Janesville74.4°

Mistreated workers need our attention

Print Print
Robyn Blumner
September 14, 2009

Movie director Oliver Stone is resurrecting Gordon Gekko in a “Wall Street” sequel. Maybe this time people will get it that Gekko was the 1987 movie’s slithery villain, not its hero.


In recent interviews, Stone has remarked with a touch of disbelief that Gekko’s driving philosophy, “greed is good,” was taken by some as a credo to emulate. The moral they gleaned from the movie was that any excess of capitalism that leads to personal riches is OK as long as you get away with it. Twenty-two years later, and we find that this is precisely the fevered mind-set that has hobbled our nation.


But this obsession with greed is not limited to the whizzes of the financial sector. The overseers of America’s executive suites are also guilty of trying to get away with what they can, no matter who it hurts.


We wouldn’t be having a debate over health care reform if insurance companies didn’t reject people for having been sick.


We wouldn’t need laws against pollution if industrial corporations didn’t seek to use our nation’s waterways and air as their own toxic dumping ground.


But what always shocks me the most about the willingness of corporations to disregard what is fair and right in order to engorge the bottom line is the way so many companies cheat their workers. For a significant proportion of low-wage workers, getting paid in accordance with the law is about as likely as getting their own corner offices.


A comprehensive new study by a team of researchers who interviewed nearly 4,400 low-wage workers in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles found that 68 percent had been stiffed by their employer the prior week. The authors of “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers” (http://nelp.3cdn.net/1797b93dd1ccdf9e7d—sdm6bc50n.pdf) found that the average worker who experienced wage theft lost $51 out of an average weekly paycheck of $339, a big chunk of a their very low pay.


Employees were cheated in all sorts of ways. They were denied overtime pay, paid less than minimum wage and told to work off the clock. One of the study’s examples was the gourmet grocer Amish Markets in New York City, which had to pay nearly $1.5 million in unpaid wages to 550 workers in February. Some of Amish’s employees had received $300 for 60 to 70 hours of work, and one reported having delivery tips stolen by management.


The employees in the study came from wide-ranging fields. There were home health aides, manufacturing employees, restaurant workers and residential construction workers, among others. But the offending employers all seemed to read from the same script, regularly disregarding wage and hour laws with impunity. And the study found that when workers complained or took action, 43 percent experienced some kind of illegal retaliation, such as being fired or threatened.


Stolen tips, working for a dollar per hour less than the minimum wage, being told to clock out and then work some more: These are the conditions of work for essentially millions of America’s workers. You would think that a national scandal of this magnitude would cause some outrage.


Nope. The study came out a little more than a week ago, and it barely caused a ripple.


This is the kind of issue that should be dominating the news and our national conversation. Yet it seems the media—broadcast and cable TV especially—aren’t interested. We’re so busy reporting on the latest name-calling salvos by the teabaggers and birthers—as if these marginal and misinformed people make up the core of a populist rebellion—that news about consequential bread-and-butter issues gets ignored. Coverage of labor issues and fair working conditions used to be part of the day’s news, and that singular attention helped make it the centerpiece of political campaigns and public policy debates. But no more.


When employers cheat workers out of their meager pay wherever possible, it’s a very big story that if reported repeatedly and with depth could lead to real reform. It is a story of rapacious greed, just like that on Wall Street. So why is no one paying attention?


Robyn Blumner is a civil liberties and labor law expert who writes about individual freedom, trade, globalization and workers’ rights. She is a columnist for the St. Petersburg Times in St. Petersburg, Fla., and syndicated by Tribune Media Services. E-mail her at blumner@sptimes.com.

Print Print