One Nation, off the Clock

One Nation, off the Clock

Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid—And What We Can Do About It
by Kim Bobo
The New Press, 2009, 336 pp., $17.95

During the last presidential transition, George W. Bush made his first political misstep with the nomination of Linda Chavez for secretary of labor. A conservative columnist, Chavez had a long paper trail arguing that the “glass ceiling” didn’t exist and calling women who bring workplace sexual harassment suits “crybabies.” But perhaps her most bizarre position of all was her opposition—on principle—to the minimum wage. Chavez subscribed to the Chicago School canard (debunked by empirical evidence) that minimum wages increase unemployment, hurting the very workers they are supposed to help.

Chavez’s far-right positions alone weren’t enough to scuttle her nomination. It was her behavior that did her in. Chavez didn’t just talk the talk, she walked the walk. For nearly two years, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant named Marta Mercado lived with Chavez doing odd jobs for pay. But not much pay. Chavez paid her boarder less than the legal minimum wage (perhaps she was sticking to principle). When ABC News broke the story, Chavez claimed that the woman wasn’t an employee. But with the Left angry about the labor law violations and the Right angry about her “harboring an illegal alien,” within days Chavez withdrew her name from consideration for labor secretary.

Tellingly, the story of the Chavez nomination doesn’t appear in Chicago labor rights activist Kim Bobo’s Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid—And What We Can Do About It, a muckraking-exposé-cum-activist-manual on the epidemic of workers being cheated out of their wages, most commonly by being paid below the minimum wage. Bobo avoids partisan finger-pointing in the hope of building a big-tent coalition against wage theft. But the epidemic of wage theft in America cannot be understood apart from the conservative ideological and political movement that has abetted it.

Wage Theft in America more than meets the burden of proof that this is indeed an epidemic. Like a police crime scene report, the drama of the book comes from the stark facts not the style with which they’re presented. Nashville’s chain of Shurbrite-Hi-Speed Car Wash, for example, recruits employees almost exclusively from the area’s black homeless population. Then it orders workers to remain on site all day, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., paying them only for the time when customers show up. So a worker may spend all day at the car wash but only earn six hours’ wages. This is blatantly illegal. The law is clear: workers must be paid for their time at work whether business is brisk or not, whether they’re washing or waiting. There is no controversy on this point. There is no string ...

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