Millions of people across America are having part or all of their pay stolen by their employers, but Kim Bobo is doing something about it.
The founding director of Interfaith Worker Justice since 1996, Bobo is working with worker centers around the country to wage a campaign against the widespread crime that takes many different forms.
She’s also written a book.
In Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid-And What We Can Do About It, Bobo explains wage theft’s origins, forms and extent before articulating a new vision of the Department of Labor and identifying concrete actions individuals and organizations can take against this nationwide epidemic.
Full disclosure: IWJ Communications Coordinator Danny Postel is a close friend a mine.
Bobo begins the book by describing the forms wage theft takes. These range from having employees work through lunch and other breaks to not paying overtime to making workers pay payroll taxes to simply refusing to pay workers.
She then explains some of the reasons why employers take these actions – greed, racism and sexism figure prominently here – and how current U.S. law fails to protect workers. These failures include a paltry enforcement staff, laws that differ across states and legislation that lacks sufficient punch, she says.
The result: millions of people across the country, many of whom are already at the bottom of the economic ladder, do not receive their just wages and have less recourse than they should if they choose to pursue what has been stolen from them.
The second part of the book focuses on what individuals and organizations, particularly unions and worker centers, can do to stop the abuse.
Bobo provides plenty of concrete suggestions for people to get involved, from direct interaction with workers’ organizations to advocacy with elected officials.
Bobo includes a chapter on the life and work of the late Frances Perkins, whose service in the 30s and 40s as Secretary of Labor under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made her the first female cabinet member in American history, as well as a chapter on an alternative vision of the Department of Labor. Bobo advocates for more wage cops, wage and hour partnerships and a multi-faceted approach to workers’ education – measures that, if adopted, would make the agency more responsive to workers’ needs.
She closes the book on an optimistic note:
“The national epidemic of wage theft is not inevitable. A hundred and fifty years ago, we didn’t know if we could end slavery. We did. A hundred years ago, few thought we could stop child labor in industries. We did … Ending wage theft will not be easy, but together we can put a stop to it and rebuild protections and standards for workers. Ending wage theft is good for workers, good for ethical business, and good for America.”
A series of helpful appendices, which mirror the book’s trajectory, follows this statement. Bobo provides attentive readers with a list of wage theft settlements and private suits, four appendices filled with resources and, finally, a study guide for the book.
Wage Theft in America has many strengths.
More than many books about workers, this book is designed to help spur people to action while simultaneously providing them with ideas and resources they need. As part of this intention, the tone is conversational and informative. Bobo also makes sure to present her information in digestible, self-contained bites and to offer plenty of practical suggestions.
The book’s structure merits praise on several levels.
Bobo strikes an effective balance between providing a clear-eyed look at the problem and its consequences while also showing the possibility of constructive action. This is an impressive feat: too much of the former can demoralize the reader, while excessive doses of the latter can make the author seem Pollyannaish and disconnected from many people’s daily realities. The anecdotes of current workers and historic figures like Perkins contribute to and shape this positive aspect of Bobo’s work.
Bobo demonstrates a fair-minded approach toward employers by stating repeatedly that many do act in honorable ways and even calling for those who act valiantly to be saluted as such. These statements give her critique and suggestions credibility because they illustrate an emphasis on reaching constructive real-world outcomes rather than posturing in the name of ideological purity.
Finally, no discussion of the book’s merits would be complete without mentioning Bobo’s efforts to place a campaign against wage theft in the context of faith traditions. This is a theme she carries throughout the book from the introduction to the epigraphs for each chapter to one of the appendices, where she includes many denominations’ positions of wages and working conditions.
This linkage of ancient Jewish, Christian and Muslim quotations to the current contexts both shows the timeless nature of the challenge Bobo says must be met and shifts the campaign from simply being one about wage retrieval and prevention to a continuation of a faith-based struggle for justice.
Such positioning elevates the campaign’s moral ground – this is not to suggest that the quest absent the faith tradition is less noble – and can also have the effect of drawing in those people who might otherwise shy away from joining such an effort for fear of seeming too politically radical.
The book is not without challenges.
The description of the societal challenges impacting workers and employers is quite thin.
Bobo covers globalization and America’s unresolved immigration situation in a combined three paragraphs, for example. While such brevity is understandable given that section’s broader purpose of articulating employers’ and workers’ societal context, it is so short as to provide neither insight nor anything but the most general of understandings.
In a similar vein, Bobo moves too quickly from Moses‘ proposed three-day strike against Pharaoh to eighteenth century American craft guilds to nineteenth century textile mills in consecutive paragraphs.
In addition, while Bobo does provide plenty of evidence in much of the book, at times she presents extremely broad assertions without any supporting documentation.
At one point, for example, she writes, “When unions represent most workers in an industry, wage theft is virtually eliminated” before going on to suggest that all workers in garment, poultry and nursing home industries be represented by unions. As a former teacher’s union representative, member of the union’s negotiating team and general labor supporter, I agree with Bobo’s recommendation. However, I found myself wishing that she provided examples for her assertion about the elimination of wage theft. Such evidence would have buttressed her point, while an explanation of how the theft was stopped could have been worthy of an entire chapter in itself.
These difficulties notwithstanding, Wage Theft in America is a valuable contribution to exposing and helping to solve a little-discussed problem that afflicts millions of American workers, their families and their communities. Wage Theft will not stop the practice by itself, but will undoubtedly inform and inspire those people who seek to make Bobo’s optimistic vision a reality.
People in the Chicago area can hear Bobo speak on Friday, January 9 at 7:30 p.m. at Women and Children First Bookstore, 5233 N. Clark St.