Organized labor blasts fast-food chains for employing inmates

Working Lunch: Unions say they want the practice stopped. But their real aim is to alienate the Black community.

All sorts of allegations have been leveled at restaurants over the centuries. But a lawsuit underway in Alabama likely marks the first time the business has been accused of acting as reprehensibly as the Ku Klux Klan.

The suit asserts that Alabama franchisees of KFC, McDonald's and Wendy's routinely violate a little-known piece of federal legislation called the Ku Klux Klan Act. The law was passed in 1871 to protect newly freed slaves from being denied their newly acquired rights, like serving on a jury or running for office.

The legal action accuses the fast-food operations of impeding the release of prison inmates who deserve parole. The brands are also painted as being part of a racketeering scheme that pivots on Alabama's prison policies. 

As this week's Working Lunch podcast explains, some inmates are allowed to work in businesses outside the prison, such as fast-food places. The prisoners are paid the minimum wage, but aren’t allowed to keep the whole amount. Typically, their portion comes to a few dollars.

The rest of the wage goes wholly to the prison system or is split with the private-sector employer, according to podcast co-host Franklin Coley.

Because there’s an economic advantage to the practice for the state, it has systemized and perverted the work programs, according to the lawsuit. It contends there’s a strong incentive to deny the prisoners parole, since the prison system loses money.

The suit, filed with organized labor’s enthusiastic backing, ostensibly aims to stop Alabama’s prison system from allowing inmates to work in restaurants and other outside businesses. 

Organized labor’s true aim, asserted Working Lunch co-host Joe Kefauver, is to alienate Black consumers and workers from the big fast-food chains by suggesting they’re as ruthless as the Klan.

“There’s no doubt,” agreed Coley, “and if they do that, they will have basically won.”

Because the Klu Klux Klan association is so damning, the co-hosts agreed, it doesn’t matter if the union loses the trial.

“If you’re arguing on the technicalities of the Ku Klux Klan Act, you are not winning in the square of public opinion,” said Coley. “This is just a barrel of badness.”

To learn more about the issue and why the co-hosts believe it will continue to fester, press “Play.”

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