Furniture Manufacturers Vow Continued Battle Against FPI

June 4, 2002
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After winning a major battle following years of fighting, the office furniture industry is setting its sights on scoring an all-out victory in 2002 over Federal Prison Industries’ monopoly of government contracts.

The goal is to earn passage of “The Competition in Contracting Act” that would lift Federal Prison Industries’ mandatory source status and make it easier for federal agencies to buy goods from the private sector. The 2002 Department of Defense budget bill approved this month by Congress included a provision that allows the Pentagon to buy from the seller that provides the best value, whether it’s the private sector or Federal Prison Industries.

The measure represents a major breakthrough in ongoing efforts to end mandatory source status because about 60 percent of Federal Prison Industries’ business is with the Department of Defense. Mandatory source status requires federal agencies to buy prison-made products unless they are granted a waiver from Federal Prison Industries, which in 2000 granted 82 percent of the more than 19,000 waivers requested.

“It’s been a long, hard battle and we’ve taken a long first step, but not all the way,” said Thomas Reardon, executive director of the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturer’s Association, the Grand Rapids-based trade group for the office furniture industry.

“Hopefully, soon, all government agencies will have the freedom to shop,” Reardon said.

BIFMA is part of a unique, bipartisan coalition of business, labor and political interests who’ve pushed for several years to reform Federal Prison Industries.

An arm of the U.S. Justice Department’s Federal Bureau of Prisons that was created in 1934 under an executive order issued by President Franklin Roosevelt, Federal Prison Industries employs more than 21,000 inmates to produce some 80 products, including textiles, electronic components and office furniture sold under the “Unicor” brand name. The agency’s 2000 sales totaled $546.3 million, about $118.9 million of which was office furnishings.

Congressional passage of the Department of Defense provision, spearheaded by U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, enables the secretary of defense to conduct market research before purchasing prison-made goods. If the research shows that Federal Prison Industries products are not comparable in price, quality and time of delivery, the Department of Defense may purchase from the private sector.

Office furniture manufacturers, presently mired in their worst yearly business downturn ever because of the recession, are eager to go after that business.

“We’re going to take full advantage of that,” said Tom Walker, manager of government programs at Holland-based Haworth Inc. “We’re taking a good, hard look right now at what the potential is for us as an industry and us as a company.”

As the industry takes that look, efforts will continue through next year in Washington, D.C., to build on the momentum and have Congress enact a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Holland, that would completely lift Federal Prison Industries’ mandatory source status.

“We’re planning a very rigorous and very robust campaign,” said Mike Kratt, vice president of government sales for Zeeland-based Herman Miller Inc. “We’re not going to let up at all.”           

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