Labor Day Read: Kim Bobo, Wage Theft in America

I’ve come across a number of good books that describe recent developments in the labor market (including The Disposable American, Nickeled and Dimed, The Gloves-Off Economy, New Capitalism?, and Fast Boat to China), but I wanted to particularly recommend today Kim Bobo’s Wage Theft in America. Bobo is founder and director of Interfaith Worker Justice, and pursues her calling as writer and activist with moral seriousness and inspiring determination.

Bobo reports that “even the Economic Policy Foundation, a business-funded think tank, [has] estimated that companies annually steal 19 billion dollars in unpaid overtime.” I found three aspects of Wage Theft particularly compelling:

1) The stories of poor and hard-working individuals are often moving. Bobo relates the words of Jeffrey Steele, an African American construction worker from Atlanta who came to New Orleans post-Katrina and found himself repeatedly denied wages he was clearly due by unscrupulous employers:

Contractor after contractor . . . crammed us into filthy living spaces, provided next to nothing to eat, offered practically no safety precautions or equipment and paid workers late and so much less than even promised. If this is how this country allows employers to get away with treating hard working citizens while companies make a profit—then shame on us.

Bobo notes deprivations large and small—for example, a “Refresqueria Tampico . . . sold snow cones but ironically made its employees work in an overheated shack with no air conditioning.” She humanizes the plights of people too often treated as marginal or disposable by current economic policies.

2) Bobo makes the case that, at least as of 2007, the Wage and Hour Division at the Department of Labor was severely understaffed. In both 1941 and 1962, there were over 1500 investigators there (covering 15.5 and 28 million workers, respectively); by 2007, only 750 inspectors were supposed to cover 130 million workers. Even if we assume that the general 373% productivity increase in labor applies here, Bobo contends that “3350 investigators are needed to maintain worker protection at the 1941 level” (120). (On a side note, the film Food, Inc. documents a similar problem with food safety inspector levels; no wonder we suffer one outbreak after another of dangerous food.)

3) Bobo unapologetically makes the case for protecting the most vulnerable among us in spiritual terms. She explores the history of “Catholic labor schools” in the US, which gave workers the skills needed to organize unions. A 1951 Time Magazine article describes one such school:

In his eleven years as director of Manhattan’s Xavier Labor School, Father Philip Carey has become a familiar figure to thousands of working men & women. He is a mild and scholarly Jesuit whose students are electricians, scrubwomen, plumbers, bus drivers, pipe fitters, and wire lathers. The lesson Father Carey teaches them: how to build strong and effective unions.

Bobo also describes the Jewish Workmen’s Circle, Methodist support for mineworkers, and Presbyterian organization of the “Labor Temple” in New York City (78). Her appendix on “faith body positions on wages and working conditions” documents a wide range of support for labor.

In conclusion, I highly recommend Bobo’s book on wage theft, and I look forward to following her work in the future to promote humane and just workplaces.

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