A few weeks ago, I finished reading Kim Bobo’s Wage Theft in America (published last year, but new to me). The title is self-explanatory, and the author is the founder of Interfaith Worker Justice, an organization that has advocated and organized tirelessly to ensure workers’ rights are fulfilled. The facts she presents in the book are stunning- depending on the low-wage industry, most employers have committed wage theft (around 60% in nursing homes, 100% of poultry plants). Total theft is measured in the billions. Wages are stolen in a variety of ways- simply paying below the minimum wage, forcing workers to work off the clock, not paying overtime, and others. Workers who have wages stolen are disproportionally female, minority, and immigrant. Those with the least power in society, and already limited means, have their hard-earned money taken from them. The employers, on the other hand, face weak penalties (they merely have to pay, with interest, the wages they’ve stolen), and enforcement is weak.
Abstracting from these important details, Bobo’s book ulimately reads as an account of economic power and political economy. At the micro-level, employees who fear for there jobs are intimidated to not speak up about wage theft. Only when these workers are made aware of the laws by organizations like Bobo’s are these injustices addressed. At the macro-level, business has effectively neutered the Department of Labor, labor unions, and any political will to address these issues. Hilda Solis is certainly a vast improvement from Elaine Chao, but she’s no Frances Perkins, the New Deal Secretary whose strength and effectiveness Bobo extols. Why don’t we have a Frances Perkins, and a suitable budget in this area? The power of employer communities clearly matters here.
This problem is one that should provoke immediate outrage, even (and I’d argue especially) among free-market proponents. This is a perfect example of cheating, a place where the government must step in to ensure that the at least the exchange of labor for money occurs fairly, lest the very foundations of capitalist labor exchange crumble. On this basis, it seems that Bobo is hoping to organize a movement, and use the labor consciousness of that movement to score further gains for labor. Employers, by lobbying through means like the chamber of commerce, and by imposing their will through managers in breakrooms, represent a real power. Effective organizing and education could theoretically build a movement to counteract that power, generate political will for stronger labor laws and enforcement, and ultimately lead to more just remuneration. This process takes time, but Bobo lays out the blueprint for what a revitalized Department of Labor would look like, and how we can organize to get there. If such a movement could score further victories for workers, like expanded union representation and more widespread living wages, even better. Wage theft, I’m sure Bobo hopes, could be a unifying issue to serve as the entry point for these other gains, all working inside the current capitalist system.
Of course, if the root problem is employer power, the other alternative is to take the power directly from the employers and give it to the employees. Cooperatives like Mondragon are proliferating. Capitalist bankruptcies allow opportunities for worker expropriations, as seen in The Take. Rather than hoping for a series of band-aid wins, this approach would, workplace by workplace, ensure that employees would receive fair wages and then some, as they would make the decisions. This is much more difficult, because it entails bringing about an entirely new economic system, piece by piece. For more on what this looks like, see previous posts on cooperatives.
Either way though, the symptom of wage theft is widespread, obvious, and morally flagrant. The root problem is employer power, and the solution is either to counteract the power, or take it away entirely. These movements can certainly be paired- more labor consciousness is needed if we hope to proliferate co-ops, and realization of concrete alternatives is necessary to generate political will for legislative and enforcement reform. The losses of labor after its New Deal gains should clearly demonstrate which solution is sustainable in the long term. A different type of labor and remuneration, though, is possible. Bobo’s effort to raise awareness of these basic power dynamics is a good start.
(Thanks to ZL for some helpful comments.)