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US Social Forum: Fighting Wage Theft

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The US Social Forum (USSF), a convergence of activists, organizers, and engaged citizens from around the country, is underway in Detroit. Numerous organizations have registered to put on workshops throughout the forum. Many leaders from worker advocate organizations will be present with the hopes of networking and mobilizing movements to improve the lives and increase the rights of workers all over this nation.

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Ted Smukler, public policy director for Interfaith Workers for Justice (IWJ), will be participating in the USSF part of a workshop called, "Wage Theft: What is It and What Can We Do About It?" Smukler and IWJ will be participating because this event will be "the largest gathering of progressive activists" this year and it will be a great opportunity to network and learn about other issues and organizations in the country.

Interfaith Workers for Justice is a national organization that organizes and mobilizes "the religious community in this country to support the struggles of low-wage workers." It's a network of worker centers and religion labor groups. IWJ is involved "in public policy campaigns, the direct organizing of workers, and programs to educate the next generations of religious leaders on issues of low-wage workers" and has 60 affiliate organizations in the country.

The organization runs a program called Seminary Summer, "where seminarians spend time working for labor unions on campaigns." They also conduct "a program along with the AFL-CIO and some of the Change to Win people called Labor in the Pulpits where [they] bring issues of workers over Labor Day weekend to churches and mosques and synagogues."

Smukler explained wage theft saying, "Wage theft refers to when employers illegally steal wages that workers have won. Most common is not payment of overtime, shaving hours or not paying time-and-a-half overtime, which is required by the law."

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He added, "It also includes not paying minimum wage, the federal minimum wage or the state minimum wage, stealing tips from employees at restaurants, not giving the last paycheck, not paying for all hours work and some times not paying workers at all, which frequently happens to day laborers or people in the more casual labor market."

According to Smukler, a recent study of 4,500 low-wage workers in the three largest cities in the country (Chicago, LA, NY) indicated that this was becoming a bigger issue. The study found that in a typical week 15% of these workers' earnings were being stolen.

Smukler further explained, "The workers who have their wages stolen are not unionized workers. Unions care about this are concerned about this [but] mainly, it's an organizing issue for unorganized workers. A lot of the momentum on this issue are coming from worker centers, which are sort of this small drop-in centers for low-wage workers in niches of the economy that unions generally are not in like geographical areas or they work at place where maybe there are only ten workers working."

Misclassifying workers as independent contractors, Smukler described, is one way fairly unknown way that workers are cheated out of wages:

"FedEx, all their drives are called independent contractors. They are not salaried or wage employees so they don't have any of the protections that employees have in terms of the hours, and overtime and what not. They have no benefits. It doesn't pass any of the tests of what a real independent contractor is. I think an independent contractor is supposed to be a businessman selling their services."

Through ten worker centers, IWJ has been pushing a city/state ordinance campaign to combat wage theft.

Smukler described the coded language that might be heard to prevent action on the issue of wage theft:

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"We think community-based organizations, worker advocates, ought to be providing resources to do wage theft-prevention kind of projects and Republicans would call that helping ACORN and would talk about helping illegal aliens.

Nobody is going to get up and say workers should not take home what they are legally owed. They'll talk about if you increase enforcement efforts it puts an undue burden on small business."

Smukler said, with the new leadership of the US Department of Labor, IWJ is looking to form improved partnerships, but in recent years, the Dept. of Labor has not had the "stamping capacity" to enforce wage and hour laws.

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Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure." He was an editor for

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