I. Wage Theft: Our work begins with the problem of wage theft and from there, we build power by organizing other low-wage workers who have experienced wage theft, along with our allies, to fight this epidemic problem in Nashville.
What is wage theft?
According to a 2008 study by the National Employment Law Project, 26% of low-wage workers were paid less than minimum wage in the last week; 76% of those who worked more than 40 hours per week were not paid the legally required overtime pay. 12% of tipped workers experienced theft of tips by their employer or supervisor, and such practices are part of a national epidemic of workplace abuse. Workers in Middle Tennessee who have recovered their wages through Workers’ Dignity report similar issues. Many construction and commercial cleaning employees are misclassified as sub-contractors, permitting the employer to deny overtime, workers compensation, and other entitlements. The majority report never receiving their final paycheck or any pay at all. In one-third of wage theft complaints with Workers’ Dignity, employers threatened to call ICE or the police. This intimidation, combined with local and state laws targeting immigrants, has fostered a climate of fear and marginalization among low-wage workers.
The study, Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers, calculated that the surveyed workers suffering wage theft lost an annual average of $2,634, this out of total yearly earnings of $17,616.
Snapshot of Our Victories:
- More than $200,000 in recovered wages and compensation
- Hundreds of low-wage workers attending our Know Your Rights workshops centered around wage theft
- Thousands of low-wage workers learn about wage theft and how to organize to stop wage theft through radio and newspaper features
- Low-wage workers affected by wage theft are the leaders, donors, and decision-makers of our organization, making up more than 2/3 of our Steering Committee and a large part of our grassroots fundraising donors
Current Activities around Wage Theft:
1. Monthly Labor Rights Workshops
Workshops include two central components – an intake clinic and labor rights meeting. Workers facing wage theft fill out a detailed complaint form in order to begin the wage recovery process (they return at a later date to write a demand letter and decide how they want to pursue their complaint). All affected workers participate in a one-hour labor rights workshop where they learn about federal labor laws and effective strategies for protecting themselves. The workshop utilizes a worker-centered popular education model that focuses on participants’ prior experience to promote self-confidence, community, and leadership development.
2. Wage Recovery Mini-Campaigns
Workshops are an entry point to wage recovery campaigns. So far, workers have recovered more than $200,000 in unpaid wages and compensation through organizing and direct action. Affected workers are actively part in each step of the wage recovery process. Faith, labor, student, and other ally groups support workers by applying public pressure on bosses who have stolen from their workers through phone calls, support letters, and vigils at worksites.
3. Broad-Based Campaign
Mini-campaigns have provided the groundwork for broad-based long-term campaigns on specific industries. Workers’ Dignity currently has its “Just Hospitality” campaign to improve conditions in the cleaning industry in Nashville.
II. Outreach and Recruitment
As a membership-based organization, outreach and recruitment underwrite all that we do. Outreach and recruitment are not only how we raise public consciousness about the epidemic of wage theft and exploitation of low-wage workers, but they most importantly are how we build power among communities of low-wage workers to fight against unjust labor practices in our city. We know that la unión hace la fuerza (“unity is strength”)!
III. Leadership Development
Workers’ Dignity develops community leaders as the central component of what we do. Those who are most targeted and marginalized by oppression are the ones in primary leadership positions in our organization. Leadership development is our bread and butter and is incorporated in to all our work. Specifically, the following opportunities exist within our organization for member leaders:
1) Training in Action : Workers who choose to fight to recover their stolen wages must lead the effort with support from experienced leaders of Workers’ Dignity. WD will introduce options for successfully recovering wages that include most of the following: letters to employers, meetings, vigils, media engagement, legal strategies and public education. The worker is trained to implement each of these activities and to then train the next group of workers who come to fight a wage theft claim.
2) Community Organizing Schools: We are in the process of developing and implementing our own Freedom Schools (Escuelas de Libertad) specifically geared toward our members and leaders. This school consists of 20 hours of training in the nuts and bolts of community organizing and history of social justice movements, and it was most recently held in summer of 2013. The goal is to ensure that our membership and leadership have an opportunity for intensive training at least once a year.
3) Solidarity Efforts: Our leadership team has traveled to trainings together in Chicago, Atlanta, Memphis, and Tampa to witness firsthand the organizational models and campaigns of sister organizations to help learn what can be successful in Tennessee. To date, our leaders have participated in dozens of events in Nashville through our global solidarity work and worker-centered dialogues with organizers, peasant union leaders, and community union leaders around the Americas.
4) Formal Positions within Organization: Workers who have worked on a campaign (often their own), and invested increased time and energy on projects may be elected by the membership onto the Steering Committee. Being responsible for running an organization provides experience in group facilitation and decision making, finances, long-term planning and much more.
Additionally, allies (those who are not currently low-wage workers), are also provided with opportunities to lead through engaging their existing communities to support WD. For example, many allies have engaged their congregation, community group, or neighborhood to learn more and participate in activities at WD.