Seattle recently joined San Francisco, Austin, Kansas City and Denver in making wage theft — bosses cheating workers out of their earned pay — a criminal offense, and rightfully so. Across the country, employers big and small are not paying minimum wage and overtime, or they are forcing people to work off the clock or during their breaks. Others are stealing tips or making illegal deductions from paychecks. Many bosses take advantage of undocumented immigrants, using the threat of arrest and deportation to simply not pay them at all.
A 2009 study by the National Employment Law Project estimated that two-thirds of low-wage workers in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles were denied full payment for their work.
The passage of the Seattle wage theft ordinance can only help working people. Groups like Casa Latina, a local workers center and immigrant rights organization, worked hard for the law to be passed. At a time when so many of us are struggling economically, we need every possible tool to assist regular people.
But, like any theft, wage theft is already illegal.
The problem is that the avenues available to workers to address wage theft are time-intensive, costly and rely far too much on lawyers, professionals and other resources out of reach of working people. Many employers count on these facts and rely on people not being able to take the time and money necessary to file a claim with Labor & Industries or small claims court.
In other areas of labor law, especially the right to organize a union free of company harassment, employers act with impunity, violating laws as they see fit. Just recently, six workers at Minneapolis-based Jimmy Johns restaurants were fired for trying to unionize. Nationwide, the Center for Economic and Policy Research estimates that one in five workers actively involved in organizing their workplace can expect to be fired, and that one in three employers fire workers for their support of a union during a National Labor Relations Board election.
The situation is similar in landlord tenant relations. Seattle has strong and progressive landlord tenant laws, yet we know of stolen deposits, unsafe living conditions and unjust evictions are widespread throughout the Seattle area.
The passage of the recent anti-wage theft ordinance is a step in the right direction, as are the current efforts to guarantee paid sick leave for Seattle workers. But the truth is that no law is going to stop wage theft or any other abuse bosses and landlords regularly dish out. None of this will stop until regular, everyday people are ready to make it stop. This means getting people agitated, educated, organized and ready to stand up for themselves and each other. Our experience in the past three years working with the Seattle Solidarity Network proves that organizing and fighting back is not pie-in-the-sky idealism. We have successfully organized dozens of campaigns with workers and tenants across the city to stop landlord and employer abuse.
For example, one worker was owed $500 in back wages that a local restaurant owner adamantly refused to pay — even after a court order. After getting in touch with us, the worker hand delivered a letter demanding his stolen wages with 27 other Seattle Solidarity Network members behind him. He received his back wages in a matter of days.
Then there is Bert, who had his rental deposit stolen. He and a group of Solidarity Network members staged a demonstration against the property manager and within a few days she paid up.
Each of us at some time has suffered from unjust treatment by employers, landlords or other wealthy people who hold power over our lives. We’ve learned from experience that the only way we’ll be treated fairly, equally, and with dignity is by being prepared to stand up to such people and defend our rights. It’s hard to do this alone. That’s why we’re coming together and seeking other local people with similar problems who want to fight back. Together we can find ways of dealing with abusive bosses, greedy landlords, and those who would deny our friends, families, neighbors and co-workers the right to a decent life. New wage theft and sick leave laws are steps in the right direction, but it’s up to us to give them meaning.