In every country where the capitalist mode of production prevails, it is the custom not to pay for labour-power until it has been exercised for the period fixed by the contract, for example at the end of each week. In all cases, therefore, the worker advances the use-value of his labour-power to the capitalist. He lets the buyer consume it before he receives payment of the price. Everywhere the worker allows credit to the capitalist.
Karl Marx, Capital Vol. I Chapter 6
If you worked this week, chances are you extended a line of credit to your employer by working without payment. Sure, you’ll get your money at the end of 40 hours, or when that freelance gig is done, or when the diners have left a tip, but until then you’re just working for free. Loaning our labor to our employers is so commonplace that we don’t think twice about it — until payday comes around and our bosses don’t settle their debts.
By failing to pay their workers, employers are committing wage theft — a crime unfortunately all too common in the lives of workers across the country. Wage theft includes: nonpayment or underpayment of wages, stolen tips, illegal deductions, and even the failure to grant legally mandated breaks. Yet, the policing of wage theft is feeble or nonexistent. Under such conditions, cheated workers have little or no recourse to reclaiming their wages, and struggle to navigate the limited legal options that are available.
Members of Denver DSA have been working to combat wage theft for the past two years by participating in the Wage Theft Direct Action Team (DAT). This volunteer group helps workers—mainly day laborers and those in the buildings trades — reclaim wages from unscrupulous and criminal bosses. Most wage theft cases that the DAT handles are between a few hundred and several thousand dollars, which can easily make the difference between making rent for the month, or facing eviction. In 2018 alone, the DAT reclaimed $20,889 in unpaid wages.
The Wage Theft DAT utilizes a variety of direct action, nonviolent, institutional, and legal tactics — all with the purpose of persuading employers to pay-up. This diversity of approaches allows for volunteers to contribute in the manner best suited to their skills, availability, and interests.
The following is a list of the steps and tactics the DAT employs to reclaim unpaid wages. Not every case requires each step, nor must the tactics occur in this precise order:
Sending out demand letters: letters are prepared by the team and worker, and are sent to employers, alerting them to the fact that an employee has accused them of wage theft.
Filing a wage theft claim with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE): the DAT helps workers fill out the necessary forms to alert employers that they are under CDLE investigation, which can intimidate a boss to pay.
Calling and/or visiting employers at their homes or work-sites: mediation and negotiation aim to establish how much exactly is owed, whether the employee is willing to negotiate, and whether the employer is willing to set up payment plans. Sometimes these actions can be coordinated with the employer, but other times they require surprising a boss who refuses to communicate with volunteers or the worker.
Call-in campaign: when employers refuse to negotiate and delegations are fruitless, call-in campaigns can be a way to increase pressure on the employer. A simple script is written and shared with volunteers and the DAT’s support network.
Demonstrations: When negotiations reach an impasse, the DAT organizes protests outside the employers’ homes or businesses. Workers and allies march to the location, and a small group of participants goes up to the door to negotiate one last time. Occasionally, the employer will agree to pay the worker that day or on an agreed-upon date. If the worker accepts, the protest is called off. If the employer still refuses to pay, protestors chant on the sidewalk, and hand out flyers with information on the case to neighbors and passersby.
Small Claims Court: Small claims court is a last resort when an employer is refusing to pay. This requires filing paperwork at courthouses and preparing workers to present their cases in front of a judge. While the DAT has only ever lost one small claims case, the process of actually getting money from employers is difficult and slow, even when a favorable judgment is entered for the worker.
The potential varieties and forms of nonviolent resistance are infinite; this list is in no way exhaustive. Recouping stolen wages can be a lengthy, complex process that not only requires patience and persistence from DAT volunteers, but also leadership from workers themselves. Workers are encouraged to collaborate with DAT members to identify which tactics they think would be most effective and are also involved every step of the way in executing strategies for repayment.
While the DAT has had many successes, many cases go unresolved. Missing employer information is often the reason that cases are closed. When employers are dodging phone calls and alternative contact information is not known, the lengthy direct action process becomes even more grueling.
Another consistent challenge is the collection of money following a favorable small claims court judgement or CDLE rulings. In 2018, DAT workers were awarded over $50,000 in small claims and county court. However, only a small portion of this money was successfully collected. In some instances, the DAT has filed injunctions to withdraw awarded money directly from employers’ banks accounts; but if the account has already been emptied, this step is futile. Similarly, liens on property or cars are only triggered with the sale of an asset, and they have not generally incited employers to pay the money they owe.
When students are late on loan payments, borrowers are late to make minimum payments on credit card bills, or tenants are late on their rent, creditors penalize those individuals and collect payment through many institutional and legal mechanisms. In contrast, when employers steal wages, their victims are often rendered powerless by their need to remain employed or due to the lack of enforcement. A recent study found that wage laws in the United States are so poorly enforced that 26 states have fewer than 10 investigators tasked with handling claims, while six states have no such investigators at all. Under such circumstances, it’s no surprise that employers repeatedly steal wages with impunity.
The issue of immigration is also central to many of the cases we work on. Over the past year, we have had multiple employers threaten to call ICE on their workers or to alert them of upcoming court appearances. Given the risks, reclaiming unpaid wages becomes even more daunting. That the construction industry benefits from this exploitation is no secret. As Ferguson and McNally write:
“The purpose of inhumane and punitive border enforcement is not principally to deport undocumented workers, but to deepen their condition of deportatibility. Rather than an end in itself, deportation is a means to intensify the profound vulnerability of workers who live with the knowledge that they are inherently deportable. Deportability reinforces those deeply racialized forms of precarity under which migrant labourers comprise a ‘permanent labor force of the temporarily employed’.”
While the 2018 budget for ICE was $4.8 billion, the Department of Labor’s was only $280 million, meaning that the U.S. government spends 20 times more money on immigration enforcement than it does tracking-down exploitative employers, which demonstrates the kinds of crimes prioritized at the expense of workers’ rights and protections.
Employers take advantage of this extraordinary gap in enforcement to exploit often-vulnerable, often-low-wage, often-temporary workers. In the current system, this class of laborers—who are the engines that power development, build our infrastructure, and do thankless, overlooked, necessary labor daily—have to navigate byzantine legal and state systems and face retaliation just to collect on their employers’ debts to them. The Wage Theft DAT seeks to remind bosses that when federal and state government fails to prioritize the crime of wage theft, workers who have been wronged have allies who will use their voices, time, and energy to stand by their fellow community members to hold wage thieves accountable.
Abbey Vogel has been a part of DAT for a little over a year; she works as a legislative aide to Colorado State Senator Julie Gonzales, and is also known to be an enthusiastic but incommensurately skilled rock climber, a mediocre cooker of plant-based meals, and a passionate member of DSA, where she works alongside change-makers and system-shakers to make Denver gentler and more just.