The Wages of Reform

Here's an interesting note from a union perspective on prison reform. The essential conflict--the interest of labor vs. the interest of the public--is familiar:

I work as an organizer for one of the country's largest public employee unions. We are also one of the largest unions representing correctional officers in the United States. I love this work, I firmly believe that all individuals, regardless of what type of work they do, should have the right and ability to negotiate with their employers and have some protections on the job. I believe in prison reform. I will not attach any qualifying statements to that. I believe mass-population incarceration is a terrible policy. I fully support the abolition of mandatory minimum sentencing, and believe effective community control programs and a focus on rehabilitation is the only effective way to reduce crime. As most people under the age of 30, I also believe marijuana should be legal and that the War on Drugs is a failed policy. 

However, I now realize that my employer will not only disagree with me on many of those things, but that it is one of the primary impediments to this happening. Reading the quote from the union president in the attached article stoking public fear over the closing of a correctional center hit me in the gut. In my head, I can already see the fliers being created: "Tell the politicians to support public safety", "Protect our communities", and "Clear and Present Danger". 

I know that as an employee of the union I could possibly be asked to hand these fliers out, to sit there with a straight face and hand these out to people. I could be asked to help organize political actions, pickets, petitions, and lobbying days aimed at keeping these places open. Not only that, but I know that our actions could also pose an obstacle for reducing sentencing guidelines and allowing more access to parole. Given all of this it would be easy to say "Screw this job, I will not do it anymore". In fact, most of my progressive friends would give me some variation of that argument, but is it really that easy? 

What about the other public sector employees we represent? Do I turn my back on organizing them (something I noted above as one of my fundamental beliefs)? It might make me feel ideologically pure to just turn my back and leave, but it would seem like a failure. Should I treat our correctional officer members differently? That does not seem like the answer either and in fact just seems like dodging the whole problem. Sorry, this section has started to sound like a pity party, and I do not intend for it to. Suffice it to say, I have a lot of tough questions to ask myself.

Indeed. The problem is that the interest of public sector workers (cops, fire-fighters, teachers, prison-guards) won't always align with the interest of the public, itself. The union's job is to advocate for its members. Surely this a defensible aim. But it isn't the same as the tax-payer's.
Jump to comments
Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Technicolor Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


A Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier


What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets


Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.


What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.



More in National

From This Author

Just In