In this winter of economic discontent in America,
many people feel as if they have been robbed, and in fact they
have. Unscrupulous Wall Street investment managers run off with
billions of dollars of hard-earned money. Retirement savings and
401k’s vanish without a trace and seemingly without a remedy.
Unregulated markets allow banks to prey on the public with mortgages
containing unconscionable hidden terms and penalties. Meanwhile,
corporate beneficiaries of the taxpayer-financed bailout extravaganza
plot with conservative activists to kill the Employee
Free Choice Act - which will facilitate the formation of unions
- in order to “save” American capitalism and prevent the U.S.
from turning into France.
The free market run amok, combined with regulatory
police asleep at the wheel, a decline in bargaining power for
workers, and an upward redistribution of wealth, has been a recipe
for disaster for ordinary people. Meanwhile, most people do not
realize that each year, employers steal billions of dollars in
wages from millions of hard working low and middle-income employees.
Someone could face a year or two in jail for stealing $1000, yet
a crime of this grand scale goes unpunished.
On this second anniversary edition of the Color of
Law column, it is fitting that I review the book, Wage
Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting
Paid - And What We Can Do About It
t by Kim Bobo. Bobo is the founder and executive director
of the Chicago-based nonprofit organization Interfaith
Worker Justice, and a columnist for Religion
Dispatches. And in this fascinating yet disturbing (and ultimately
optimistic) book she provides the reader with nothing less than
the anatomy of an invisible epidemic.
Car washers, wait staff, drivers, hotel workers,
stock brokers, farm workers, department store employees, poultry
workers, the list goes on and on. These are the victims of wage
theft. The crime takes many forms. Some employees are paid below
the minimum wage, which is against the law. Others have their
tips stolen from them, or are forced to work off the clock, without
the overtime pay they deserve. Many are denied workers’ compensation
and other benefits to which they are entitled, or denied rest
and lunch breaks, or made to pay a fee in order to work on the
job. Some are denied their first or last week of pay. Many of
the victims are immigrants, particularly undocumented, but the
typical victim is native-born and White or Black.
Although the full extent of the damage in absolute
dollars is unknown, even a pro-business source, the Economic Policy
Foundation, estimates that companies steal $19 billion in unpaid
overtime each year. And over the past few years, companies have
paid over $1 billion annually to settle unpaid overtime claims.
For example, in 2005 Allstate paid a $120 million settlement to
3,000 insurance adjusters in California. In 2006, Citigroup paid
$98 million to 20,000 brokers who were shortchanged. UPS had to
pay $87 million in 2007 for 20,000 drivers who were not paid overtime.
That same year, Walmart settled with 86,680 workers for $33 million.
There are numerous factors which explain why wage
theft is committed on such a large scale in the United States.
Of course, there is racism and sexism, and the dehumanization
of immigrant groups. Sometimes, the labor laws are so confusing
that employers do not realize they are breaking the law. In addition,
there are the global conditions which encourage wage theft. For
example, globalization has created a downward shift in wages across
the world. Some companies may not explicitly engage in wage theft
as official policy, but may promote and fire managers based on
how low they can keep costs. In a competitive environment where
all companies are stealing from their workers, the company which
does what is right, ethical, and legal is penalized. Meanwhile,
many workers, unorganized and afraid to stand up for their rights,
face retaliation and termination for demanding what is due to
Bobo provides a number of solutions to the problem,
including stronger unions, providing incentives to businesses
to do the right thing, substantial financial penalties for lawbreakers,
and beefing up the Department of Labor with more enforcement staff.
In the book, the author takes a look back at the
heyday of the department, when Frances Perkins was secretary of
labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The first woman cabinet
member under any president, Perkins played a major role in creating
Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor
Standards Act, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and many other
programs. This proud legacy stands in marked contrast to recent
years at the Department of Labor, where former DOL secretary under
Bush, Elaine Chao, used every speaking opportunity to pat herself
on the back and praise the state of the economy under that administration.
Not once during her tenure did Chao, who lacked labor experience,
advocate for higher pay, better benefits or reduced injuries for
Bobo believes that community groups and religious
groups have a role to play in fighting wage theft as well. The
book decries the recent trend towards prosperity gospel among
some churches, and acknowledges the important role that progressive
religious organizations have played in the labor movement. After
all, the major religions have much to say regarding the treatment
of the poor and the rights of workers, if only people would dare
to heed their words. Moreover, social justice-oriented scriptures
from Islam, Judaism and Christianity that are quoted by Bobo are
a welcome part of this book. The author notes that Moses, who
led a workers strike in Egypt against Pharaoh, was one of the
world’s first labor organizers.
As the product of a union household, whose father
is a retired printing pressman, and whose mother is a municipal
employee in New York, I appreciate and applaud Bobo for writing
Wage Theft In America. At a time when the possibilities for a
resurrected labor movement are stronger than in any time in decades,
I trust that the ideas articulated in this book will find their
way to the Obama administration.
Editorial Board member David A. Love, JD is a lawyer and journalist
based in Philadelphia, and a contributor to the Progressive
Media Project, McClatchy-Tribune News Service, In These
Times and Philadelphia
Independent Media Center. He contributed to the book,
States of Confinement: Policing, Detention, and Prisons
(St. Martin's Press, 2000). Love is a former Amnesty International
UK spokesperson, organized the first national police brutality
conference as a staff member with the Center for Constitutional
Rights, and served as a law clerk to two Black federal judges.
His blog is davidalove.com.
here to contact Mr. Love.