THE BLOG

Grand Theft Automated

05/17/2015 08:55 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2016
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The day after the New York Times published its stunning two-part exposé of labor conditions in New York City's nail salons, New York governor Andrew Cuomo, nobody's idea of a radical, discovered that he was sitting on power that he didn't know he had. Cuomo ordered a crackdown against a broad pattern of thefts of wages that were hidden in plain view, had he bothered to look.

Cuomo's new efforts will collaborate with an enforcement initiative by New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, two officials who don't like each other and seldom work together.

The Times and writer Sarah Maslin Nir deserve immense credit for this investigative piece of work. At the same time, these broad patterns have been well-documented before.

To name just two examples, organizer Kim Bobo's 2009 book, Wage Theft (2009), not only documented that theft of wages is epidemic in the low wage and casualized economy. She popularized the concept and phrase, wage theft.

Another modern classic that documented the pervasiveness of wage theft was the Brennan Center's 2007 book-length report, "Unregulated Work in the Global City".

The study by Annette Bernhardt and colleagues, three years in the making, using New York City as a laboratory, documented a pattern of wage theft, including minimum wage and overtime violations, workers being made to work "off the clock," regular employees misrepresented as contract workers, and a great deal more.

Once you grasp that the boss is literally stealing wages properly owed and payable to workers, you can appreciate that we are talking not about some arcane technical violation of labor law but about theft. About $18 billion is stolen from American workers annually in overtime violations alone.

Theft of wages, in terms of its criminal illegality, is no different from robbing a bank or stealing a car -- and it's far worse than the kind of alleged minor shoplifting that got Michael Brown killed by a trigger-happy cop in Ferguson, Mo.

If you steal from the boss, you are likely to go to jail. If the boss steals from you, nothing happens. Indeed, the boss stealing from workers is routine.

Until lately, while there have been plenty of cops enforcing everything from minor drug use to immigrant visa violations, there was hardly any law enforcement directed at wage theft. The Labor Department's wages and hours division has been overwhelmed, with fewer enforcement staff now than it had at the time of a much smaller workforce half a century ago.

Executive power held by the president of the United States, that could be wielded to enforce labor standards in government contractors, had been largely unused. Lately, this has been changing for the better, with new executive orders on contractor standards issued by President Obama, and a crackdown by a new wage-and-hour Administrator at the Labor Department, David Weil.

Exposes like the Times' series on nail salon workers, and the other investigative research that came before it, can help shift consciousness. But what's also required is a power shift.

There was less outright wage theft in the 1940s and 1950s, in part because we had a stronger labor movement. A union employer who attempted to steal wages would find himself with a flood of grievances, complaints to the Labor Department, and maybe a strike. But there is nobody to stick up for the lone worker who risks bering fired if she complains.

A stronger labor movement, in turn, applied pressure on government to protect the interests of working people generally, and not be mainly an ally of Wall Street. Lately, the Fight for $15 movement and the acknowledgment of wage theft as a pervasive scandal are signs that the pendulum could be swinging back.

What's occurring, belatedly, is growing recognition that America's working people are getting cheated, whether retail and fast food workers earning too little to feed a family or immigrants being exploited in nail salons.

The press can help shed light on these abuses and government can use its executive power to crack down. But the pendulum won't swing back because of some law of physics. A true transformation will require a broad social movement with the power to bring government back on the side of working families.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a visiting professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.

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