The Full Participation Economy: Prison Workers, the American Worker and the Power of Cooperative Work [Part I]


This is Part I of a five-part series on worker-directed cooperatives as an autonomous community self-development tool.

American workers and prison laborers are both trapped in oppressive systems, but non-incarcerated workers are increasingly opting out of conventional business structures to become worker-owners in Worker Self Directed Enterprises (WSDEs).

This is Part I of a five-part series on worker-directed cooperatives as an autonomous community self-development tool. The full series will be available on Democracy at Work's Coop Talk after Part V has been published. 


Part I : Prison Workers, the American Worker and the Power of Cooperative Work


The prison labor strike that began on September 9, 2016—the 45th Anniversary of Attica—is a metaphoric microcosm of the American workforce. On that day incarcerated persons in 12 states stopped performing prison work, which can range from administrative support for the superintendent, to staffing the mess hall that feeds hundreds per day, to the unseen labor of making furniture or answering phones for private or state agencies. The workers who perform these tasks are paid exploitive wages that span from no wages at all to 12 cents an hour to a dollar per hour. The justification is grounded in the Constitution and culture. Though prison labor predates the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment's Exception Clause enshrines unpaid work by outlawing slavery in the United States except as punishment for a crime. American culture has continued to legitimate this practice through expressions like "[prisoners must] pay their debt to society," which perpetuates a punitive conception of incarceration's purpose in marked contrast to one that focuses upon rehabilitation and development.

The United States has spent more than 1 trillion dollars to build up prisons since the Nixon Administration, and spends $80 billion per year on its correctional budget. New York spends approximately 3 billion dollars on its annual correctional budget. Considering the vast amount of money that has gone into the prison industry, it is striking that prisons cannot pay a wage that would allow the incarcerated to reenter the workforce and community with dignity—an issue that should be included in the broader conversation around a living, minimum wage. 

Meanwhile, the non-incarcerated American worker is also trapped in an oppressive corporate economy, but under vastly different circumstances. Many are unable to locate work that pays a living wage under safe, non-dehumanizing conditions and that allows time for meaningful work/life balance and full participation in the social and political life of the community. 

Is there another way, outside of these corporate work systems? Research indicates that there is.  Cooperative work engages and galvanizes the collective strengths and resources of workers within a democratic ownership structure. Cooperative work also affords workers all the supports of solidarity while reducing the elements of risk associated with venturing into business as a sole proprietor under the entrepreneurial model.

The worker self-directed enterprise ("WSDE" or "Worker Cooperative") is a democratic, self-directed, worker-owned structure that can support all types of businesses, such as a laundry, food cooperative, web design company, or advanced manufacturing plant. The WSDE builds upon the skill sets and experiences of the people who come together to work in accord with a concrete business plan.  More than a work culture, it is a business enterprise with a distinctly horizontal system of organization.

The WSDE is especially effective in countering the isolation of those traditionally excluded from the labor market, namely those marginalized by institutional racism, the stigma of imprisonment, or those ghettoized by disadvantage and class. Teaching cooperative work in prison, which would include informing workers about cooperative work and, possibly, establishing cooperative work units within the prison, would allow workers to organize around the skills that they've developed or are in the process of developing and to learn how to form viable worker-owned businesses that would support their communities. At the same time, creating a climate that would support the formation and growth of worker cooperatives within communities of color and all New York communities should be a priority. 

Kimberly Westcott is Associate Counsel at Community Service Society of New York (CSS), Adjunct Assistant Professor at Columbia University School of Social Work (CSSW), and Co-Chair of d@w-NYC's Coop Committee. Contact: [email protected]

Richard Wolff is an economist, a visiting professor at The New School, and the founder of Democracy at Work. Follow him on Twitter: @profwolff



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