Iowa: How Can We Fight Wage Theft?

The working poor deserve better than the union leaderships' strategy, writes Gabriel Pierre

Cedar Rapids protest against wage theft, via Center for Worker Justice - Centro de Justicia Laboral

More than two thirds of American workers in low wage industries fall victim to wage theft during any given week – the practice where employers, either by forcing unpaid overtime or otherwise off-the-clock pay, withholding tips, imposing illegal pay deductions or outright paying a sub-minimum wage, steal from their employees. The total amount of money stolen this way is estimated at $100 billion per year, of which only one percent is eventually recovered. All said, more money is stolen via wage theft than by all other forms of robberies – from bank heists to convenience store hold-ups – combined!1

Predictably, the government infrastructure in place to prevent and redress wage theft is in a pitiful shape, as shown by the poor recovery rates. While economic austerity (the systematic gutting of the bare bones social programs that keep the poor alive) hasn’t been enforced as strictly in the U.S. as in Europe, one of its prime targets has been slashing labor departments’ resources. The capitalist state has its own priorities: war, funneling money to financial capital’s bloated coffers, militarized police forces and a skyrocketing prison-industrial complex are all well and good, but defending the working poor’s livelihoods? What do you think we are, made of money?

Fortunately, workers have started to fight back. The past few years have seen sporadic protests to bring visibility and put a human face on the victims of wage theft, mostly focusing on the fast food industry. I, with members of the local Red Party branch, attended one such protest on June 19th in Cedar Rapids. Organized by the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa (CWJ), which was set up by local trade unions and mostly includes low wage immigrant workers who bear the brunt of wage theft, it was one of four coordinated protests in the state that day. Around seventy protesters gathered in C.R., a high number for the city2 and one that shows Labor’s potential to mobilize not only its own ranks but crucial new layers when it puts its mind to the task.

The rally’s specific purpose was to shame the local Outback Steakhouse into paying over $2,300 owed to one Kossiwa Agbenowossi3, already ten months overdue. Although there was a lot of energy on the ground, broader political perspective and strategy were in short supply, at least among the CWJ’s leadership. Like other labor-backed anti-wage theft campaigns, the method was simply to shame the company with bad publicity until it gives in. The protest organizers explicitly refused to call even for a boycott of the company, let alone dig deep and build a movement for a living wage and full employment. Instead they have Democratic State Representative Art Staed, who was at the rally, and his proposal to re-introduce in the next legislative session a bill that would tighten enforcement for wage compliance. This bill already died last session, and even if it does pass in the future, workers will find that curbing wage theft does little to alleviate the fact that they are poverty wages to begin with – if one is lucky enough to have a job in the first place.

Let’s keep in mind that the working class is the wealth-generating class, not the bosses. Timidity is not the appropriate response to a situation where 46.2 million members of our class live in poverty, of whom 10.4 million are employed4. The best enforcement against wage theft (and for that matter, poverty wages in general) is the organized working class. A large scale unionization campaign could organize low-wage workers and the unemployed alike, immigrant and native-born, to exert an upward pressure on wages and win a publicly-created jobs program. This won’t be acceptable to the Democratic Party “friends of labor” – no, not even the liberal Art Staed and those like him in other states – but it is what’s necessary.

 

Notes

  1. From the Economic Policy Institute, based on data from the U.S. Department of Labor and Department of Justice: www.epi.org/publication/wage-theft-bigger-problem-theft-protect/
  2. Demonstrations are somewhat rare in town. The last protest of this size was in 2011, when the Hawkeye Labor Council and the Workers International League (which I was a member of at the time) organized a 100+ strong solidarity rally with the Wisconsin worker struggle.
  3. http://www.kwqc.com/story/25814771/protesters-demand-wage-theft-protection
  4. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/04/12/heres-why-10-4-million-american-workers-are-still-in-poverty/
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