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Unions Help Stop the Cycle of Recidivism


Duane Townes, Disere Geigher, and Jordan Leon each found their way to solid union jobs with the help of Pathway to Apprenticeship, which assists previously incarcerated people reenter society.

For most of us, having a good job is important. But for the formerly incarcerated, it’s so much more—stable, good-paying work is life-changing. Unfortunately, many of them have a hard time finding any job, let alone a good one, especially those living in low-income neighborhoods with few opportunities.

For those reentering the job market after incarceration, the statistics are grim. After reentry, more than 60% of workers will remain unemployed for a year. If they do find a job, they’ll take home between 20 and 40% less than those who have never been incarcerated. Plus, they’re unlikely to get proper health insurance, paid time off, or a retirement plan. And so, even though they have their freedom back, they’ve suddenly got more problems than when they were inside—putting them at high risk for recidivism.

On the flip side, finding a good job is a fast track to success. According to the Urban Institute, workers who are employed two months after reentry are about 50% less likely to end up back in prison than those who don’t. Higher wages can slash recidivism rates in half, too.

So we know jobs are important—but where are the opportunities? Who’s willing to give these workers a second chance?

Unions are.

Partnering With Reentry Programs

Unlike other employers, unions actively provide career opportunities to job candidates after reentry. This includes reaching out to system-impacted workers and participating in job fairs. Unions don’t reduce applicants to someone who did or didn’t check that little box indicating they’ve been convicted of a crime. They see applicants as human beings who make mistakes but can take steps to turn their life around and live a happy, productive life.

That‘s why several New York unions are partnering with reentry programs like Pathways to Apprenticeship (P2A) to find new recruits. P2A helps low-income community members (most having been formerly incarcerated), enter building trade apprenticeship programs. Many P2A graduates have gone on to become shop stewards and peer mentors.

Another organization that partners with unions is Getting Out And Staying Out (GOSO), which subsidizes an internship-to-employment reentry program that includes positions in union construction trades. After being placed with an employer partner, GOSO pays for up to the first 240 hours of work, after which they can be directly hired.

On the other end of the spectrum, non-union labor brokers known as “body shops” exploit newly-released workers, masquerading as companies trying to prevent recidivism. These brokers act as a middle man to third party employers, taking their own cut along the way.

Many new parolees are required to search for work as a condition of their parole, so taking a body shop job is tempting. But sadly, body shops offer minimum wage pay with no benefits, inadequate training, dangerous working conditions, and disproportionately prey on Black and Hispanic workers.

Unlike union work that elevates and inspires, body shops set workers up failure. The good news is, labor unions have successfully fought to pass city and state-level legislation to protect these workers against unfair labor practices. That’s because unions care about every American worker, in addition to their own members.

"The union really cares. I see myself becoming financially stable. In my 3rd year, I hope to buy a house for my mother.” — Jordan Leon, P2A graduate IBEW Local 3 apprentice

Benefits of Union Membership Last for Generations

According to the National Employment Law Project, union membership offers positive reverberations that extend for generations. Children raised in neighborhoods with higher union membership experience more economic mobility, and their own incomes may be as much as 28% higher if their father held a unionized job. Plus, receiving adequate pay and benefits eliminates the need to use public assistance programs.

Good health insurance is critical for accessing key services like therapy, preventative care and testing, expensive medications, and to help them “catch up” after receiving poor care in prison. Extended benefits like pension plans help families accumulate generational wealth.

Unions also provide a sense of community and camaraderie. Unlike non-union employees, union members know any concerns about unfair or unsafe working conditions will be supported and remedied by union leadership.

True freedom, for the formerly incarcerated, isn't solely about staying out of jail. It’s the freedom to be a self-sufficient, productive member of society. Unions are helping make these dreams come true.

Jordan Leon, P2A graduate and now an IBEW Local 3 electrical apprentice says, “Before P2A, I was working non-union and learning very little. Now I’m getting proper training. The union really cares. I see myself becoming financially stable. In my 3rd year, I hope to buy a house for my mother.”


Lisa Wright is a journalist and the author of several books.

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