The courts are not necessarily the workers’ friends on these issues though. For example a recent ruling against steelworkers was surprising to me. The court denied pay for the time spent by the workers in getting free of the hazardous conditions clothing they were required to wear in the mill.
Another test is coming up before the Supreme Court in the coming session dealing with the fact that Amazon and its subcontractors in their numerous warehouses have been requiring workers to go through time consuming extra security screening after they have clocked out to make sure they aren’t stealing stuff from the warehouse. This is a situation where the company seems super cheap since they both want to prevent “shrinkage” but also aren’t willing to hire enough screeners to process the workers out quickly. The price tag for this wage theft would be huge since it involves a class action of 600,000 workers.
Sadly though, as the steelworkers’ case shows, the legal process may not be our best avenue for justice compared to blunt pressure and the court of public opinion.
Talking recently on Wade’s World on KABF with Anne Janks, the national poultry organizer for the Chicago-based group Interfaith Worker Justice, directed by longtime activist Kim Bobo, it was still shocking to hear how widespread wage theft is in the poultry industry. Janks indicated it was nothing fancy, just plain holding workers while the production line was down and not paying them, sometimes for hours per day, even with big companies like the giant chicken plucker, Tyson’s. The fact that much of the workforce are newer immigrants, and according to Janks, not just Latinos but also eastern Europeans, Somalians, and others.
It was hard to tell if the Amazon case originated in the organizing efforts of warehouse workers initiated by Change to Win in Riverside and the Imperial Valley of California, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that to be the case. Certainly, beating wage theft for home health care workers has been a consistent organizing handle in unionizing such workers who were simply never reimbursed for time and money spent on travel between clients. Wage theft is often mentioned in the fast food protests and certainly anywhere immigrant workers are organizing.
The prevalence of these cases makes it clear that we have a moment right now, when some of the inequities have become political issues, to push forward against major companies on the issues of wage theft. At the same time home care workers should remind us all that informal workers without big, fixed workplaces are the most vulnerable where they can be robbed easily in groups of ones and twos. When big outfits think nothing of robbing with impunity in workplaces holding hundreds and thousands, all of us can imagine the ease with which pockets are picked in smaller and more isolated workplaces.