The Christmas season is here, so we’re shopping.
Appeals for door-buster deals are everywhere. Bright lights and happy music draw us in with cheerful promises of abundant gifts at low prices.
It’s all good, when it’s all good for everyone. But what about when it isn’t?
America is still a young, capitalist society when it comes to providing for the common good and general welfare.
Nowhere is the recklessness of our youth more obvious than in our desire for cheap goods and services from cheap labor.
We tolerate a lot of exploitation of others as providers in exchange for cheap, plentiful goods and services for ourselves as business owners and consumers.
Farm workers in Florida picking produce, domestics making beds at your vacation motel, sweatshop seamstresses around the world sewing high fashion, healthcare aides at momma’s nursing home, Hispanic roofers in your neighborhood, Uber drivers. The list goes on.
The social contract between workers and consumers isn’t win-win; it’s win-lose due to unequal bargaining power. You know who gets hurt.
Lest you think this is intended to guilt trip you as one counted among the winners, read on. Even as you read this, educated, overworked, white-collar worker, the Trump administration is rolling back your right to overtime pay.
The right to overtime pushes salaries up. So, the rollback will dramatically cut back your chances of a decent raise next year.
This affront to dignity on the job is just the most recent undermining of the American Dream of real rewards for hard work.
Is it any wonder that, as productivity increases set records year after year, real wages have been stagnant since the ’70s?
The decline that began in the ’70s tracks closely with the decline of the labor movement in America. Unions have been shrunk to a vestige in our economy.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 23, speaks of a “right to work,” defined as “free choice of employment … just and favorable conditions of work and … protection against unemployment.”
But in America since the ’70s, “right to work” has become a cruel misnomer for the public policy that urges unionized workers to claim as entitlement the hard-won benefits of a union contract’s higher wages, health care and job security without paying for it.
Entitlement to quit the union without consequence is shrinking the movement.
The U.S. Supreme Court may very well make “right to work” nationwide soon. Law turns the right to work upside down to a right to cheat our co-workers who play by the rules. What part of “thou shalt not steal” don’t we understand?
Article 23 also enshrines the “right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring … an existence worthy of human dignity.” That is, to be paid accurately and fairly for a fair day’s work.
America flouts that right every day. There’s a multibillion-dollar “industry” in cheating workers out of what we’re owed.
Crimes without criminal consequence that far exceed losses due to burglary and robbery every year. Misclassifying employees as “independent contractors.” Working hourly employees “off the clock.” Not even paying the minimum wage to the most vulnerable.
But there are fewer labor “cops” on the beat to enforce and deter. It’s up to those of us in the private bar to act as private attorneys general to enforce the law.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, Pope Francis held a conference on labor rights around the world. William Barber of North Carolina’s Moral Mondays was there to address the revival of Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign.
But there won’t be any justice for poor people until there is justice for poor people who work. Or for any of us who work long hours, for not enough, for too many years, with too little to show for it when we’re done.
Chris Sanders is a practicing employment lawyer currently serving as interim coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Kentucky. He also serves Simmons College of Kentucky, a historically black college, as coordinator of Empower West Louisville, a coalition of black and white churches dedicated to economic empowerment in Louisville’s segregated West End that sponsors The Angela Project.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series for Human Rights Day 2017 (Dec. 10). Previous articles in the series are:
Working in law, labor, faith and politics, he is a union-side lawyer and former AFL-CIO official who has served the United Food and Commercial Workers for years. National legal counsel for Jobs with Justice, he represents historically Black Simmons College of Kentucky in Louisville.