There is no one more patriotic or proud to be an American than me, but even someone who bleeds red,white and blue like I do has to concede that we have a habit of indulging in self-righteous hypocrisy from time to time. In fact, we indulge a lot of the time. OK, we do it all the time. So let’s acknowledge the fact that we have absolutely no moral leg to stand on when we blast China for its use of prison labor while one out of five federal prisoners in the U.S. works for UNICOR at the grand wage of about a buck fifteen an hour making all kinds of stuff. When China does it, we call it "torture" and "abuse" – when we do it, it is called "rehabilitation". The linked article tells a pretty good tale of how UNICOR – usually called ‘prison industries’ – operates.
My concern is not with social causes or American hypocrisy, however. There are plenty of do-gooders and America bashers out there who spend every breathing moment carrying those torches without my feeble contribution. My observation, which will come as a surprise to no one I’m sure, is that the article carries an important message about manufacturing management.
I have no idea what sort of person makes a career choice to provide manufacturing leadership to federal prisoners – can you envision what it must take to get a skid full of quality products out of Pete Rose, the senior managers at Enron and Boeing, Manuel Noriega and the others who have populated the federal prison system? I think it is safe to assume that it is not the cream of the manufacturing management crop running that circus. In fact, I don’t believe we have to make any assumptions at all. Solid proof lies in the fact that UNICOR is clamoring for federal preference in contracts, rather than having to bid for military work.
Think about that. These folks have the best of all worlds – third world labor rates in U.S. locations – and they still need protection because they would not get the contracts if they had to compete for them. Some guy named Andy Leonard runs an outfit that makes it by supplying UNICOR, and he is scared to death that competition will be the death of prison manufacturing, and his company by default. He says that UNICOR is the only outfit capable of large scale electronic manufacturing and that the high volume stuff made by UNICOR must be made by hand. Kate Leonard who heads up what must be the world’s most pathetic supply chain – Correction Vendors Association – says keeping the military contract work in the prisons by force of law, rather than allowing legitimate manufacturers do it at a lower cost would "cripple the war effort".
Kate and Andy need to sober up and listen to this: If you folks in the UNICOR supply chain are so miserable at what you do, if your management is so inept and incompetent, if you are so clueless about manufacturing that you need Congress to force your customers to do business with you – even though UNICOR has $1.15 an hour captive labor – you are not helping the war effort. Whatever you make is inherently bad. My son recently returned from Afghanistan and he is deploying to Iraq this week. I do not want his safety or freedom in Iraq to depend on anything you and the stumblebums running UNICOR are making if you cannot even compete on the uneven playing field you now occupy. Our troops have enough to do without carrying you people on their backs.
The broader lesson for all manufacturers is the one I have made time and again. Cheap labor cannot overcome lousy management. If your factory in the U.S. or Europe is mismanaged, running it with third world labor costs will not cure the problem. Just look at UNICOR for all the proof you need.