In 1948 at the Bucyrus-Erie plant on the west side of Evansville the workers went on strike with the demands of higher wages, a closed shop, and increased agency in the functioning of the shop floor. The workers were going door to door in neighborhoods and discouraging scabs from working their jobs. With violence at the picket lines and support from other unions, B-E couldn’t get more than 30% of its shop running. Out of desperation, B-E tried to use prison labor to get the factory up and running, but workers with community support put a stop to it.
During the week of September 7th momentum was stalled then halted due to Union officials making decisions to put an end to what they saw as elements that were too radical and too far left; they declared “No More Pickets” or the physical blockade of factory production. This also led to the House Education and Labor Commission coming to Evansville and holding trials to blacklist the strikers as communists-- even demanding that they declare if they believed in God. An overwhelmingly majority of workers that were questioned refused to give any testimony; this outraged the official conducting the trial and so he had the Evansville Courier print the names of these workers. The Courier went even further, printing two cartoons defaming the workers. B-E fired 65 workers and filed a libel suit to keep workers from publicizing what had gone on. Those marked as organizing the strike were kicked out of the union as well. But with the help of a Yale University lawyer building a case around slavery laws these core union members went on to reorganize their local and step aside for non-whites to take official positions and move the union toward racial as well as economic equality. 
This September 2016 we are likely to see a lot of these same dynamics as U.S. prisoners start a national work stoppage on the 9th. Prisoners can’t be “locked out,” but they can be further and deeper locked away. In an effort to embolden these strikers, people will be going door to door and holding signs again, and people will blockade companies that use prison labor because it is traditional tactic and is often successful, like at B-E. There will doubtlessly be some voices both from in prison and outside calling for prisoners to go back to work and accept small concessions so stalling the capacity to end this factory of slavery. People will be derided and labeled as anything that seems like it will disparage solidarity with them; from trying to define them with their legal convictions as thieves, murderers, and such to their political ideas as anarchists, communists, etc or even their religions like being Muslim in this Islamophobic country.
As each of these things happens, the prison system will try to map out who is being respected, who is being listened to, who they can single out as “organizers” and these people will be attacked most cruelly. They will be attacked by the press, and they will be attacked by guards and other prisoners. They will need people encouraging their commitment and concentration and demanding their safety. They have set aside racial tensions and conflicts that the administration agitates and counts on to divide and weaken the prison population. There are laws that still exist in America today that protect slavery within the prison system and the capture of people of color to maintain this “modern plantation”. The Evansville B-E strike is a history lesson that we are not protected by the law, but by collective efforts and our commitments to each other.
Many of the prisoners already know this. Though for most of them Evansville history isn’t informing their relentlessness. The prisoners have set September 9th, 2016 to begin what will likely be the largest prison strike in U.S. history because it is the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison take-over in up-state New York. The conditions that people in Attica were trying to survive were 6x9 foot cells, one “bucket shower” a week, one roll of toilet paper and bar of soap a month, substandard wages while the guards’ salaries accounted for 62% of budget, and punitive retribution from staff without oversight, among others . People shared these conditions but they also shared the experiences and struggles that brought them to that place. Five founding members of Attica Liberation Faction had participated in takeovers and sit-ins at other prisons. They got themselves positions on the sports teams so that they would be allowed into different sections of the prison during games and organized unofficial prisoner lead self-education groups. “These informal gatherings provided a forum for prisoners to debate and discuss the social and political issues of the day. …these prisoner created spaces politicized and radicalized inmates and contributed to a series of protests in the summer of 1971”.
In August of that year, author and Black Panther George Jackson was killed by guards in San Quentin prison which sparked work stoppages and protests throughout the U.S. prison system, possible because people reproduced and distributed Jackson’s writings and encouraged communication to and from prisoners. 700 Attica prisoners organized a day of fasting and silent protest to honor the life of Jackson which showed to themselves and the administration that they could act together. On September 9th the Attica rebellion was sparked by another incident of guard mistreatment and the prisoners responded by taking guards hostage and taking over the prison. The list of demands drafted was based on a list of demands used at Folsom Prison in California, showing national communication and a commitment to prisoner solidarity. But after four days of attempted negotiations by the prisoners the governor sent in over three hundred troops that opened fire on the prisoners and the hostages with specific aim on those considered organizers. Of course the state and press misrepresented the incident saying that the prisoners had cut the throats of the hostages. In the days after the rebellion guards took vengeance on the incarcerated population at large and further continued to prejudice those thought to have played key roles. 
The B-E strike and Attica take-over made history because they didn’t let the law or other people determine what tactics are useful or “good.” They recognized race as potentially divisive and so united around it. They didn’t and couldn’t trust the press to tell their story for them and as this September’s rebellions progress, we can’t either. Write a prisoner and let them speak for themselves, and then amplify what resonates with you. The strength of our differences (as in both these historical accounts) religion, race, and certainly incarcerated and non-incarcerated are what will make this force uncontainable.
The B-E factory on Claremont Ave. is mostly empty now. The parking lot is over grown and solely occupied by a cop car setting a speed trap. It is surrounded on one side by a nature preserve. We are living in the ruins of the labor battles of early industrialization; these folks are prisoners of that same war, and it is our time to shut these factories down. The future is plant succession: prisons are emptied, concrete crumbles, the prairie over runs and everything tends toward entropy and freedom. First we make history and empty the prisons.
For more information about the September 9th National Prison Strike, check out Support Prisoner Resistance. You can also find information about getting involved in this one-month-out update as well as this explanation of how to support the strike and this one as well.
Check out the original announcement of the strike here.
Also listen to the new episode of Crimethinc’s podcast, the Ex-worker, which focuses on the upcoming prison strike.
A poster about the strike is also available here.