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The First Big Strike Of 2023 May Happen Behind Prison Walls

Above image: Moment/PeopleImages/iStock/Getty Images/Truthout.

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!”

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