Labor Unions and Prison Labor during the Nineteenth Century

During the nineteenth century labor unions did not oppose prison labor in general, but rather the highly competitive contract labor system which allowed prison labor contractors to undercut the prices of free labor due to prison labor’s lower cost. New York’s prisons functioned as factories until 1894, when a constitutional ban ended the lucrative prison contract labor system. Under the contract system, contractors paid the prison for the use of prison labor and supplied the prisoners with work. Prison contractors bid on the same contracts as free labor, but prison contractors undercut the prices due to the lower cost of prison labor. This put downward pressure on the wages of free laborers in order to remain competitive, and drove certain industries out of the state entirely, as they could not compete. On moral grounds, labor unions opposed aspects of the contract labor system which they saw as exploitive and contrary to reform; prisons sold prison labor at below-market wages, which labor unions opposed as it outcompeted free labor.


The nineteenth century began with the transition from the Pennsylvania to the Auburn system of prison management in America, which coincided with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. As labor unions became a potent political force, they recognized the threat that convict labor under the contract system posed to free labor. For much of the nineteenth century contractors used prisoners to make a profit until pressure from labor unions and other interest groups succeeded in banning the contract system; 1895 marked the complete end of contract labor in New York by constitutional amendment.
The Industrial Revolution pitted these two competing labor forces, one free and one “slave,” against one another. Labor unions and reformers championed the cause of free labor while business interests, contractors, and wardens concerned with making a profit favored the contract labor system. For much of the nineteenth century, free labor was no match for the hypercompetitive, unregulated contract labor system. Industries affected by prison competition, such as the marble quarrying industry, were able to badger Sing Sing and other prisons to switch to production of other goods, but it was not until the later nineteenth century that lawmakers eradicated prison competition entirely. By 1895 free labor won out in New York with the help of reformers and state commissions which saw that “the natural uses and effects of labor as a means of reformation are incompatible with the inherent principles of the contract system.”
Labor Union Objections to Convict Contract Labor
On moral grounds, labor unions opposed contract labor as exploitive and not serving the purpose of reformation. Prison labor should utilize both “the brain and the hands” by employing the prisoner’s mind while teaching a skill that the prisoner can use to support himself outside of prison. Instead, prisoners mainly worked on repetitive industrial tasks such as cabinetmaking, stove forging, shoemaking, saddler hardware, and chain making; this created competition with and opposition from the free labor producers of these products. The prison system released “impoverished convicts ignorant of any means of making an honest living” into the free world with no trade, ripe for recidivism. For-profit prison labor incentivized maintaining or increasing a population of long-term inmates, and in the South the practice drew comparisons to antebellum slavery. This created a conflict of interest within the prison system that needed prisoners for labor but whose goal was to reform inmates and keep them out of prison. Prison contractors could push their workers much harder than free laborers, leading to exploitation in the pursuit of profits. The labor unions prominently demonstrated that their objections to contract labor were not merely out of self-interest and that they too had the moral high ground in their push to eliminate contract labor.
Labor unions had practical objections to the contract labor system concerning its ability to undercut free labor. The competition between the two labor forces lowered free labor wages so that it could match prison labor prices, and in cases where that was not possible it drove certain free labor industries out of business. The state in effect subsidized prison labor, as it provided food, clothing, shelter, etc. for the prisoners. Since the prisoners did not have to support themselves, contractors could pay the state below-subsistence level wages for the use of the prisoners. In contrast, there was a floor on wages in the free labor market under which wage-earners could not support themselves and their families. Private contractors profited from the use of state-supported workers at the expense of free labor, prisoners, and the tax payer. The special relationship between private contractors encouraged cronyism, corruption, and rule-breaking in the pursuit of profits.
Union-Supported Prison Labor Alternatives
Unions favored prison labor as long as it did not compete with union labor, as they agreed with mainstream thinking which saw it as a means for reform and rehabilitation. Unions supported the state-use system, which came into use after 1894, as a compromise: it did not compete with union labor as much as other systems but still supplied the required labor for the convicts. Under the state-use system, prisoners filled orders from state government agencies and performed work for the state. There were many proposals to limit the efficiency and competitiveness of prison labor, such as banning the use of machines and stamping goods “Prison Made,” but the state-use solution solved the issue by putting prison labor in a virtually separate sphere that did not compete with free labor goods.
Labor unions avoided the appearance of acting in blatant self-interest in their opposition to prison labor by framing it as opposition to the exploitive, unfair, corrupt contract labor system, while still supporting the reforming possibilities of prison labor. They used their political clout to bring an end to the lucrative contract labor system, but only after it had run rampant for much of the nineteenth century. Regardless of their true motivations, labor unions were chief among those responsible for bringing about reforms that benefited the prisoners, the state, and the general population.