Union leaders say the city of Portland's contracts with the county jail and state prisons to perform general jobs amounts to "slave labor" and are stealing union work.
"How can you have people who would be happy to do that work for a living wage sit there and watch people work for free?" asks Richard "Buz" Beetle, business manager for the union Laborers' Local 483, which represents about 650 city of Portland employees, including street-cleaning teams, parks groundskeepers and technicians.
"There's not a job these prisoners do that people wouldn't line up to do for a living wage."
Inmate crews are common in the metro area, but they drew an unusual level of attention during a recent high-profile incident.
When Portland officials evicted dozens of homeless campers and protesters from in front of City Hall last month, they first sent in a cadre of cops.
On their heels was a Multnomah County Sheriff's transport truck carrying five inmates, who collected the cardboard, trash and other items left behind after the sweep.
The homeless looking on called the inmates traitors. Not that the prisoners had a choice.
Later, Mayor Charlie Hales' spokesman, Dana Haynes, acknowledged that having prisoners assist in the eviction of the homeless was "not the best visual."
It also reignited Local 483's long-simmering anger. Beetle says his union will ask a state arbitrator to intervene in its grievances against the Portland Bureau of Transportation for using inmate labor.
Laborers' jobs have been hit hard by city budget cuts—street-maintenance positions, for example, were cut from 36 to 30 this year.
Beetle says all inmate jobs should go to union workers earning fair wages.
But the allure of using inmates is strong: PBOT pays Multnomah County $565 a day for a 10-inmate crew, a deputy to supervise it and all transportation and equipment. The inmates are paid $1 a day. Union workers start at $20 an hour, plus benefits.
PBOT spokesman Dylan Rivera says his department has been using inmate crews for more than 25 years. As a result of budget cuts, Rivera says the Transportation Bureau has made street cleaning "not the lowest but one of the lowest priorities," making cheap labor even more attractive.
Other agencies also use inmate labor. The Multnomah County Sheriff's Office contracts with 12 local governments—including Portland, Metro, TriMet and the Oregon Department of Transportation. Sheriff's spokesman Lt. Steve Alexander says the work is mutually beneficial.
"We're providing a service for the community, while [the inmates] gain valuable landscaping skills and a general work ethic," Alexander says. "It gives those guys marketable skills so they can find jobs when they reintegrate into the community."
Beetle's not buying that.
"What kind of job skills is using a rake?" he asks. "That's not job skills, that's exploiting them."
He notes the city won't hire most ex-cons with felony convictions.
While the Local 483 grievances—a total of three filed in 2011 and 2012—focus on PBOT, Beetle says inmate labor shouldn't be used anywhere in the city.
Other departments, such as Portland Parks & Recreation, have contracts with the Oregon Department of Corrections, and also use court-ordered people performing community service.
Beetle says the inmates are also dangerous.
"All those prisoners running loose, with children in the park, women with baby carriages," Beetle says. "What happens if someone had a bad day at the prison and decides to take someone hostage?"
That hasn't happened, Alexander says. Work-crew prisoners are low-level offenders and are well-supervised by deputies.
Still, Lon Holston, a field representative for Local 483, says no amount of cost-saving is worth using inmate labor.
"This is wrong," Holston says. "It shouldn't be happening, and by God, if we donât stand up and say something, itâs only going to get worse.â