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People were afraid of prisoners’ organizations. People had Attica on their mind. Prisoners’ organizations were thought to be dangerous.”: Interview with Chuck Eppinette of the North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union

Earlier this year, Florida prison inmates took part in a statewide labor strike to protest forced labor that they view as a modern form of slavery. The strike was just the latest action in a growing movement to organize inmates and for some, to abolish the prison system altogether. In order to maintain the pressure, incarcerated workers have also announced another wave of strike actions set to begin later this summer on August 21.

Today’s inmate organizing has a powerful precedent. During the early 1970s, the prisoners’ union movement counted tens of thousands of members in prisons from California to North Carolina. This activism was inspired by Black Power organizing as well as decades of agitation by both Black and white prisoners to expand their legal rights. But there was one Southern inmate union in particular, in the least unionized state in the country, that forced legal battles about whether prisoners have the right to free speech and assembly.

At its height in the early 1970s, the North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union collected union cards from more than 5,000 prisoners, roughly half of the state’s total inmate population.

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But the struggle to expand prisoners’ rights to free speech and assembly received a heavy blow with the 1977 Supreme Court ruling in Jones v. The North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union. The Jones decision all but ensured the demise of the North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union and for awhile, it seemed that this history was lost.

However, during the last decade, largely as a result of growing awareness about mass incarceration, and political organizing that identifies with prison abolition, there has been renewed scholarly interest in prisoner activism.

Over the course of several months, Jonathan Michels spoke to three North Carolina veterans of the prisoners’ union struggle. You can read more about the history of the NCPLU, and the first installment of this three-part interview series here. Today, we present the remarks of Chuck Eppinette, an NCPLU organizer who worked diligently from the outside to support incarcerated worker resistance.

Introduction by Jonathan Michels:

As the son of a Marine, Chuck Eppinette grew up under the military’s strict social order in which even a simple exercise like choosing a seat at the movie theater was conducted under the gaze of the Military Police. Eppinette later became radicalized by the leftist politics of the late 1960s as a student at North Carolina State University where he joined the anti-war movement.

In 1970, 2,400 inmates at California’s Folsom Prison initiated a 19-day work strike and demanded the right of prisoners to form or join labor unions. Out of this struggle, the prison union movement was born.

“For the first time inmates and ex-cons have forged themselves together throughout the country to organize for their own self-protection and to win the basic human rights ostensibly guaranteed every citizen by the Constitution,” wrote Frank Browning in Ramparts Magazine.

Eppinette first heard about the burgeoning prisoners’ union movement from another anti-war activist who was serving time out west. When FBI agents arrested Eppinette for draft resistance, he made preparations to unionize inmates behind bars. The way he saw it, social justice organizing needed to happen whether you were in the slammer or not.

Although his federal case was later dismissed, Eppinette continued to connect with prisoners like Wayne Brooks who were eager to unionize. By the time the members of the North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union filed for incorporation in 1974, Eppinette had become an indispensable part of the union’s outside support as a paralegal for Debbie Mailman, the union’s chief attorney. The following is an edited transcript of my interview with Eppinette in December 2017.

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Excerpted transcription from interview with Chuck Eppinette:

There had been a riot at Central Prison a year or two before and Attica had many in the social change movement thinking about what was going on in prisons. People were interested in prison reform. Not necessarily a prisoners’ union but they still saw some need for making changes.

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Many liberals did not like the idea of a prisoners’ organization because they thought all it did was create power brokers within the prison that would cause problems as opposed to it being a way of having democratic solutions and input to addressing problems. There were a few “purest” Marxists I knew who thought working with prisoners was a waste of time because they were not the true proletariat.

But for the folks who were actually doing organizing, the union was exciting. The idea of this kind of grassroots organizing and workers’ control was very big. How could you not be excited about this?

If you want to find a place that is working-class, walk into a prison. There’s not a lot of rich folk there. Eugene Debs resonated with a lot of us. He spoke to that with “While there’s a soul in prison, I am not free.”

During this period, prisoners were pretty much at risk at all times for any complaints about things. You could write a letter to the editor if you were a prisoner saying things were horrible in here and you could end up in the hole. There was virtually no due process. The isolation cells were horrific and there later were a lot of lawsuits about them.

God bless the prison administration. They unwittingly helped grow the union a great deal because I think they were convinced it was a handful of people so they started transferring inmates to other units which was like sending organizers out. They would transfer someone to another unit and suddenly we would get a lot of union cards from that unit and then they would transfer that person to another unit. We would get cards from that unit.

It speaks to how bad things were and how powerless people were. You would go, “Well, of course they would join the union.” But being powerless and subject to arbitrary punishment and things that greatly affected your life, the fact that they were willing to join the union, that they were willing to put their name down on something was incredibly impressive to me. I don’t think prison administrators thought this was going to that big of a deal. I think they were in a state of denial. Once they decided it was serious, they stopped the union newsletter from coming in. They wouldn’t let Robbie and I into a prison.

If you want to find a place that is working-class, walk into a prison. There’s not a lot of rich folk there. Eugene Debs resonated with a lot of us. He spoke to that with “While there’s a soul in prison, I am not free.”

When the prison administration acted to shut down the union we won the effort to defend the union’s rights before a three judge Federal District Court. But then the state appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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People were afraid of prisoners’ organizations. People had Attica on their mind. Prisoners’ organizations were thought to be dangerous.

Despite the odds, we always held out hope. There were some good people on the Supreme Court.
I don’t know if we were ready for as devastating a loss as it was. It was across the board: no. It was just over.

We all knew where the power was. That’s one of the things that made the union so incredible. The union getting crushed was always a possibility. And the stakes for the people in the union were huge. When it fell apart, there was anger at the system.

What we did was beat ourselves up a lot. If you’ve been involved in stuff that fails you ask yourself, “What could I have done? How did we miss this?”

People were afraid of prisoners’ organizations. People had Attica on their mind. Prisoners’ organizations were thought to be dangerous.

The Jones decision crushed the movement for prison workers’ organizations. It said the state gets to determine security issues and that’s how it is. The strategies for what can be done and what you should do changed. There was an era of some big prison-class lawsuits after because that was the only thing that could be done.

Changes have been made but the type of changes that need to be made can’t be made until there’s an organization within. That’s why unions are important. You can have the most well-meaning people on the outside of a factory writing labor laws but unless the people who are directly affected have a voice in what happens, then the type of change that needs to happen will never happen. The North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union showed a possibility.

Prisoners in a prison system that was statewide, more units than there are now that was Black and white, formed an organization that had these very specific political goals. And had the majority of the members of the prison system as members of that organization. As far as a possibility of what can be done, it’s an incredible example.

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