When Moses came down from the mountain he had with him the tablets with God’s ten major ordinances – the Ten Commandments. The most important, of course, was that God’s people were to worship Yahweh faithfully and honestly, but down the line a bit there was the one that we now call “VII” – Thou Shalt Not Steal. We all know that stealing is wrong. To intentionally take something that is the private property of another person, is almost in cases a moral evil. I say in almost all because there are certain circumstances which would allow a person to make quick decisions in order to survive; for example, food when faced with hunger. In general, it is always wrong to steal.
But some kinds of theft are worse than others. Walking into a liquor store with a handgun in order to empty the cash register is theft and if you don’t get killed, you certainly can go to jail for a long period of time. You may not understand this but there is a certain honesty in that kind of theft. You have money, I want it and if you don’t give it to me, you are going to get hurt!
However, let me tell you of a worse kind of theft. Put yourself in the executive offices of a fast food place. It doesn’t matter whether it is McDonald’s or Wendy’s or Burger King. You see the hourly charts coming in reflecting that Gene Jones or Raul Martinez worked 52 hours at the minimum wage. No one can actually survive on that in an urban setting. Why should those two guys who sweated for so many hours get so much money? We will just say that he worked 40 hours cutting him out of overtime. Stealing from the poor is, in my opinion, the very lowest form of theft!
A few weeks ago the United States Department of Labor announced the results of a survey indicating that the scope of wage theft in this country is stunning. The practice of stealing wages, commonly called “wage theft”, is a national epidemic. It eats away at the livelihood of already underpaid workers. Eighty percent of surveyed fast food workers experienced off the clock violations, meaning that they were required to work without pay before punching in and after punching out. Forty-eight percent who worked more than 40 hours in a week did not receive overtime pay. Wage theft has ramifications beyond the employees who are cheated. We suffer when wage theft becomes a way of doing business. Law abiding businesses can’t compete with wage cheats who shave their operating costs by breaking the law. The less money that wage earners bring home, the less money they have to spend on basics, such as food, clothing and household necessities depriving local businesses of much needed consumer dollars and hampering our economy. When that happens everyone loses.
The Department of Labor has studied and documented that this heinous crimes. Now let’s give them the charge of cleaning this utterly cruel form of theft up as quickly as possible.
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The union movement has grown steadily weaker over the last thirty years. This bad development has been assisted along the way by corporate hostility and by an indifferent media. In my opinion, all of us should be more appreciative of the sacrifices made for the common good by construction workers. Everyone has heard about the electrician or the plumber who is highly paid when their wages are figured by the hour, but the real test of how good his income is would be a question of how much he worked in the course of the year. Construction is a painfully on and off situation as jobs begin and end quickly, and they do not do that neatly one right after the other.
• Nearly 45% of construction workers live below the poverty line.
• One in five construction workers has experienced wage theft in Austin, Texas.
• 76% of construction workers do not have health insurance.
• Every 2.5 days a construction worker dies on the job in Texas.
There were 141 construction deaths in Texas. The next largest was California at 58. Why the difference?
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October 23rd, 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
If you are not self-employed but rather are working for another person or entity, you expect to be paid, do you not? Maybe it is every Friday; maybe it is on the 1st and 15th, maybe it is by commission. Whatever your situation is you do expect to be compensated for your efforts on behalf of another.
That is true for all of us but in point of fact many workers in the United States and, especially in Texas, work hard, fulfill their side of the contract but are cheated out of some of their well-deserved pay or maybe, in some instances, are not paid at all. Wage theft in America is very real and the victims are the most vulnerable among us. Unskilled construction workers, especially immigrants, often find that they do not receive all that is due them when payday does come around. The same is true of jobs such as hotel maids. Laws regarding overtime are often disregarded and a 22-year-old girl from Nicaragua is not likely to take on a national hotel chain. Well, they have two things on their side. One is God, himself, who, in today’s first reading, God’s word comes to us in the book of Exodus with, “Ye shall not molest or suppress an alien…ye shall not wrong any widow or orphan. If you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry and my wrath will flare up.” You can’t have a better patron than that.
But an additional source of strength for workers who are cheated out of their just due are two wonderful organizations, both of which exist here in Austin, Texas. One is a group of pro bono lawyers who work under the heading of the Equal Justice Center (510 S. Congress) and the other is the Workers Defense Project (5604 Manor Road). Both of these organizations have limited resources but they make up for that by dedication and courage.
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I mentioned earlier how saddened I was by the fact that thousands of hard working men and women are frequently cheated of the wages that they have struggled so hard to earn. Wage theft in America is a tragic reality. I am encouraged by the fact that concerned citizens and the workers themselves are making progress in confronting this crime.
Let’s celebrate the development of a new form of self-help assistance to such cheated workers. These responses are called “Worker Centers” where the workers themselves come together to cooperate in developing their rights under the law and to move in a unified fashion against corrupt employers who systematically endeavor to steal the wages of hard working but vulnerable employees.
I am very proud and happy to report that Austin has a very excellent worker center, Workers Defense Project, located at 5604 Manor Road. Recently, the Austin center was able to assist a group of masonry workers to recover nearly $12,000 in back wages which had been kept from them illegally. Victories such as this give workers the knowledge and the courage to defend their rights to work together to improve their working conditions and to secure the proper payment for frequently very difficult labor.
Like the Roman Catholic Church itself, I am a strong supporter of workers rights to organize into unions. Regretfully, in this country working people have always faced hostility in their efforts to organize themselves. Actually, they only got the legal right to do this in the mid-30’s with the passage of the Wagner Act. Regardless of where a person stands in their attitude towards unions, however, no right thinking person could be opposed to hard working men and women getting their completely fair share of payments that are owed to them for labor expended. The anti-union situation is not likely to change any time soon but in the meantime we should all be willing to encourage society to see that workers are properly paid for efforts that they have expended to provide for their families.
I am proud of the Workers Defense Project and I am proud of the good work that it has done here in Austin.
Is one of your church organizations looking for an exciting and interesting subject for a presentation and discussion? Why don’t you suggest to your president or chairman that the issue of wage theft in America be a subject of thoughtful discussion and prayer and maybe then some very real action on behalf of justice. The Workers Defense Project will supply speakers. Just call (512) 391-2305 or their e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Do you have any memory of being around a street paving job in mid-summer? Have you stood by even for a few minutes while summer’s heat bounced off that tar-like substance and came straight up to your face? Have you been around when a new roof was being put on in your house and you had that same sense of agonizing heat up and hitting the arms and faces of the men who were applying the roof? It is a tough job and not everyone wants it.
As I am driving along in my air-conditioned car and I see men doing this necessary, important and uncomfortable work, I often pray that God will give them the strength and energy in order to care for their families, which sometimes are a country away in a place such as Mexico. In this situation, we really need empathy.
Empathy is the virtue which enables us to put ourselves in other people’s positions; to walk in their moccasins, as in the expressive phrase of Native Americans. Get a feel for it and thank God that circumstances in your life have protected you from those working conditions. Would you like to do that work for 40 or 50 hours a week only to be told that there will be no pay for those agonizing hours of labor because the company had gone broke or moved out of town or the employer cannot be found? My friends, it saddens me to tell you that this is a frequent reality in American life, especially in the construction world. This issue is called “wage theft” and millions of working people either do not get paid after they have expended their labor or they are paid inadequately or beneath what the law requires.
The heroine in this area is a friend named Kim Bobo. Kim is the author of an excellent book on this subject, Wage Theft in America. This book not only describes and documents how wide-spread this abuse is but also informs people with a strong sense of justice.
Problems generate solutions. As much as I despise the concept of wage theft, I am inspired by the fact that it is bringing into existence a new form of organization for vulnerable workers. This new form is called “workers center” and I think there are about 25 or 30 of them in the United States at the present time and their number is increasing. These centers are put together by the workers themselves. Frequently, people have been victimized repeatedly by the abuses in the wage system. Reaching out to workers who have been victimized and show them that there are methods of redress. However, it is hard for isolated individuals to take advantage of these possible solutions. This is especially true when workers are illiterate or recent immigrants not able to speak the English language. This is the group that most often are the victims of this crime – and yes, it is a crime. It is a crime against the laws of several states and it is a crime against the law of the United States. Most importantly, it is a crime against God and, believe me, God is on the side of these people.
It was the psalms who said, Who rises up for me against the wicked? Who stands up for me against evildoers? (Psalm 94:16)
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