Senator Raises Doubts About Texas Prison Labor Jobs


   Following the replacement of decent manufacturing jobs in Lufkin with state-subsidized prison labor jobs, Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, recently raised questions about whether any Prison Industry Enhancement Act jobs in Texas were meeting federal requirements, the Houston Chronicle reported.
   Nichols said during a legislative committee hearing that the Texas Workforce Commission has not provided the data needed before such jobs can be created. Reporter Lisa Sandberg wrote:
 The East Texas town of Lufkin was home to one of the biggest manufacturers of tractor-trailer beds in the state until sluggish sales forced the firm, Lufkin Industries, to close its factory earlier this year, displacing 150 workers.

 For everyone but the affected employees, the story might have ended as little more than a cautionary tale of what happens when an established business gets squeezed by a smaller, nearby competitor, in this case, Direct Trailer and Equipment Co., which sells an almost an identical product for as much as $2,000 less.

 Instead, plenty of people have taken notice of this East Texas labor imbroglio, and some are crying foul.

 As it turns out, Direct Trailer produces its tractor beds with cheap prison labor and subsidies from the state of Texas. The company rents space inside the Michael Unit, a 2,900-bed facility in Tennessee Colony, for $1 a year. The state foots the tab on work force health care, too.
    The effect of the prison operation may not yet be final.
... there are new rumblings from the owner of another East Texas trailer manufacturing firm. Charles Bright, who owns Bright Coop, said his sales are down, and he's wondering if it's because Direct Trailer is selling its product cheaper.

"I'm not opposed to the program, as long as I can rent one of those buildings for $1 a year," Bright said.
  The Lufkin situation is clearly the worst to surface in Texas since 1995, when an Austin company that assembled computer circuit boards shut down its local operation and resurfaced in a private prison in Lockhart. The story makes it clear that legislation supposedly aimed at preventing such swaps of good jobs for prison jobs was little more than cosmetic: 
Paul Perez, general counsel for Lufkin Industries, said his company paid workers upward of $15 an hour and couldn't compete in an already competitive market against a newcomer who could produce a less expensive product.

"It exacerbated an already difficult situation," Perez said.

Direct Trailer's president, John Nelson, could not be reached for comment. One state lawmaker, Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, is calling not just for Direct Trailer's state contract to be severed, but he's also questioning the validity of every one of PIE's five prison programs.

Nichols accuses PIE's board, known as the Private Sector Prison Industries Oversight Authority, of approving the contract with Direct Trailer without having the necessary employment data required by the federal government and the board.

He said that when he investigated Direct Trailer's 2005 certification, he discovered that the board compared only overall employment in the area against national employment data without looking at local employment data for "specific skills, crafts or trades," as was also required.

Nichols also said that when he contacted the Texas Workforce Commission, he received a letter last month that said the agency "does not have unemployment data for specific skills, crafts, trades or occupations." The letter was signed by a manager Jesse Lewis, director of external relations.

Nichols said that can mean only one thing: "None of (the programs) are meeting the guidelines."
   Texas AFL-CIO Legal Director Rick Levy, who has lobbied on this issue since 1995, stated the Texas AFL-CIO's longstanding policy on prison labor succinctly:
 "We think the law needs to be clear: Using prison labor should not result in job losses anywhere, and certainly not in the state of Texas."

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