No More Death Work: We Must Abolish Prison Unions



As imprisoned people constitute some of the most at risk population in the world with regards to the COVID-19 pandemic, Fathima Cader reflects on what prison abolition means with regards to people for whom the prison is a daily workplace.

To abolish prisons, we must abolish prison unions. This is not an anti-labor argument. If mainstream labor intends to remain relevant through the seismic shifts of our current political moment, it will need to wrest itself away from centrist institutionalism. A clear-eyed reckoning with the material conditions and consequences of what contemporary unions call “work” underscores that not all work is good work. Not all work deserves union protection. We can and we should turn away from work that produces death. This includes the work of corrections.
Police are in, but migrant farmworkers aren’t. Yes to jail guards, but no to domestic workers. Canadian laws stipulate myriad regulations about who is and who isn’t allowed to unionize, rules that do not correspond protection to exploitation. Why is someone who bears arms for work allowed to unionize, but not the person who picks our tomatoes? It was never a neutral category, this question of what we call work and who we called a worker. Unions know this. We must seize these fissures and redraw the terrain of solidarity, so that union membership more meaningfully accords with working class interests and mobilizations.

Michael Deforge Funambulist
“Cops Aren’t Workers.” / Artwork by Michael DeForge.

The pandemic underscores this, how death lies at the intersection of corrections and capital. I write from Canada, where COVID-19 deaths are trending upwards, while union density trends downwards, as it has for decades. At the time of my writing this, each day breaks the previous day’s record-high of COVID-19 infection and deaths. The uneven distribution of paid sick leave, extended healthcare, and pharmacare has been lethal. These benefits, which are generally present in varying degrees in most Canadian collective agreements, have been crucial to minimizing some workplace harms. No less importantly, by virtue of being organized, unionized workers have launched work stoppages in especially dangerous sites, such as schools, even though wildcat strikes are technically illegal in Canada.

But it would be insufficient to point to declining union density as a central aggravator in the vulnerability of non-unionized workers to death and illness. Research has already drawn staggering links between evictions and escalating COVID-19 rates. Nor has the pandemic provided respite from ongoing police killings and other state violence against Black, Indigenous, and migrant communities. Block by block, grassroots communities — workers and non-workers alike — are resisting. They have taken to the streets in increasingly militant actions in the fight to save our lives. In Hamilton in Ontario, protestors attended the mayor’s home, leaving on his doorstep a coffin with three naloxone kits sitting on a bed of flowers. In Toronto, organizers demanding eviction moratoriums are live-publishing the rapid zoom eviction hearings dispossessing tenants in the middle of winter, many of them elderly, many of them disabled. These actions have been met with arrests and legal threats, but with lives hanging in the balance, organizers have been undeterred.

If unions are to match this level of radicalism, they will need more than solidarity statements and anti-oppression workshops. There is no coherence in housing both the sheriff changing the apartment locks and the grocery store clerk facing homelessness under the same tent of “worker.” The prison guard shutting people away in solitary confinement is not more deserving of union protection than the worker they cage. Indeed, Canadian prisons provide an especially urgent and horrifying example of the failures of labor’s status quo. COVID is raging through Canadian prisons. The conditions of incarceration exacerbate the vectors of transmission: overcrowding, filth, and poor ventilation — these deprivations are endemic to Canadian prisons.
“Prison health is public health.” From Nunavut to Ontario, the phrase repeats like a refrain through Canadian court decisions. “The risk of infection is higher in custodial institutions, where conditions — cramped quarters and shared sleeping, dining, and toilet facilities — make it difficult, if not impossible, to implement social distancing and other protective measures,” reads one sentencing decision.