The drive to strengthen workers' rights is one of the most important ever undertaken by an American administration
Hundreds of thousands of workers are being cheated by U.S. employers who blatantly violate the laws that are supposed to guarantee workers decent wages, hours and working conditions.
That’s been going on for a long time, but rarely as extensively as it was during the administration of George W. Bush. Thankfully, Bush is gone. And thankfully, President Obama and his outstanding Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, have this month launched a major campaign to try to overcome the very serious damage of the past.
Even the name of the campaign itself is very un-Bush-like. “We Can Help,” it’s called. Bush, of course, never so much as offered help to badly exploited workers. But he did, of course, offer plenty of help to their law-breaking employers.
So, just what are Obama, Solis and their allies in the labor movement and elsewhere up to? They’re taking some very big steps to encourage workers to report employer violations of the wage and hour laws - especially low-wage workers, who are the most exploited. And they’re trying to respond as quickly as possible to the workers’ complaints.
Undocumented immigrants, who are perhaps the most exploited of all workers, are being encouraged to make complaints and are promised they won’t be punished for their illegal status. As the Labor Department explains, all workers deserve decent treatment, whatever their legal status.
Solis’ Labor Department has made the campaign a top priority. The department has already hired more than 250 new investigators, increasing the number by more than one-third. Even with a lesser number, the department recovered more than $170 million in back pay for more than 200,000 workers since Obama took office.
The key element of the campaign is to make sure that workers understand their rights under the laws and report any violations of those rights.
Certainly there’s no doubt that there are plenty of violations to report. For instance, a recent survey of workers in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago found thousands of rampant abuses of low-wage workers, many of them undocumented immigrants. They worked in stores, in factories and offices, at construction sites, in janitorial and food service jobs, in warehouses, in private homes and elsewhere.
More than one-fourth of the workers had been paid less than the legal minimum wage, often by more than $1 an hour less. That amounted to an average of more than $50 week in underpayments on wages that averaged not much more than $300 a week to begin with.
Many of the workers had been denied overtime pay or had their pay illegally docked for the cost of tools or transportation. Some were forced work without pay before and after their regular work shifts. Slavery is the word for that - being forced to work without pay.
Although the Labor Department is relying primarily on workers themselves to report on employers’ labor law violations, the department is also getting help from the AFL-CIO, its affiliated unions and other worker advocacy groups.
They are distributing posters, fact sheets and booklets spelling out the wage and hour laws and how to report violations, arranging meetings between workers and Labor Department staffers, holding forums at union halls, and other steps.
The department also has begun a publicity campaign in English and Spanish that includes TV ads featuring prominent Latinos, such as Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, and prominent Puerto Rican actor Jimmy Smits.
Win or lose, the drive to greatly strengthen workers’ rights is one of the most important ever undertaken by an American administration. And I strongly suspect it will come in a winner.
Dick Meister, formerly labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 250 of his recent columns.
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