The Indignities of Wage Theft

Scrawled in bold letters across the classroom’s blackboard was the evening’s topic of discussion: Wage Theft. Billed under the title “Thou Shall Not Steal: Putting an End to the National Epidemic of Wage Theft,” the event aimed to both define the phenomenon of wage theft and to recognize the various ways in which Chicago workers have mobilized to fight back. Organized by University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration doctoral student Jacob Lesniewski, speakers included members of several interfaith worker organizations and representatives from the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 1110.

Ted Smukler, from IWJ, kicked off the evening by defining the various forms of wage theft. Examples range from overt, such as an employer’s outright failure to compensate or refusal to pay minimum wage, to subtle, and Smukler stressed that wage theft can also affect more than just wage-laborers, as in the case of salaried workers who find themselves working significantly more than a forty-hour workweek.

The speakers followed, detailing their own personal struggles against the phenomenon. Gustavo Medina, an electrician and immigrant from Honduras, spoke of his experience with wage theft while working on a public construction project in Chicago. Rosio Perez, a steward from United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 1110, spoke about the strength of the union and the bravery of her coworkers at Republic Windows and Doors, who had been able to successfully win severance pay, health benefits, and unused vacation pay after the company announced it was filing for bankruptcy this past December. Melvin “Ricky” Maclin, the Vice President of UE Local 1110, explained how Republic workers had organized a highly publicized occupation of the factory until their demands were finally met.

Though Maclin expressed pleasure at the abundance of young people in attendance, he warned that in the face of the current economic crisis, young people’s futures could be in jeopardy “unless we speak out and speak loudly.” The stories of the evening were certainly compelling evidence for the power of collective action. ““If I fight I might win,” observed Maclin, “and if I lose, at least I know I fought. It’s about dignity.”