Labor Day was born out of one of America’s bloodiest labor strikes. In 1893, Eugene Debs, a famous socialist who was instrumental in founding the American Railway Union, led the workers against railroad tycoon George Pullman. But Pullman was backed by at least 12,000 federal soldiers—nearly half the American army at the time. Ultimately, the Pullman Strike was unsuccessful: 13 strikers were killed (some by federal bullets) and many more were wounded. Debs and the other leaders were arrested and jailed. To appease resulting protests against the government’s heavy-handed intervention, President Grover Cleveland signed legislation that recognized the first Monday in September as Labor Day. Um, yay?
Today, labor struggles are generally less gory, but workers still pay a terrible price for America’s backwards labor laws and preferential treatment of big business. A report released last week made it clear that there is still a quiet war being waged against workers that denies millions of workers a living wage and union representation.
Last week saw the release of “Broken Laws and Unprotected Workers,” a study that shows 68 percent of workers polled reported at least one pay-related violation in the previous week. For a minimum wage average paycheck of $339 a week, that amounts to a loss of $51. The study also found widespread violation of minimum wage laws; 26 percent of workers polled weren’t paid the legal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour and more than 60 percent of respondents had been underpaid by a dollar or more per hour.
The findings varied among industries, with manufacturers and private households stacking up among the worst offenders. According to the authors, the most representative occupations were jobs like cashiers, “who had a minimum wage violation rate of 21 percent and an overtime violation rate of 59 percent.”
Employers get away with egregious violations of labor law because the punishments are so minimal (sometimes employers are only required to put up a note saying they won’t violate labor laws again). Of those polled, 20 percent reported a serious grievance but said they were too frightened to report it to the authorities. Unions can provide a check against such behaviors, but of the 20 percent of workers in the poll who tried to organize, or even complain about lost wages, 43 percent faced illegal retaliation, including firing.
“We all hope the revelations in the report will light a fire under powerful legislators to beef up labor law enforcement,” says Ruth Milkman, director of the Institute of Industrial Relations at UCLA and one of the study’s authors. “Most employers know their chances of being caught are very, very small. So they can violate these laws with impunity. If they do get caught, the penalties are not that harsh. We need better laws, more enforcement of the laws we have, and stiffer penalties.”
A similarly distressing study was released earlier this year. Kate Brofenbrenner, a professor at Cornell, showed escalating levels of employer coercion against workers attempting to organize. Sixty-three percent of employers in the study forced their workers into one-on-one interrogations with management, in which the employees were questioned about their views on unionization. More than half the time these mandatory meetings contained threats against the workers: illegal wage cuts and firing. In the study, 34 percent of employers actually fired union supporters. Even among workers who were able to unionize, 52 percent of their employers haven’t signed a contract a year after a successful union election. Although things have been bad for workers for decades, there has been a significant uptick in recent years.
Some hope the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would fine employers $20,000 for each labor law violation, would adequately address most of these problems. But the legislation seems to be at a standstill in the Senate without a filibuster-proof supermajority.
Workers shouldn’t have to wait for EFCA, since the study shows employers are doing things that are already illegal. The Labor Department should step up investigation and enforcement, functions that were largely abandoned during the Bush years. “Robert Reich’s [tenure as] Secretary of Labor was the last time there was any serious attempt to address these issues,” Milkman said. “But it was more of an interruption in a long-term decline. Over the last 30 years the level of funding and enforcement has deteriorated.”
Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis promised to hire more investigators in March. Last week she reaffirmed her commitment; according to Dolline Hatchett, director of public affairs and field services at the DOL, the hiring process has “already begun.” Additionally, the DOL could cover more ground by reaching out to community groups (like immigrant rights organizations), helping to pick up the slack of an understaffed department. But while Solis seems genuinely committed to enforcement, it will take her a while to hire and train the personnel she needs. Until then, workers can expect little help from Washington.
In the 1890s, Pullman got the federal government to commit soldiers to keeping his employees in check. Now, more than a hundred years later, employers don’t need a single soldier¬—these recent studies show they can effectively wage a war on workers without them. Perhaps these stark numbers will finally compel Congress, the Department of Labor, and American workers into action.
Jake Blumgart is a staff writer for Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter.