- On April 16, 2003, George W. Bush visited the shop floor at the Boeing plant in St. Louis, Missouri. His 90-minute appearance drew several hundred men and women who help make the military’s $48 million F-18 Hornet fighters, 36 of which were deployed during the Iraq war. The purpose of Bush’s visit was twofold: to offer thanks to the blue-collar workers equipping US soldiers for their foreign adventures and to provide reassurance in an atmosphere of climbing unemployment.
One week prior to Bush’s visit, the St. Louis plant announced layoffs for about 250 people. Already in 2003, Boeing had eliminated 5,000 positions nationwide, in addition to the 30,000 jobs the company cut in 2002. Bush’s so-called “Hardware in the Heartland” tour, which included stops across the industrial Midwest, was part of a post-war campaign strategy to capitalize on the US military prowess demonstrated in Iraq. “Sure, he talked about his domestic agenda,” a White House official told Time magazine concerning the Boeing appearance, “but there were F-18s in the background.”
But the “Hardware in the Heartland” tour skipped a number of locales where thousands of hard-working men and women were contributing more than their share to the war effort. While the Boeing employees sat listening to Bush’s remarks, just 50 miles to the northeast 265 workers in the apparel factory in Greenville, Illinois were far from idle. Averaging more than 1,000 desert-tan camouflage shirts per day, 194,950 of which were bought in 2002 by the Department of Defense and worn by the US infantry in the Middle East, these workers were not allowed many breaks. Equally harried were the 300 workers at the Kevlar helmet factory in Beaumont, Texas, who fill 100 percent of the US military’s demand for battlefield headgear. A factory in Marion, Illinois also kept in rapid motion, soldering millions of dollars worth of cables for the Pentagon’s TOW and Patriot missiles. Presidential plaudits were not forthcoming for these workers – all of whom are inmates in federal prisons. . .
The use of prison labor for military supply purposes is wrong on my many levels. First, the use of prison labor is nothing less than slavery. (if you don’t believe me, read the US Constitution, Amendment XIII that forbids “slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”) Voluntary prison labor where the prisoners are a paid a fair salary is one thing, but making prisoners work for peanuts against their will is something else. And when one considers the fact that the prison population is not representative of the general population in its ethnic makeup, then it sure looks like a sneaky way to revive the antebellum dream of keeping the dark-skinned folks in their place.
Secondly, prison labor creates an unfair competive situation for military contractors. Since prison industries can bid so much lower than private industry, it forces private industry to slash worker wages to have a chance at getting the contracts.