Posts Tagged ‘labor’
Given Iowa’s early labor organizing among mineworkers, led by John L. Lewis, who went on to head the United Mine Workers and found the Congress of Industrial Organizations, this book review illustrates the struggles posed by this dangerous profession.
Grand Prairie Union News
The Devil Is Here In These Hills: West Virginia Coal Miners and their Battle for Freedom, by James Green, Atlantic Monthly Press, ISBN 978-0-8021-2331-2 $28.00
Stereotypes abound about Appalachian people, “hillbillies” and “rednecks,” as rough clothed, rough fighting, straight shooting and inter-marrying tribal Americans, lost in deep eastern valleys.
Stereotypes are never fair and the determined labor battles that West Virginia coal miners fought receive their comprehensive due in James Green’s latest gift to labor history, The Devil Is Here In These Hills.
As the 20th century began, coal mining reached higher levels in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia, as deep seams of high quality fuel were exploited on an industrial scale. Not only were native Appalachians recruited to work the mines, so were Italian immigrants and African-Americans. Soon forging common bonds, these workers struggled from the 1900s until the 1930s to win union recognition and security.
Isolated in coal camps where the companies controlled the town, housing and stores, paying the workers often in company-issued currency, the miners soon found themselves in debt, their safety and dignity disregarded.
Again and again these workers rose up, only to face Baldwin-Felts detectives, court injunctions, state militias and federal troops. Blood ran freely and the miners quickly learned to arm themselves and fight back, though the odds were stacked against them.
Famous characters show up to rally the workers – the “Miners’ Angel,” Mary “Mother” Jones, with her characteristic salty language, boldly marched into company towns. Sid Hatfield, scion of the famous feuding families and sheriff of Matewan, West Virginia, became a miners’ hero after he faced off against Baldwin-Felts agents, only to be assassinated on the courthouse steps in Welch, West Virginia.
Green thoroughly details the culminating battles that Hatfield’s death helped trigger, the 1920-21 Mine Wars, including the Battle of Blair Mountain, where thousands of armed miners skirmished for three days with company guards and sheriffs. The U.S. Army Air Force had its first and only foray against American civilians during this episode and Federal troops finally disarmed the miners. To their dismay, the miners soon learned that only they were being disarmed, not the coal companies nor the Baldwin-Felts agents.
The term “redneck” is often linked to these battles, as the miners wore red kerchiefs and the company white, to distinguish their separate sides.
Beat down but never surrendering, when the 1930s Roosevelt Administration legalized union organization, West Virginia miners quickly joined the United Mine Workers and not only won better conditions, but democracy in their own communities, freed from the company store and company house.
Too often working people and their efforts for a voice and dignity get lost; particularly rural workers are stereotyped. Green breaks through this to show a multi-ethnic workers’ community, united in seeking democracy, not only in politics, but also on the job, and bravely willing to shed blood to win it.
Catch this week’s Fallon Forum live on Monday from 11:00 am – 12:00 noon on KDLF 1260 AM “La Reina.” Join the conversation by calling in at (515) 528-8122. And you can hear the Fallon Forum on KHOI 89.1 FM (Ames) at 5:00 pm on Wednesday and on KPVL 89.1 FM (Postville) at 7:00 pm on Wednesday.
“What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.” – Samuel Gompers, founder and long-time president of the American Federation of Labor
The American Labor movement has a prestigious history of accomplishments that benefit each and every one of us. Samuel Gompers – who died ninety years ago this week – provided the Labor movement not just with leadership and vision, but with a firm moral compass as well.
Yet as I walked across America, I met hundreds of hard-working people who had lost faith in Labor – people whose lives and land were being ruined by fracking, pipelines and pollution from oil and gas refineries. In each case, Labor’s leaders turned a deaf ear to the plight of those in the cross hairs of fossil-fuel expansion. They were focused solely on jobs to the point that they no longer cared what impact those jobs had on the well-being of others and future generations.
And I had to ask, “Has Labor lost its moral compass?”
As I attended one of the public meetings on the proposed Bakken Oil Pipeline last week, I thought about Gompers. Sure, everyone can get behind building a school. But what would Gompers say when it came to building jails, prisons, arsenals or pipelines? Would he agree with the leadership of the Iowa AFL-CIO in choosing to side with Big Oil over farmers, landowners, environmentalists, and the long-term best interest of its own members? I seriously doubt it.
I panned the roughly 250 people in attendance at last week’s public meeting and saw a crowd mostly opposed to the pipeline, or at best unconvinced. Then there was the other side: a few officials and staff of the corporations that will get rich; a handful of labor union reps; and some key Democratic and Republican operatives, including a former state party chair (Republican) and a former legislative leader (Democrat).
So, what does the Iowa Democratic Party Platform say relevant to the proposed pipeline?
“We support . . . Converting from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy;”
“We oppose . . . Tar sands oil/Keystone XL Pipeline;” and
“We oppose . . . Favoring private enterprise with Eminent Domain.” (On this point, the platform of the Republican Party of Iowa concurs.)
Given their history and stated policy, leaders of both the Iowa AFL-CIO and the Iowa Democratic Party should come out against the Bakken Oil Pipeline. In doing so, they would stand with their core constituencies and demonstrate an integrity and vision that look beyond short-term job creation and the next election cycle.
Thanks, and I hope to meet you on the airwaves this week!
WASHINGTON, D.C.— On Wednesday, Oct. 1, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez issued a final rule raising the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 per hour, effective Jan. 1, 2015. According to the Associated Press, the change will impact more than 200,000 workers.
The top ten federal government contractors in 2012 were Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Boeing, SAIC, Raytheon, General Dynamics, Hewlett Packard, Booz Allen Hamilton, Computer Sciences Corporation, and DynCorp International. They will feel the minimum wage hike a bit, but for the vast majority of Americans, especially the working class, the changes by the Labor Department will pass unnoticed.
The Labor Department also announced that effective Jan. 1, 2015, most direct care workers will be entitled to receive federal minimum wage and overtime pay protections. Direct care workers are workers who provide home care services, such as certified nursing assistants, home health aides, personal care aides, caregivers, and companions.
This is how change happens: bit by bit, incrementally, and job by job.
While many hoped for big changes when President Obama was sworn into office, expectations were set so high, he had an impossible task to meet them. While some small companies may complain about the new federal minimum wage rules, it is a basic tenant of living in our country that companies that secure a federal contract should pay a reasonable wage. Likewise, the notion that home care is real work, and that when a person runs a business that provides home care, they should be subject to paying the federal minimum wage with overtime is obvious. The rules set by the secretary create a floor, one that has been needed for a long time.
People who operate businesses want to make a profit, and that’s no crime. Running a profitable business is something basic and needed in our society. The political debate has been about the amount of government regulation and subsidy, and the dynamic of our bicameral legislature has been to create an environment that favors large, corporate businesses in the post-World War II era. Businesses like the top federal contractors.
At the same time, there is an economy of low wage workers, like those that provide home care. Someone knows a friend or relative who needs care, and an agreement is reached for compensation. The amount of compensation may not be as important as providing the service, especially when people can’t afford professional care. Personal relationships enter into the picture. Often this work is done off the books.
My point is this. Between the publicized, formal programs of the Labor Department and the reality of daily life there is and always will be a gap. That’s where many of us live our lives. We should appreciate the work of the Obama administration to fix known problems like those related to federal contractor wages and home care workers. In the working class, we may view that as nice, but less relevant to our lives than all of the brouhaha suggests.
It is something that we even noticed President Obama did what he said he would with regard to setting the minimum wage for federal contractors. But then that’s what blogs are for.
What working person hasn’t taken a nap in their vehicle? Part time and temporary workers with multiple jobs are unlikely to get enough rest, so why not set the alarm clock and snooze after arriving early for a shift, or during a 30-minute lunch break? At the meat packing plant where I worked during summer breaks from college, there was competition for the prime snoozing spots before clocking in the regulation six minutes before starting a shift. One’s vehicle provides a level of security and privacy— it’s also convenient.
The story of Maria Fernandes, who died in her automobile while sleeping between part time jobs at three New Jersey and New York Dunkin’ Donut shops, hit the corporate media in full force last week, and they were atwitter. The best coverage I found was in RT, the Russian 24/7 news channel:
A New Jersey woman who worked four jobs, who sometimes “wouldn’t sleep for five days,” according to a co-worker, died Monday while napping between shifts in her car on the side of the road.
Maria Fernandes died in her 2001 Kia Sportage after inhaling carbon monoxide and fumes from an overturned gas container she kept in the car, according to the New York Daily News.
The 32-year-old Newark woman pulled into a WAWA convenience store lot in Elizabeth, New Jersey for a nap early Monday. She left the car running. The carbon monoxide and gasoline fumes were the likely cause of death, authorities said.
Fernandes was found dead in the car around eight hours later when EMTs responded to a 911 call of a woman found in a vehicle with closed windows and doors. Emergency workers sensed a strong chemical odor upon entering the vehicle, authorities said.
What will the story of Fernandes mean to broader society? Regretfully, not much once the news cycle is finished. Hers is one more sad story in the life of working people.
There is media discussion of Fernandes becoming emblematic for low wage workers, and some connect her death to the current political discussion about the need for an increase in the minimum wage. Advocates will likely use her story to make a case for unionization and other favored topics. But something is missing. Let’s follow the RT story down the rabbit hole:
About 7.5 million Americans are working more than one job, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those jobs often leave people short on income compared to full-time work, said Carl Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.
“These are folks who would like to work full-time but they can’t find the jobs,” Van Horn said. “They wind up in these circumstances in which they are exhausted. More commonly it creates just an enormous amount of stress.”
Workers in the United States are earning an average of 23 percent less than earnings from jobs that were lost during the economic recession that began in 2008, according to a recent report, as wealth inequality in the U.S. has shot to record highs, according to various indicators. Many long-term unemployed are considering abandoning their job search following years of stagnant economic growth.
Maria Fernandes is not a victim of her own choices, except maybe the one to leave her car running while she slept in it. Closer to the truth is that many companies want part time or temporary workers to avoid paying benefits, and this runs contrary to the expectations built for those of us in the baby boom generation. The movement to part time and temporary work is an inexorable march toward stripping costs from business operations— something few in the corporate media have covered as it relates to Fernandes.
That she could work in three locations with the same corporate brand and wear the same uniform in each, yet not work for the same company, gets to a core issue. By its structure, Dunkin’ Donuts and companies like it, are designed to distance themselves from workers, and create gross margin and related profits that flow to the richest one percent of the population. In this case to the parent company, Dunkin’ Brands Group, Inc. (NASDAQ: DNKN), led by Nigel Travis. There are layers of distancing from the company, presumably related to the goal of avoiding the costs and troubles of lowly paid workers.
The circumstances around Maria Fernandes’ death captivated attention for a news cycle. One must ask the question what will we do about it, and hope there will be an answer.
We all learn something new. We learn from school, family and friends, and much of what we learn is on the job. That can not only mean job skills, but also learning human personalities, workplace issues and basic job justice.
Though few in number, some universities, like the University of Illinois, have labor education programs. The professors and scholars there work for and with workers, sometimes on direct job issues, sometimes on union training.
Helena Worthen, in What did you learn at work today?” takes her years of labor education and slimmed them down, seeking to understand how we learn on the job and in the union hall.
Unless you are a teacher, most Americans don’t think about learning styles or philosophies. Worthen covers four different analyses of how we learn and applies them to everyday situations.
She then does case studies of workers she’s been involved with: striking AFSCME care workers in Effingham, Illinois, inner-city pre-apprenticeship trainees, garment workers, trade apprentices, power plant technicians and teachers. Through each case, she documents on how workers’ empowerment and involvement changed not only their work lives, but them personally.
Perhaps the most fascinating chapter is how children view their working parents. Worthen served as a scholarship judge for AFSCME and read hundreds of essays on “What does AFSCME do for my family?” We often forget how observant children are of family dynamics, how job security or insecurity impacts the family and how much pride they take in their parents and their work. The Labor Movement is missing a great opportunity by not including union families and their children in activities, as these essay writers are often very insightful on how the union maintains their family unit.
Ultimately, a union is about workers developing power to better their conditions. Knowledge is power. How we gain and maintain worker knowledge is the great lesson of this book.
Four Democratic legislators introduced the Schedules That Work Act (H.R. 5159) on July 22 without fanfare. Labor and Women’s groups were quick to sign on to a bill that asserts its help for part time workers in a middle class that increasingly seeks flexibility and fairness in work scheduling from employers. This is especially true for workers who clean, perform janitorial work, serve in restaurants, and work retail.
The statement of Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families on the day the bill was introduced gets the conversation started:
Across the country today, millions of workers receive no advance notice of their schedules or the number of hours they are expected to work. Some are required to call to find out if they are scheduled to work each morning– and have no guarantee of work, pay, or that they won’t be sent home early if they do travel to their workplace. These practices mean that workers, especially women and those paid low wages, are left with significant uncertainty about whether they will be able to pay for basic expenses, meet family and caregiving responsibilities, or pursue educational and job training opportunities. It is a harmful and unnecessary situation.
By giving workers more control over their schedules, encouraging employers to be clear about scheduling and hours expectations, and ensuring employers provide some wages when schedules are irregular or change on short notice, the Schedules That Work Act would provide much-needed predictability and financial stability for workers, businesses and our economy. The bill would go a long way toward helping people meet the dual demands of job and family while promoting economic security and opportunity.
Vermont and San Francisco have laws like this on the books, so why not everyone else in the country? BFIA readers know the answer to that.
Whether the bill gains traction seems doubtful in a Congress less popular than cockroaches. At the same time, creating a viable economic model for a family that relies on several part-time jobs is hard. It’s harder if there are young children. If a person tries to lead an honest, decent life, and get ahead through schooling or job training, it is impossible without a social safety net that includes government tax credits for health insurance and a retirement plan of Social Security and Medicare. If illness or injury have darkened a family’s doorway, they are at the mercy of the community, and life can get hopeless with part time work supporting a family.
Does something need to be done to encourage more people to work part time? Yes, there is a business demand for part time workers, and demand has already pushed starting wages well above the minimum wage, at least in Eastern Iowa. Does something need to be done by government to frame a structure to make life easier? Maybe, maybe not.
During the past five years, the author has worked a number of part time jobs and found most to be accommodating of a flexible schedule. If they were less so, they had strict work rules to facilitate work with an employee base that turned over frequently. A person can understand work rules when they are strict and fairly enforced, and agree to the deal. Companies also seem willing to accommodate flexibility if an employee has basic work skills like showing up on time, working while at work, and producing desired performance results. In a competitive business environment, there will be plenty of part time jobs, and there is something to the idea that the market will drive employee accommodations, because businesses need a skilled workforce to conduct operations.
That isn’t to say there is no merit in the Schedules That Work Act, just that the initial information indicates a lopsidedness in perspective. So read up.
The New York Times ran a background story on July 15, which can be accessed here.
President Obama is on board with some protections, and issued a statement here.
Currently though, as Jennifer Ludden of National Public Radio suggested, if you want flexibility, consider moving to Vermont or San Francisco.
The Schedules That Work Act seems dead on arrival in a Congress obsessed with Obamacare, impeachment, unwavering support for Israel, and deporting young children seeking shelter. The Schedules That Work Act will be one to follow into the midterm elections, and if Democrats win, into the next Congress.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This post ran last summer and remains emblematic of a situation lowly paid workers find themselves in Iowa. Since then, Simon Head published Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans, which gets to the heart of the workplace I described. In many ways, this is the new normal for wage workers).
One of my work mates this spring was an Iraq War veteran. Stationed in Tikrit, his military occupational specialty was fueling, although military contractors did most of the fueling work. He had a lot to say about war profiteers, including members of the Bush-Cheney administration. Locals he met did not like the American presence in Iraq. “Too many car bombs,” he said, something they experienced less when Saddam Hussein was in power.
Our supervisors discourage us from talking while we are in our cells (a.k.a. work stations), but when the computer network went down for about 45 minutes one night, we had a chance to talk. For me, that meant mostly listening.
I had been working as a temp in a warehouse in North Liberty for about two weeks. Not sure I could hack it— repetitive motion, standing and walking except during lunch break— my focus had been on staying healthy, and getting the work done as best I could. My goal was to survive, and beyond that, to learn everyone’s name and a little about them. Employees turned over at a rapid pace, so I hadn’t yet done very well on getting to know people. Mostly, it was nose to the grindstone.
It turned out that the Iraq War veteran found another warehouse where he could work through a temp agency for about two dollars more an hour. He was scheduled to start there on Monday. There was no surprise, as the discussion was overheard in the lunchroom the previous day. I wished him good luck with his new job, in case we didn’t get to speak to each other on Thursday.
Living paycheck-to-paycheck, and working poor was something I had not experienced until now. Measuring each week by the number of checks that will arrive, knowing it is enough to barely make regular expenses, can be a grind. I can see why my work mate took the new job— some might say, it’s a no-brainer. But a different view, is that temp work does not provide the means to earn a living wage in any case, at least temporary warehouse work. It was not designed to do so.
These jobs are part of the American outsourcing movement— clear evidence that the changes in a worker’s life regarding wages, and for whom we work, aren’t only happening when jobs move to Asia or Mexico. They are endemic to the Iowa experience.
My hourly wage cost the company $0.154 per kit I assembled. Add on whatever the temp agency gets for their fees, and it is not much. There are no paid benefits. In the context of the entire operation, the expense includes management, supervisors, equipment, material moving, overhead, supplies and external transportation. Inherent is the idea that there are cost savings to the principal manufacturer by doing business this way. And jobs are created, somewhere between 125 and 150 of them where I work.
My work mate and I worked well together. Probably because of our common military experience. At the end of the day, that may be all we had together, as our logistics process, like any in the transformation of the American workplace, could easily be changed, eliminated or improved. In many ways, logistics is a facilitator of the transformation of business. Wage workers have to take it how they can, and sometimes that means switching jobs for another $80 per week.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece first appeared in the Iowa City Press Citizen. It is reprinted with the permission of Senator Bolkcom).
It might seem hard to believe, but some Iowa employers are regularly stealing from their employees. It’s a problem in Johnson County and across Iowa. A recent report suggests that unscrupulous Iowa employers are robbing Iowa workers of $600 million annually.
Iowans work hard for every dollar they earn, and it should not be stolen from them by their employers. This is a disgrace that must be stopped.
Last fall, Kossiwa Agbenowassi worked cleaning the Outback Steakhouse in Coralville. She worked hard seven days per week, scrubbing the dining area, kitchen and bathroom to support her young children. Now, months later, the cleaning subcontractor for Outback has refused to pay her for more than 49 days of work— a total of $2,346 in unpaid wages! Her efforts to get the money she earned have so far failed.
This is a classic case of wage theft, when workers aren’t paid the wages they are legally owed. Studies say it’s a growing epidemic in Iowa, and across the country.
Not only are these employers stealing from their employees, they are not paying withholding taxes, worker compensation or unemployment insurance. They are cheating the system while good employers and every taxpayer subsidize this deplorable practice.
Iowa has some of the weakest wage enforcement laws in the country with virtually no penalties or enforcement when cases are reported to Iowa Workforce Development. Until last year, the department had just one wage investigator to address the concerns of our state’s 1.3 million private sector employees. That’s why Senate Democrats insisted last year and successfully secured funding to add a second wage investigator.
Senate Democrats have introduced legislation several times over the past few years to establish better safeguards to ensure Iowans get paid and allow investigators to more easily go after businesses that fail to pay what they owe. The bill called for better record keeping, stronger penalties and retaliation protections for workers.
Unfortunately, these efforts have been blocked by some of Iowa’s largest and most powerful business associations, including the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, the Iowa Grocers Association and the Federation of Iowa Insurers. Moreover, it has no support from Governor Branstad or House Republicans. And when we voted on it in the Senate this year, not a single Senate Republican supported legislation to protect Iowa workers. They appear to not care that taxpaying Iowa workers are getting millions of dollars of their money stolen from them.
The vast majority of Iowa’s employers are honest and ethical and have nothing to worry about. The proposed reforms simply require employers to provide the terms of employment to their employees in writing and keep a copy on file. This protects both the employer and the worker if there is a disagreement.
Because of the failure of politicians to better protect Iowa workers, the most effective enforcement has come from community groups that have waged a public campaign against employers that owe money but refuse to pay. The Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and the Center for Worker Justice have done extraordinary work in getting some workers back the money they have earned and are owed.
It is long past time to protect Iowa workers from the disgraceful practices of some Iowa employers.
~ Joe Bolkcom represents Iowa City in the state senate.
It’s hard to fathom the cavalcade of minutia encountered when mailing a package at the post office. The question has been “can a lowly paid worker at Staples do the same work for less?” The postal unions have said no, and the AFL-CIO supported them with its “Don’t Buy Staples” boycott launched earlier this month. In Iowa, the land that puts one to sleep, there has been a little action, but not much. What is going on?
“Office-supply giant Staples has been struggling recently due to the secular decline of major categories like PCs, ink, and paper,” wrote Adam Levine-Weinberg for The Motley Fool. “North American comparable-store sales declined four percent last year. With sales falling, Staples has found that it has far too much space in its stores, and it is therefore looking to downsize to smaller formats.” To use some of the newly created space, Staples struck a deal with the U.S. Postal Service to offer mini-post offices in some of their stores. Staples sells stamps, Priority Mail and other postal services during normal business hours. What and how they do it is outside consideration of union contracts, and hence the rub with union members.
In April the postal worker protests of the Staples-USPS deal made a splash, but Staples and the USPS may have broader problems than a boycott by the small minority of union worker that exist in post-Reagan America. Like with many advocacy efforts against businesses, economics will be a key driver of whether Staples stays in business trying to deal with what the Fool suggests is a problem with the economics of their business model– namely the thrill is gone with regard to visiting specialty retailers like Staples to buy office supplies.
As a former union member, I empathize with Iowa postal workers. In recent months a cavalcade of ever changing rural delivery operators, presumably all non-union, has been delivering mail to our home. Our local post office downsized, with the long-time postmaster retiring, and a different face at the counter every time we go in to buy stamps. Speaking of the latter, the number of stamps our household purchases has decreased significantly as we now pay most bills on line because of the convenience and predictability of payments.
The USPS has problems with its relationship with its union workers, but the lack of Congressional action to properly fund it, combined with changing consumer patterns put the postal service in a no-win situation.
“Labor problems do not exist in a vacuum,” wrote Donald Woolf in an article titled, Labor Problems in the Post Office. Woolf’s article suggests that operational issues like plant obsolescence, the changing nature of the USPS labor force, union representation and bargaining structure, inter-union rivalries and other factors may play a more significant role in postal worker disgruntlement than the USPS-Staples deal. The Staples deal is just more visible than all the wonkiness Woolf refers to.
While it may feel good to have a specific targeted action like the “Don’t Buy Staples” boycott, closer to the truth is feeling good isn’t good enough.
A solution? Elections matter, so get informed and get involved with politics. Electing candidates like Staci Appel, Jim Mowrer, Pat Murphy, Dave Loebsack and Bruce Braley may not solve the problems at the USPS, but would go a long way toward getting an empathetic ear in the Congress on the significant challenges that are today’s USPS.
Oh, yeah. It wouldn’t hurt to boycott Staples and let them know it. However, the market will likely take care of Staples.
DUBUQUE– Americans like to think that a fair day’s work brings a fair day’s pay. In today’s labor market, however, wage theft annually amounts to billions of dollars and affects millions of wage earners. Victims include U.S. citizens and immigrants; men and women of every race and ethnicity; and both full-time and contingent workers.
Employers who commit wage theft rob federal and state treasuries of many billions of dollars of revenue through tax and payroll fraud. By cheating workers out of wages, these employers also depress consumer spending and stunt economic growth.
Survey research shows that about two-thirds of low-wage employees suffer wage theft. The withholding of wages or benefits rightfully owed to an employee takes several forms: failure to pay overtime, minimum wage violations, illegal deductions in pay, employee misclassification, and working off the clock.
While wage theft occurs in all industries, it is especially prevalent in restaurants. A recent poll found that 90 percent of fast-food workers report having wages stolen from them. Restaurant workers hold seven of the 10 lowest-paying occupations in the U.S., earning less on average than farm workers and all other domestic workers. Although the industry has grown steadily over the last twenty years, restaurant workers continue to earn significantly less than workers in almost every other industry, forcing them into public assistance programs.
The average fast-food CEO made nearly $24 million last year, four times more than the average in 2000. By contrast, the average hourly wage for employees increased just 0.3 percent in real dollars since 2000. Taxpayers actually bear a double burden. In addition to the money in food stamps, Medicaid and other government assistance impoverished fast-food workers need to survive, taxpayers also underwrite CEO compensation by allowing deductions for so-called “performance pay.”
Over the past year or so, you’ve probably seen news coverage of the strikes and other job actions fast-food workers have taken against their employers. And wage theft lawsuits have been filed against such giants as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.
While those at the bottom of the wage scale are hardest hit, wage theft can be found across the employment spectrum. For example, payroll fraud also impacts people like engineers, financial advisers, adjunct professors, and IT professionals.
Most wage theft goes largely unreported because workers fear losing their jobs, many don’t know their rights, and some don’t even realize the robbery. When reported to authorities, months elapse before the completion of an investigation. And criminal charges are rarely filed. Besides, almost half of workers surveyed nationwide have experienced some form of illegal retaliation, like firing or suspension, when they file complaints.
Right now, government agencies charged with recovering lost income are largely ineffective. Few local governments have the resources or staff to combat wage theft, and several states have shut down or severely cut back their labor departments, leaving workers largely unprotected and vulnerable to exploitation. With only 1,000 investigators to oversee about 7.3 million business establishments employing 135 million workers, officials at the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor concede that violators have a good chance of not getting caught. Even when compelled by judgments or settlements to pay back wages, some employers disappear or go out of business before victims can collect.
Communities, activists, and unions have mobilized to address the problem and scored some victories in several states, cities, and counties, but much more needs to be done. In order to stop wage theft, we need stronger worker protection laws, more enforcement of wage and hour regulations, a lower rate of unemployment, a rise in the minimum wage, and public accountability of individual employers who commit these violations.
Ralph Scharnau teaches U. S. history at Northeast Iowa Community College, Peosta. He holds a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University. His publications include articles on labor history in Iowa and Dubuque. Scharnau, a peace and justice activist, writes monthly op-ed columns for the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.