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The First Big Strike of 2023 May Happen Behind Prison Walls

The new year is set to kick off with a statewide strike by incarcerated workers in Pennsylvania.

All in all, 2022 was a banner year for organized labor. Thousands of workers in a wide variety of industries unionized; they pushed back against union-busting campaigns from oligarchs and corporate hit men; they went on strike and protested unfair treatment, from California to Alabama and everywhere in between. Public support for unions shot up to 71 percent, and the worryingly under-resourced National Labor Relations Board was inundated with more union election petitions than it could handle. Members of Gen Z, the youngest generation of workers, are even more pro-union than their millennial parents, and they aren’t shy about speaking up. All of that combined momentum isn’t slowing, either. The coming year is already poised to be another big moment for the working class.

Some of the seeds planted in 2022 will begin to bear fruit in 2023, as unionized Starbucks and Amazon workers head to the bargaining table and the Teamsters, now armed with ambitious new leadership, continue gearing up for a long-expected showdown with the United Parcel Service (UPS). In Alabama, incarcerated workers in five different prison facilities made history with a three-week-long strike that drew much-needed attention to their brutal working and living conditions. They faced brutal retaliation as a result; meals were reduced, family visitations were suspended, harsh new “security measures” were enforced, and prisoner activist Kinetik Justice was thrown into solitary confinement. The Alabama workers had known the risks going in, but chose to fight back anyway. While the ongoing surge in energy around organized labor has undoubtedly reached workers all over the country, the actions that these Alabama workers in particular took have set the stage for the first big strike of 2023.

On January 6, incarcerated workers across Pennsylvania will launch a statewide strike in solidarity with the Alabama strikers, and in protest of the inhumane policies to which they and other incarcerated workers are subjected by the state of Pennsylvania and the U.S. carceral system writ large. They announced their intention to strike with a November 26 communique that was circulated on social media and within the broader abolitionist community. Organized under the name Subaltern Peoples Abolitionist Revolutionary Collective (SPARC), the workers outlined their demands while castigating the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA DOC). “The PA DOC is the enemy of public safety,” they wrote. “It is the enemy of human decency.”

Most of Pennsylvania’s prisons are located in rural, majority-white areas, far from major population centers like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. As a result, incarcerated people struggle to maintain connections with their families while the profit their labor creates is pumped into communities far from their homes. “There is a reason why PA state prisons are not located near Philadelphia or Pittsburgh: to make sure the areas with the highest populations of Black & Brown people do not reap the economic benefits of mass incarceration,” SPARC wrote. As the communique notes, the rural areas between the big cities are often dismissed or denigrated as conservative backwaters — the same kind of stereotyping that affects the Deep South, including Alabama. SPARC referenced this mentality as well, emphasizing a connection with the strikers down south by writing, “If it must be Alabama in between, then LET’S GIVE THEM ALABAMA!”

SPARC’s demands echo those of past prison strikers, from the 1971 Attica Rebellion to the massive nationwide prison strikes of 2016 and 2018 as well as their Alabama brethren. The unifying factor in all of these actions — and in the many other strikes, protests and acts of resistance that have taken place in prisons and central facilities throughout the centuries — is a simple request for humanity. The strikers want to be treated as people, to be acknowledged as the human beings that they are and treated with basic decency, compassion and respect. Their list of demands shows a deep desire for connection with loved ones and the world outside the walls. Requests for video visits, easier access to communication devices, and family picnic days sit alongside economic concerns like higher wages and ending the loss of jobs, like mail sorting and commissary, that are meant to be available to incarcerated workers but are being outsourced to vendors like Secure Pak.

It is clear that, like so many other unions, SPARC is not only concerned with so-called bread-and-butter economic issues. The collective is also calling for material improvements to members’ quality of life, both on and off the job, and for sweeping reforms to the state’s criminal punishment system.

Pennsylvania has the highest incarceration rate in the Northeast, and currently imprisons 96,000 people in jails, prisons, immigration detention and other central facilities. Black people are vastly overrepresented in Pennsylvania’s prison population but make up only 12 percent of the state’s overall population.

The strikers are demanding an end to sexual harassment and sexual assault within women’s facilities, and an end to all harassment and racism within all facilities. Pennsylvania lawmakers recently passed legislation aimed at slightly improving conditions for pregnant people incarcerated within women’s facilities, where the total population has risen by 966 percent since 1980, but the risk of assault and abuse by staff remains a constant threat to prisoners of any gender.

SPARC is also calling for the passage of Senate Bill 835 (“the Geriatric Bill”) which would create a mechanism for elderly or ill prisoners to petition the parole board for release and compel the PA DOC to provide more services to aging prisoners, like assisting them with petitions for release, record-finding, and tracking their care. Roughly 27 percent of people held in Pennsylvania’s state prisons are over the age of 55; there are so many elderly people incarcerated in Pennsylvania that, in 2021, the PA DOC created a new unit specifically to treat patients with dementia and associated forms of memory loss.

In addition, SPARC is demanding that the food served be edible, a simple plea for sustenance that nonetheless remained a foreign concept to the PA DOC until at least 2016, when it ceased serving its revolting “food loaf” as punishment.

The upcoming SPARC strike will be a test for the newly revitalized labor movement. Will the same labor leaders, politicians and media outlets who have cheered on organizing wins at Starbucks and Amazon and supported strikes at universities, coal mines and strip clubs show the same support to the incarcerated workers of Pennsylvania? Hopefully, the old labor adage “an injury to one is an injury to all” will ring true, because if the goal is to build power and move forward as a movement, we cannot leave anyone behind — especially our vulnerable fellow workers inside the walls.