Wage Theft: An Organizer's Perspective

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Sam Talbot
Contemporary Labor Issues
Professor Ed Ott
December 17, 2010
Over the past several years, an ugly secret has been brought to light in the United States: employers steal from their employees. Not just a few unscrupulous employers, or small businesses, or in marginal, declining or unprofitable industries. To the contrary, recent studies have shown beyond a reasonable doubt that wage theft is both wide-spread and virulent, and that current enforcement of wage law is utterly inadequate. While the full magnitude of wage theft in the U.S. is still unknown- no comprehensive assessment has been undertaken- it has been revealed to be a crime which is so pervasive that it constitutes the norm rather than the exception in entire sections of the U.S. economy; a crime which is orchestrated by- and for the benefit of- many of the most powerful corporations, the largest banks, the richest private equity firms, and the wealthiest families; a crime which is persecuted systematically, calculatedly, and with ruthless abandon. In other words, wage theft must be considered not as incidental product of our economy, but as one of its fundamental features, a rottenness in our system of wage labor. How are we to process what this means about our society, and what can organizers do to help? In this paper, I attempt to sketch out an overall portrait of wage theft, document what is clearly known, and introduce some of the forces that are in play which may be of assistance to the organizer. I believe, too, that I can offer a special insight into this issue, because I was myself a victim of wage theft- for 50 weeks in 2008 and 2009, the managers at the Fortune 500 Company I worked for as a cook illegally deducted pay from my weekly check. Over that year, about $2,500 was stolen out of the $26,500 I rightfully earned- almost 10% of my earnings. In the final section, I give a personal account of this experience.

The Shame of Wage Theft
An unjust system rightfully produces a feeling of shame in all those who participate in it. It is hard to imagine a greater shame than for a rich and powerful country like the United States to allow its workers to be preyed upon with such abandon. It is hard to imagine a greater shame than for a culture which holds the property rights of the wealthy in such high regard to allow these same rights to be so unaccountably violated when it comes to the hard-won earnings of those who work. It is hard to imagine a greater shame than for an intelligencia which proclaims a philosophy of free markets to plead ignorance when one of the primary exchanges- that between an employer and an employee- is so recklessly and violently defiled. How is this situation possible? How is it allowed to continue? The answer lies, in part, in the nature of shame itself. Shame is the most social of all emotions. The first experiences of shame mark the transition from purely selfish being to a set of motivations tempered by rules and boundaries which- although they may not be fully understood- are nonetheless enforced and obeyed. For the very reason of its social utility, however, shame also displays a remarkable malleability, and tends to conform not only to the expressed values of society, but also to support the worst of society’s prejudices and iniquities. An unjust system rightfully produces a feeling of shame in all those who participate in it. But ironically, the reflexive reaction to this shame is to minimize it, to hide it, to keep its secret, and thus, ultimately, to perpetuate the injustice. This urge to secrecy is felt by the victim as well as the victimizer- in fact, it is often stronger within the victim. The victimizer, after all, has already overcome their shame once- in the process of perpetrating the offence- and is therefore already rehearsed in explaining it away; while the victim has no primary experience of overcoming the shame of the injustice done to them. This shame takes a multitude of forms and...
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