Sheet Metal Union feels heat of prison labor competition

Inside Oregon Enterprises, a metal fabrication shop at Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem and at the Powder River Correctional Facility in Baker City, is soliciting union shops for business, warned Sheet Metal Workers Local 16.

"Have a project idea? Give us a call! We welcome the opportunity to bid on any job...large or small," the prison labor flier reads.

The metal shop is part of a prison labor program operated by the State of Oregon to comply with 1994's Ballot Measure 17. Voters overwhelming supported the measure that amended the State Constitution to require prisoners to work 40 hours a week. The measure was the work of Republican State Representative Kevin Mannix and his cohorts. It was opposed by organized labor.

"We pay taxes to put criminals in prison - not to take our jobs," said Stan Bjorklund, business manager of Sheet Metal Workers Local 16, who was notified of the flier by a union contractor. "Our contractors are worried about this," Bjorklund said.

Measure 17 says that inmate labor "must either reduce the cost of government and/or make a profit for the private sector." Prison industries products and services are allowed to compete in the private sector.

So, the Department of Corrections, in cooperation with the Prison Industries Board (comprised of the governor, secretary of state and state treasurer) and others is aggressively marketing inmate labor to both the private and public sectors. Labor leasing through private partnerships is the department's primary strategy for putting inmates to work.

Manufacturing Country is a private company operating in partnership with the Department of Corrections since 1989. The plant site is located outside the Snake River Correctional Institution's secure perimeter at Ontario and produces wooden pallets, stakes and other custom-cut wood products.

Pantec is another private company with which the Department of Corrections is in partnership. The plant is located at the Mill Creek Correctional Facility. Pantec produces concrete components used in highway and building construction.

CH2M Hill of Portland uses inmate labor for creating mapping databases for their engineering department through digital computer coding. Polk County also used inmate labor for digital mapping and other data storage needs. Office of Medical Assistance Programs uses inmate labor for a telephone response service. Even the secretary of state uses inmate labor for answering phones, assisting with taxpayer inquiries.

Last year the prison labor industry snatched laundry jobs from the Teamsters when the Inmate Work Program underbid unionized American Linen to do laundry for Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene.

The Prison Industries Board also approached Agri-Pac of Salem to use state prison inmates in its canneries.

"The employees were incensed that they might have to work side-by-side with convicted felons," Lynn Lehrbach, a business representative of Teamsters Joint Council 37, told the Columbia-Pacific Building and Construction Trades Council.

Because of workers' concerns, the state's next proposal was to eliminate the entire third shift and staff it with prisoners.

It is for these and other reasons that a coalition of labor and business has banded together to draft a House joint resolution that was introduced last month by State Representative Dan Gardner, D-Portland, a member of Electrical Workers Local 48.

The bill would soften Measure 17 to give the Legislature and governor more "oversight and flexibility" and would prohibit direct competition with private and some public sector workers, said Bob Shiprack, executive secretary of the Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council.

"We need to amend the Constitution on this," Shiprack said.

The coalition is not opposed to inmates working. The problem, Shiprack said, lies with the displacement of law-abiding, taxpaying citizens. Shiprack said there is a lot of other work inmates could be doing, such as salmon restoration projects and stream bed bank enhancement work.

If passed by the Legislature, the House joint resolution would go to voters in November.

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