For about as long as I can remember, I’ve had a strong aversion to unfairness. As a kid, it would annoy me to no end that I was expected to do everything perfectly on time, by adults who regularly were late to class or other appointments, or who took weeks to grade and return homework or tests. Later, I had teachers who were mean to students, or whose “teaching” left me unprepared for later classes, and again, it rankled. I’ve generally been willing to take ownership of my screwups, or of times when I just didn’t put in the work for whatever reason, but the fact that someone else could screw up, and that I’d just have to live with the effects of that, pissed me off.
The reality is that these adults who pissed me off as a kid were just people, trying to live their lives, and do their best. They were not responsible for the school system, or the role it plays in society. While I don’t think they were trying for this, the double standards I experienced as a kid actually turned out to be good preparation for the much worse double standards that waited for me as an adult. We’re constantly told that if we follow the rules and work hard, we can get ahead in life, and as you’re no doubt aware, that’s not actually true. There are, of course, a myriad of ways in which those who try to follow that path are tripped up and stymied, but there’s also the simple fact that the people at the top – the ones who have the most power over what the rules are – rarely abide by them, themselves.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. I doubt anybody would deny the army of accountants and other servitors who keep our aristocrats above the law. Tax evasion and bribery of public officials are just the surface stuff – the glint of sunlight that tells us there’s water there. If you want to go deeper, consider Jeffery Epstein, or Coca Cola’s use of death squads, or the child slavery of chocolate corporations, or the endless crimes of the fossil fuel industry. Again – all of this stuff is out in the open. We all know about it, and the people who profit from these crimes are all identifiable. They just get away with it, because the system is set up to make sure that they do.
There’s another category of crime that’s pretty much exclusively committed by the rich. Trump became famous for it, but it’s widespread throughout the United States, and probably most other capitalist countries – they just don’t pay people.
Rich people will just violate contracts. They’ll get goods or services from someone, and then just… Not pay.
If I were to do that, the odds are pretty good that I would be arrested. Whatever I stole – because that’s what we’re talking about here – would be taken from me. It would be used as evidence, and hopefully the victim would eventually get their stuff back, or I would be forced to pay what I was owed, and I would be punished with a fine, prison time, or both, as well as a criminal record. The worst rich people tend to face is being forced to pay what they owe. This isn’t a small problem, either. Sure, it happens to the folks who do direct business with rich individuals, but it also happens to everyone working for the corporations owned by these rich people.
Workers in the US have an estimated $50bn-plus stolen from them every year, according to the Economic Policy Institute, surpassing all robberies, burglaries and motor vehicle thefts combined. The majority of these stolen wages are never recovered by workers.
Between 2017 to 2020, $3.24bn in stolen wages were recovered by the US Department of Labor, state labor departments and attorney generals, and through class- and collective-action litigation.
Wage theft disproportionately affects lower-wage workers, women, people of color and immigrant workers, and negatively affects local economies and tax revenues.
There are numerous forms of wage theft, from employers not compensating workers for time worked, violating minimum wage and overtime laws, misclassifying employees as independent contractors, not providing legally required meal breaks, confiscating worker tips, or illegally taking deductions from worker wages.
I’ll repeat for emphasis – “surpassing all robberies, burglaries and motor vehicle thefts combined.”
How many billions does the US spend on further empowering its already bloodthirsty and unaccountable police, justified by fear of robbery, burglary, and theft? How many lives have been destroyed by those cops, in the name of “keeping us safe” from robbers?
Earlier I said that the worst rich people tend to face is paying back what the stole. I stand by that, because as noted above, the vast majority of that theft is just allowed to happen. On rare occasions, however, a corporation will get caught:
Wage-theft violators include some of the largest employers in the US; Amazon paid $18m in November 2022 to settle a wage-theft class-action lawsuit in Oregon, the largest in the state’s history, and paid a $61.7m fine in 2021 over allegations of stealing tips from Amazon Flex drivers.
According to a 2018 report by Good Jobs, between January 2000 to 2018, Walmart paid over $1.4bn in fines and settlements over wage theft violations, FedEx paid over $500m during the same period, and Bank of America paid over $380m.
I’m no financial expert, but it seems likely to me that these fines amount to less than the profit they made through their theft, which is a big part of why they keep doing it. I think it’s also important to underscore that this is the rich stealing from the poor. This is a big part of why folks at the bottom of the ladder tend to stay at the bottom – because the folks on the top are actively kicking them in the head to prevent them from having any hope of a better life. When you hear pundits talking about “job creators”, this is who they’re talking about – people who will hire the bare minimum number of workers needed, agree to pay them as little as possible, and then refuse to even pay that.
Conventional political involvement has clearly not solved this problem. Laws are passed, broken, and barely enforced, and the Supreme Court is pretty openly hostile to organized labor. This means that it’s even more important for workers to organize and and work together. Whether it’s labor rights or civil rights, the progress we’ve made has come from people willing to deliberately violate unjust laws, because there was no legal way to make things change. The reality is that the people at the top – the ones who will demand “law and order” – constantly violate the law in ways that materially harms the people at the bottom. They’ve violated the social contract just like they violate their business contracts, and we should stop pretending that their view of what’s acceptable has any legitimacy at all.
I guess what I’m saying is – workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.