The Fruits of Labor: How Trade Unions Create Pathways from Prison to Prosperity

Pictured: ARC member Richard Meza on a worksite as a member of Painters Local Union 1036
Pictured: ARC member Richard Meza on a worksite as a member of Painters Local Union 1036

As more people are released from prisons and jails to stem the transmission of COVID-19 through California’s carceral facilities, they will be returning home to a collapsed job market and a downturned economy. Due to COVID-19, millions of people lost not only jobs and an income but jobs-related health coverage and other critical benefits.

It is in this context of economic turmoil that unions and union membership have been thrust back into the spotlight. Although union membership is on the decline and large companies are working to limit workers’ benefits, workers are still fighting for sick pay and workplace protections. As marginalized and poor communities are pushed further to the brink, unionized employment has become even more vital for families.

Labor unions are key nodes to providing formerly incarcerated people with workplace benefits, health coverage, and increased earning potential. These job-based safeguards and benefits can be challenging to secure elsewhere, particularly for formerly incarcerated individuals who already face a difficult time in the job market because of a past felony record and lack of sufficient work experience.

I. No Exemption

Because of his prior record, ARC member Richard Meza settled for work in the volatile gig economy, shuffling from job to job, while receiving no benefits. Meza stayed committed to finding long-term work, but he needed the proper job training and opportunities.

Khe Sahn Crockett, ARC member, returned home after 27 years in prison, with a desire to work in labor. During his first six months in the community, Crockett worked at a construction site in Hollywood.

But like Meza, Crockett wasn’t just looking for a job, but a career with financial longevity and security.

Carlos Cervantes, who helps to run ARC’s Second Chance Pre-Apprenticeship Program as a Life Coach, knows the challenge formerly incarcerated people face in finding a stable career.

“A lot of employment opportunities have rigorous background checks,” Cervantes says. “There are few exemptions for someone that is formerly incarcerated and has a conviction.”

Since 2016, ARC has run the Second Chance Apprenticeship Readiness Program in partnership with the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, the Miguel Contreras Foundation, the Los Angeles and Orange Counties Building and Construction Trades Council, Los Angeles Trade Technical College, and Southwest College.

The Pre-Apprenticeship program provides a construction-based training program for formerly incarcerated workers that incorporates technical education, soft skills development, and supportive services, where the ultimate goal is unionized employment.

For Cervantes, the program sends a powerful message to those still incarcerated, “It’s about that person in prison who is waiting to get out, coming behind us, and who will take advantage of these opportunities.”

Cervantes notes long-term career pathways are rare for people coming out of prison with a felony conviction.

ARC’s 10th cohort continues hands-on training while social distancing and wearing PPE.

Crockett joined ARC’s 9th construction cohort, but this was his first exposure to labor unions. Crockett was motivated to work and learn alongside many other people who “were in the same boat as me.” Crockett graduated the cohort and shortly thereafter was accepted into the roofers union.

Meza tried to get a union job before but lacked the experience needed, so he joined Cohort 8. Meza gravitated towards painting because “I always liked artistic work, I thought it would be cool to be a commercial painter because I’m not scared of heights and I like the adrenaline. You can show your work to the whole world and get paid for it at the same time.”

II. “This is a part of freedom that we were yearning for inside”

The pandemic has revealed that benefits are a necessity, not a luxury as millions have lost health insurance and other supports connected to their employment. COVID-19 has infected many healthy people and wrought worse outcomes for those with pre-existing conditions, especially people of color.

Before earning his union job, Meza had limited health coverage with costly consequences, “When I had MediCal, there was a medication that I couldn’t get because it cost too much money. I’m allergic to peanuts, and I couldn’t get single injection pens.”

Now with a union job and full health coverage, Meza no longer has to go through hoops to pay for medication.

“As soon as I got benefits from the union, I was able to get a pack of pens from the doctor,” Meza said. “It was amazing. I was waiting four years to get that medication again.”

Meza is even utilizing his benefits package to see a therapist, which he couldn’t afford with MediCal.

Meza’s worksite provides COVID-19 testing, masks, and other safety protections. He knows that if anything were to happen, he has full health insurance and the backing of the union.

The experience of being incarcerated and insufficient healthcare provided in prisons can lower life expectancy. Cervantes highlights why healthcare is essential for formerly incarcerated people, “People who are incarcerated do not have adequate health care in prison. A lot of people don’t know what physical screening looks like. They don’t know how to prevent illnesses or diseases. People are afraid of going to the doctor.”

This needed benefit is crucial and part of why the union is so important for formerly incarcerated people.

Cervantes added, “This is a part of freedom that we were yearning for inside.”

Pictured: Richard Meza at the cohort graduation with trade union leaders

III. The Fruits of Labor

Cervantes has witnessed how union employment can transform the lives of formerly incarcerated people.

“Now they can provide for their family, even further than just income. Now they can put money in a savings account. They get a wage increase as time goes by every six months,” Cervantes says. “Working in prison, they were making .30 cents an hour, now they are making upwards of $32 per hour and knowing in six months you’re going to get a pay increase.”

Meza has had three wage increases in less than a year, “In the painters union, I’m always working. So far my wage has gone up by $3.75. I don’t know what company that is non-union that would give you the type of raise.”

Meza takes pride in his work and learning on the job, “My favorite job is working at the Westin Hotel in Beverly Hills. I’m painting and doing wall covering, a specialty trade, which is hard to get into. The work that I get to do is fun and energizing,” Meza added.

For Meza, there was a sharp difference in the work environment on union jobs from his prior jobs.

“They feed you better, treat you better, your breaks are on time, and they pay you better,” Meza says.

Meza’s long-term goals are to start teaching others the trade skills he learned.

IV. There is Power in A Union

As a member of Local 36 Roofers, Crockett knows the union supports him.

“The union is like a family. If anything comes up, I’ll call the union,” Crockett says. “We work with different foremen on different jobs. I tell them about my story and the cohort. Most people are shocked to learn I did 27 years. People at the union hall, they don’t care about your background or if you were incarcerated.”

Crockett sees the potential union partnership provides for people who are still inside, “It’s for the people that are coming out now. It’s a chance for them to get on the right track.” Crockett reaches out to people still inside and tells them of their opportunities when they get out.

Now with stability, Crockett hopes to start a family of his own. Crockett and other Apprenticeship Readiness program graduates are able to provide for their families, many for the first time.

Union membership not only provides good earnings but the opportunity to enter into and remain in the middle-class. Many formerly incarcerated people grew up in poor and marginalized communities. Now Cervantes sees many members are close to buying their first home, taking vacations, and moving to neighborhoods with good schools for their children.

Meza and Crocket aren’t just stories of resilience, but of how organized labor can provide meaningful opportunities for people unaccustomed to having them, while they leave the world of rejections, background checks, and the cycle of poverty behind.

Meza knows how game-changing a union career opportunity is for formerly incarcerated people.

“For someone to come out with nothing and have had to check that little box, they are tired of it,” he says. “This opportunity lets them push that box aside.”

Josh Pynoos is Policy Associate at the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC)

Working to end mass incarceration in California, ARC empowers formerly and currently incarcerated people to thrive. #WeMatterToo #BringingPeopleHome

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store