by Panagioti Tsolkas
Activists in Gainesville have been celebrating May Day as an international workers’ holiday for much of the last 20 years with marches and rallies downtown highlighting various labor struggles and social movements. City officials even formalized the date on their calendar in 2017 by officially declaring May first as Immigrants’ Rights Day.
This year, grassroots organizers from local prisoners rights and prison abolition organizations highlighted the issue of prison slavery in our community. Gainesville’s Parks, Rec and Cultural Affairs, for example, gives the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) over $172,000 for the slave labor. The County and University of Florida also use prison slave labor as a way to cut costs and undermine living wage ordinances.
Other state agencies active in the area also use prison slaves, including the Department of Transportation, which allocated over $19 million dollars to prison slave labor statewide last year.
The City’s decision to declare support for immigrant workers in our community last May Day was bold and a powerful statement of solidarity. This same solidarity was also extend to other vulnerable workers among us. With this in mind, organizers with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC, which is part of the IWW union) and the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons (FTP) decide to kick off the May Day march with a spontaneous slight detour to Tigert Hall on campus, which houses the UF Office of Admissions.
Armed with drums, banners, bullhorns and stacks of leaflets, IWOC and FTP members marched through the doors and up all three stories of the building calling on the administration to sever its ties to racists slave contracts it has with FDOC.
Last year, The Fine Print reported that UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) used prison slaves in at least six farm sites it maintains for research purposes, including locations in Alachua’s neighboring counties, near Live Oak and Citra.
FDOC claims that their prison labor contracts provide rehabilitative opportunities. Comments from IFAS’s overseers is less convincing. In response to inquiries about the prison labor, Greg Kimmons of an IFAS-affiliate located in Jay, FL stated “I was just looking for a way to get free labor.”
Over 130 years after the first May Day, and 150 years after emancipation, the U.S. still retains millions of slaves, sanctioned by the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, justified as punishment for criminal convictions.
While mass incarceration has turned slavery in to a multi-racial affair, the racist implications are impossible to ignore. Black people make up about 16 percent of Florida’s population, but 32 percent of the state prisoners.