How carefully do you read your pay stubs? If you’re like millions of workers in America, the answer is not carefully enough. An estimate from the Economic Policy Institute found that companies steal up to $50 billion per year from their employees.
The Richmond branch of the Industrial Workers of the World is addressing the problem locally, both through organizing as workers and with their flagship program, the Bad Boss Tipline. The hotline, announced in December on Facebook and Craigslist, lets employees report anything from workplace abuse to wage theft.
“We wanted to set up a safe space, no strings attached, for workers to get support,” IWW Delegate Sam West said. Some callers leave their names and numbers; others just seem to need a sympathetic person to share their story with. “I grew up on construction sites,” West said, discussing his blue-collar background. The first-generation college student and IWW member recently moved to Richmond to do his graduate degree in social psychology, and has helped revitalize the moribund local branch of the IWW in early 2017.
The tip line is necessary, West said, especially because state laws are weak when it comes to workers’ rights and government support systems are only available during office hours. “It makes them not accessible to people working 40 hour weeks,” West said. “We don’t have office hours. We work with people on their schedule.”
Most of their calls are about wage theft, which takes many forms. West listed examples including salaried employees working unpaid overtime, confusing or even doctored pay stubs, sub-minimum wage pay, and cases where workers aren’t trained but are docked for mistakes they made that training would have prevented. Many of the calls have been from people in food service and delivery.
“For someone living paycheck to paycheck, these practices are incredibly hurtful,” he said about the threat to low-wage workers. In some cases, he said that workers were looking for help after being fired for bringing wage theft up in the workplace.
“Retribution is illegal, but it’s difficult to prove,” West said, pointing to “Right To Work” laws that insulate employers against their workers. “Right To Work creates fear for bosses instead of respect. It’s not a good policy.”
The group hasn’t received any calls from undocumented workers that they know of, but offer confidentiality and support to any worker, regardless of citizenship or residency status. Some calls have been totally anonymous. West said the group files those and keeps a log, but won’t take any action without clear directions from the complainant.
“We’re not interested in just going after a business, we really want to help people,” he said. If someone wants to go forward with them, “filing a grievance is our first step. We would mediate a dispute if asked, but we never want to push anyone to do anything they aren’t comfortable with.”
West detailed the scope of the IWW and the tip line as “sounding board to union organizing.” Regardless of industry or type of work, the IWW is a solidarity organization that has the stated aim of forming one big union, a phrase that originated with a coal miner union (Western Federation of Miners) whose members formed the basis of the IWW in Chicago in 1905.
West pointed to the founding motto, “An injury to one is an injury to all,” as a guiding principle at the basis of the modern movement. “It’s unique to the structure of the IWW. We organize across all types of work.”
He pointed to the NRVStrike at a Target in Christiansburg, Virginia, where workers and IWW members came together as an example of a success story. “Their main ask was for a manager who was sexually harassing and making various inappropriate comments to be addressed,” he said. “[The manager] was fired promptly.”
“It’s a really interesting example of how even just a few workers can make a huge impact on their work environment if they stand by each other,” West said about the protests, which various outlets reported as consisting of around 10 people. “Of course, they had more demands than this that have not yet been met, but their primary goal was achieved.”
This is the first major project organized by the Richmond branch, but they’ve been supporting other groups this winter, including the River City Medic Collective and Leaders of the New South, to help people struggling with homelessness or public housing issues.
The local branch consists of some 25 members who pay modest monthly dues on a sliding scale, from $11 at the lowest end to $33 at the highest. Most of the money raised by an estimated 3,742 IWW members worldwide is spent on direct action following democratic votes. Unlike other unions, the IWW doesn’t have salaried staff, but pays a few people for administrative tasks, and members can vote to reimburse organizers for out of pocket expenses. West said the tip line isn’t about recruitment.
“If you want to join that’s great, but no requirements at all. We’re not trying to collect dues,” he said. “We just want to help people however we can.”
Photos by IWW Richmond Branch