Challenging Corporate Greed and the Private Prison Industry: A New Narrative of Flourishing, Worker-Owned Economies

Authors: Carmen Llanes, Green For All Fellow, Class 4

Across the state of Texas, many of us just breathed a sigh of relief. In the immigrant rights and human rights arena, we had a close call with Senate Bill 9, an Arizona copycat bill targeting "sanctuary cities" like Austin. Among many other destructive propositions, it would have made voluntary police programs like "Secure Communities"—which has led to the deportation of 1,900 people from Travis County since 2008, the vast majority with no crime or extremely minor offenses—mandatory for the whole state.

Some so-called allies in the business community, who rely on cheap immigrant labor, were against this bill, until Governor Rick Perry conveniently removed the part about E-Verify, the controversial and spotty new technology used to scan a person's work eligibility. Many of those would-be allies suddenly faded from the debate, as a Republican majority closed in on what we thought would be a terrible legislative turn for anti-immigrant activists and representatives. Much larger than the small business voices opposing anti-immigrant laws, is the powerful, for-profit prison machine, which benefits directly from these policies. All of this, to us, is more proof that an alternative business model is essential to preserving our communities.

But, something incredible happened. Thousands of calls, letters, emails, and powerful testimonies from individuals, organizations, law enforcement, and local business chains caused internal debates among Republican representatives. Countless hours were spent in the capitol building, including weeks in a heated special session, one that unleashed some of the ugliest anti-immigrant and anti-Latino rhetoric we have seen, spilling not only from the mouths of anti-immigrant activists, but also from some of our own representatives. That special session went on as hundreds of people gathered to recognize World Refugee Day on June 20th, denouncing S-Comm, Senate Bill 9, and the construction of a new, for-profit immigration detention center in Karnes City, south of San Antonio.

"Corporate greed is out of control." We've heard this and said this again and again. Our planet and our people have paid the high price. The private prison industry has become one of the most profitable businesses in the country, sucking up billions of dollars in tax money, to keep millions of people locked up and separated from their families.

We denounce the business of private prison corporations, because we know that most of these people come to work. In a public reading of the ICE's definition of the word "refugee" as defined by the US, we pointed out that there is no designation for "economic refugees." That category would encompass a huge sector of our population that migrates for work, just as US citizens do all the time, moving across state lines, sometimes to other countries where work takes them.

Economic refugees represent a significant piece of our economy. Innovative immigrant and family-owned businesses have built the greatness of our cities and counties for centuries. Here is where we start to re-write our narrative and reclaim our history.

If the pain and suffering we oppose is the profit made from separating families and incarcerating workers, then our solution, not just for immigrants, but for all of us, could mean much more than just ending detentions and deportations. Could our solution to the economic and environmental crisis that we're in, now, be one that proves that immigrants, and people of all backgrounds, have a crucial role to play in reviving our economy and saving our planet? This new narrative celebrates local businesses, innovation, and management for and by workers that treats them with dignity, and this includes everyone.

We can cooperate. We can create a different kind of economy.

So how do we build these two movements together? Imagine a world without a private prison economy, one that eliminates the incentive to swallow up of our youth of color, the poor, and immigrants. We would eliminate the drain on our society, because it costs thousands of dollars per person locked up. And if these people were outside, able to work, they could actually be contributing to our economies. In fact, most of them still do, but with non-citizen status, many find themselves vulnerable to unfavorable working conditions.

Having served as a huge portion of our workforce, immigrant workers possess a variety of skill sets. They also possess experience that has taught all of us the importance of dignity and autonomy in the workplace. While this is true in all kinds of business sectors, two recent examples are in the cleaning industry and in the construction industry.

While many women who clean houses work for top-down companies, there are already a variety of cleaning cooperatives in the US, in fact, several share the bay with Green For All. These women can band together, as the women of Red Rabbit bakery, here in Austin, did. They can get together and change the game, make decisions collectively, make higher wages. We are close to seeing the newest of these here in Austin, as immigrant workers who have banded together in worker solidarity, begin to put the pieces together to start their own business. Why demand better pay and treatment, when you can be your own boss? Why beg for transparency in the workplace, when you can collectively make decisions with your peers about the way work goes? Wouldn't many of us rather pay ourselves and and our compañeros a living wage, instead of begging for crumbs from a top-down management that may or may not be sympathetic to our needs? Furthermore, why hide our political beliefs, when the workplace can also be a seat of organizing and advocacy power, collectively giving rise to new ideas for how to engage the business world in policy debate?

And it gets better. Green construction is also a popular topic in the green economy. Austin is a fast-growing city, even despite the real estate crash, so this especially applies. Workers Defense Project is a local organization that rallies construction workers and others together to demand stolen wages, and they even succeeded in getting a city ordinance passed to increase worker safety. At the May 1st and immigrant rights rallies, they represent a powerful delegation with their membership. Now, organized construction workers are discussing the possibility of creating Austin's first, green, worker-owned construction cooperative, managed by the very workers who make it possible. Suddenly, we are talking about a movement that feeds a business model, and a business model that can feed the movement, as a business!

This is just the beginning. And this is far more than an immigrant movement. It also goes far beyond bakeries, cleaning coops and construction companies. We have seen how local businesses can save communities. It is as visible in Austin during a recession, as it is in the pockets of Detroit where bodies and minds thrive on organically-grown food and locally-owned bookstores and grocery shops. We have seen how sustainable practices can create real profit and substance for a community, when bright people collaborate and make decisions collectively.

It is time for immigrant movements to expand beyond the "migratory status" debate. It is time for worker solidarity to expand beyond stereotypes about "White Socialist Movements." Private prison abolition is not a people of color movement, it is a human rights movement, and our local economies depend on it. As is becoming increasingly clear, we are all in this game together, regardless of our race, income, or migratory status. Local, green businesses and jobs with dignity benefit our entire community. Let's write this green economy narrative together, and give our future generations a reason to be proud.

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