for another two years the agreement with Columbia River Correctional Institute.

Beetle told the Labor Press he was disappointed in the Council.

“I resent them saying this is for the benefit of the inmates,” Beetle said. “I’ve interviewed some of the convicts, and they’d pull blackberries willingly rather than be in there. This is not voluntary labor. It’s forced labor.”

State prison inmates are required to work or be in school 40 hours a week under Ballot Measure 17, a state constitutional amendment approved by Oregon voters in 1994.

“I’m not trying to demonize this workforce,” Beetle said, “but anytime someone comes into my jurisdiction and does my members’ work for less or no money, I’m going to fight it.”

“The message I got from the Council is that as long as it’s just Local 483 that’s concerned, they’re not going to do anything about it,” Beetle said. “What we need to do is bring the wider community and the rest of the labor community into the discussion.”

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