top of page
  • Writer's pictureKatlyn Roberts

Call Wage Theft What It Is: Part-Time Slavery

Updated: Apr 21, 2021

The history behind America’s billion-dollar wage theft problem and how to fight it.

A Black miner in the northern Sierra foothills in 1852. Photo via California State Library.

Hardly any of the bus drivers at the tour companies I worked for in the early 2010’s lived on the San Francisco side of the Bay. Most of them were Black, Latinx-American, or Chinese-American and they drove in from Oakland or as far away as Vallejo… They’d leave the house before the sun came up to beat the bridge traffic. If they made it to the bus yards in the Dogpatch with any time to spare, they’d catch some Zs in their car. They’d probably gotten home at around 9 or 10 pm the night before, so if they had families, a side-hustle, or just needed a little downtime when they got home, they’d get less than five hours of sleep on a nightly basis.

These drivers weren’t being paid for their overtime hours. They weren’t getting their breaks if there was traffic (and there was always traffic), they didn’t get vacation days or sick days. These guys, and the occasional woman who didn’t stick around very long due to the rampant sexual harassment from management, were often driving twelve hours a day, six or seven days a week — not including their commute. They were paid for eight of those.

A majority of us tour guides were white and we were paid for our overtime. According to management, this made us “expensive” and “without the right to complain”. The gaslighting is so clear now, as is the underlying white/Black reality under the tour guide/driver cover.

We were supposed to give half of our tips to the drivers at the end of the day, but I knew several of my fellow guides were stiffing them. I knew because the drivers always complained about it and because the woman who trained me whispered to me behind my coworker’s back that I should only give him what I thought he “deserved”. For the record, I never once stiffed anyone. But I also never confronted the guides who did.

These days, the racist history of California has been running around and around in my head like busses on a city loop. I’ve been imagining a different kind of tour that isn’t for the tourists. This one would be for us — the tour guides and the drivers. To understand how we got here and how to get the hell off this bus.

And with two weeks to go before the election, I want to tell a story about a country that’s struggled to evolve, that’s never been great. I think it’s important to highlight moments where we could have made better choices but didn’t — and how to make better choices in the future.

People falsely assume that slavery was never a thing in California.

Before the Bay Area was part of the United States, Spanish conquistadors came looking for gold. Missionaries came looking for victims. Together, they murdered, raped, enslaved, and forced Christian binary genders upon the people of the Ohlone, Miwok, and countless other tribes.

In 1849, white U.S. businessmen found gold up in them thar hills, kept it a secret, bought California for a steal from a recently independent Mexico, and announced their find the very next day like, “Wow! How fortunate is this?”

Within the next several years, even more Indigenous people, and Mexican-Americans who’d lived on the land for generations, were violently run off before they could lay claim to any gold.

Modern wage theft is a thriving operation in America.

“The Economic Policy Foundation, a business-funded think tank, estimated that companies annually steal $19 billion in unpaid overtime. Labor lawyer colleagues suggest the number is much higher.” — Kim Bobo, Wage Theft In America: Why Millions of Americans Are Not Getting Paid-And What We Can Do About It

In a 2017 case, Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, the Supreme Court ruled that companies are allowed to require their employees to sign arbitration agreements — basically signing away their right to sue.

At the companies I worked for, if new drivers didn’t sign after a certain amount of time, they simply didn’t get scheduled anymore. The ambiguity of this loss of work made unemployment benefits difficult to apply for.

Suing and losing a job was made even harder when a driver had a criminal record, which is why the company specifically hired drivers who did. This served the dual purpose of making the company look like it was doing something charitable while ensuring that their employees wouldn’t be taken seriously if they attempted to get justice.

Drivers were stuck if they stayed and stuck if they left — a spider’s web woven with capitalism’s sticky fingers.

Samuel Brannan was a Mormon soldier who monopolized the manufacture of mining equipment just in time for the Gold Rush. Miners who’d been lured to SF with the promise of striking it rich made scraps compared to this guy.

Brannan established the very first newspaper in San Francisco, then went up to Napa and stole the sacred hot springs from a tribe that had been so devastated, we no longer know their original name (Wappo, their current name, is an anglicized version of the Spanish, “Guapo”).

The Calistoga hot springs are a popular tourist destination to this day. The Indian Springs Resort and Spa has a charming little bio on the Visit Calistoga! website where they call Brannan an “early promoter of the area”. This is a man who justified stealing the hot springs by perpetuating a rumor that the Wappo were cannibals.

When the Mormon church got wind of his success and asked for a cut of “the Lord’s money”, he told them, “I’ll give up the Lord’s money when [Brigham] sends me a receipt signed by the Lord, and no sooner.”

Wage theft isn't confined to the tourism industry. It’s one of the biggest existential crises facing the United States today. Various surveys have found that:

  • 60 percent of nursing homes stole workers’ wages.

  • 89 percent of nonmonitored garment factories in Los Angeles and 67 percent of nonmonitored garment factories in New York City stole workers’ wages.

  • 25 percent of tomato producers, 35 percent of lettuce producers, 51 percent of cucumber producers, 58 percent of onion producers, and 62 percent of garlic producers hiring farm workers stole workers’ wages.

  • 78 percent of restaurants in New Orleans stole workers’ wages.

  • Almost half of day-laborers, who tend to focus on construction work, have had their wages stolen.

  • 100 percent of poultry plants steal workers’ wages.

The majority of these jobs are filled by people of color and immigrants, whose white employers are well-aware of how difficult it is for them to get hired elsewhere.

The Barbary Coast of San Francisco was named after the notorious Barbary Coast in Northern Africa, a not-so-subtle dog whistle to those who might long for the “bygone” eras of slavery and piracy.

Sailers and longshoremen quickly learned that they could make a slightly better living mining for gold or building railroads than they could by hauling cargo, so they abandoned ship and settled into town.

Wealthy suppliers didn’t stand for that.

They began hiring pub owners to drug and kidnap people. When a victim woke up, they’d be on a cargo ship, halfway out to Shanghai, forced to either work or drown. This is where the term “shanghaied” comes from.

Once they were back on land, those who could vote were forced to vote for their own captors in local elections.

This modern slavery practice wasn’t made a federal crime until 1915.

So what can be done about the fact that the U.S. has taken 400 years to evolve from full-time slavery to part-time slavery?

Wage theft, like slavery before it, doesn’t just hurt workers. It hurts law-abiding businesses by making it nearly impossible for them to compete. I worked at multiple sightseeing companies and each one was sleazier than the last.

In our current economy, billionaires don’t become billionaires without wage theft.

A 2018 report by Good Jobs First found that the overwhelming majority of companies caught committing wage theft are ‘the giant companies included in the Fortune 500, the Fortune Global 500 and the Forbes list of the largest privately held firms.’” Luke Darby at GQ

Tourism is San Francisco’s #1 industry. Or, at least, it was before the pandemic. It generated an excess of $8.4 billion annually, and that money trickled up, not down. CEOs are waiting out this pandemic poolside while their former employees are standing in soup kitchen lines and waiting on government stimulus packages that aren’t coming.

Not many CEOs would click on an article about wage theft, but if one happened to have accidentally found themselves here, thinking it was a how-to article, I’d challenge them to come out swinging post-pandemic by making their company the one people are clamoring to work for. Now that the average worker is learning they can better survive on unemployment than by working at your criminal operation, you’re going to need to come to the table.

Companies need to pay their employees a steady, living wage with benefits. Tourists on the street, and customers in any industry, make split-second gut decisions about who gets their business. Companies need to trust that better business practices are a selling point if they push it as one. Be Costco. Be Patagonia. Be Chobani.

Angel Island, in the San Francisco Bay, is bigger than Alcatraz. It was known as the “Ellis Island of the West” because it’s where immigrants were processed when they came to America via the Pacific Ocean.

Immigrants were separated by ethnicity when they arrived. European immigrants were processed quickly and ferried into the city. Chinese immigrants watched them go.

After the railroads were built in the late 1800s, working-class white Americans (with the encouragement of their ridiculously rich bosses and politicians) blamed low-paid Chinese immigrants for the sudden lack of jobs.

Sound familiar?

They instituted the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and interned them on Angel Island the moment they arrived. Families were separated, strip-searched, given invasive medical exams, and forced to answer ridiculous, impossible questions to prove they were related to someone who had citizenship. Some were deported. Some were held for months or years.

You can still read some of the heartbreaking poetry carved into the walls of that camp. This line really strikes me:

“When may I be allowed to soar at my own pleasing?”

As a young woman, I hadn’t thought that a lawyer would take me seriously if I told them what was happening at work. But as a white woman, I knew I didn’t have it as bad as my Black, brown, and Asian-American coworkers. Lately, my eyes have been opened to the kind of privilege and power my demographic actually holds.

“What if ‘Karen’ demanded to see the store manager because one of their employees has been trailing Black people around the store? What if a latte-toting ‘Becky’ (or ‘Chad’) stood up to the manager as he attempts to toss Black shoppers out on the pavement? Or maybe it is as simple as an army of ‘Amys’ looking up from Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat and penetrating the personal space of a police officer who is squeezing the life out of a Black man for no other reason than being Black.” Tikia K. Hamilton, Ph.D. in How White Women Can Use Their Privilege to End Racism

I’m not going to pretend that standing up against such a lucrative, systemic issue is easy. It’s not. I was terrified of losing my job too. I was being abused and lied to and sexually harassed and gaslit too.

But if I’d been completely honest with myself, and pushed aside my fear and pride, I could have admitted that the worst thing getting fired would mean is that my physician parents would have to step in and keep me financially afloat for a while. I technically had the resources to take a stand, but I was too stuck in victim mode to see my relative privilege.

The Black Lives Matter movement has shown us that everyone needs to be a part of the solution. Being not racist isn’t a thing. We need to be anti-racist.

In the workplace, this looks like standing up for our Black and brown coworkers on a daily basis, calling bosses out, standing up to racist coworkers, openly comparing paychecks and questioning discrepancies, making a racist culture more uncomfortable for the perpetrators than it is for the victims, and taking fear and pride out of the equation when evaluating what we’re truly capable of giving to the cause.

During WWII, the Hagiwara family, who had managed the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park for several generations, was interned by the federal government to prevent “espionage”.

Every Japanese-American family was interned.

Their fishing boats were impounded.

Their homes were ransacked and sold.

Their businesses were stolen.

Many people were held on Angel Island in the very same camps Chinese immigrants had been held 60 years earlier. Two more Japanese internment camps were built on Native reservations in Arizona, despite the protests of tribal councils.

The production of fortune cookies, a Japanese-American invention, was taken over by Chinese-Americans — because British-Americans, Swedish-Americans, and Italian-Americans didn’t know the difference.

Someone far braver than me did sue. One of the drivers somehow managed to avoid arbitration and sued the company for failure to pay overtime, failure to provide accurate wage statements, long paycheck waiting times, failure to provide rest breaks, and multiple other violations of California business and professions codes.

The case got bounced around to different courts for years, with charges being dropped along the way. It was 2017 by the time he, and the drivers he’d worked with at the time, were granted partial compensation. They didn’t see those checks until 2018.

It took 5 years of this guy’s time, money, energy, and persistence to get around 870k of stolen wages distributed among 50 drivers. And as much as that money meant to the drivers who received it, this was far too big a burden for one man.

An eventual, hard-won payout doesn’t guarantee a company won’t go right back to stealing wages. That’s what unions are for.

According to Kim Bobo, unions are still the best and most effective vehicle for stopping wage theft. They —

  • train workers about their rights in the workplace,

  • have attorneys available to answer questions and file lawsuits

  • provide workers a structure for expressing concerns

  • protect workers who complain

  • create a counterbalance to management’s control in the workplace

  • maintain relationships with community allies and resources

  • help workers secure better wages, benefits, retirement benefits, a voice in decisions, safer working environments, and job security.

So why have unions become less and less popular in the United States over the years? Blame Jimmy Hoffa.

Corruption and mob affiliation in select organizations have been blown way out of proportion in the press. In reality, there’s less corruption in unions than there is in many religious, educational, and corporate institutions. And any violence perpetrated today by rogue, angry laborers is prohibited by most unions, yet still somehow manages to make the news, scaring the average worker into fending for themselves.

The Japanese-American homes in the Fillmore District of San Francisco were sold (by the white people who stole them) to the growing Black population, who’d migrated from the American South to work in the shipyards during WWII.

The neighborhood became known as the “Harlem of the West” and every jazz artist who was anybody played in the neighborhood clubs: Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Etta James, Louis Armstrong, etc. Patrons of those clubs were every color and every type of person (except Japanese-Americans, of course), the war having given everyone a “shared purpose”.

…Then the war ended and jobs declined. You can guess who got blamed.

Redlining kept Black communities confined to certain neighborhoods, “urban renewal projects” shoved them out even further. Rents went up, policing increased, arrests increased, and prisons became — what else? Internment camps.

The Black population in San Francisco has decreased by around 2,000 people a year since 1970. Unlike Tony Bennet, they took their hearts with them, and San Francisco’s been left a soulless, overpriced, overpoliced compilation of all its sins.

Even the queen of workers' rights and former U.S. Secretary of Labor under F.D.R., Frances Perkins, was quoted as saying, “I’d much rather get a law than organize a union.” And she may be right, but I’d argue that unions influence lawmakers and vice-versa. Companies wouldn’t be fighting so hard to prevent unionization if this wasn’t the case.

“A sophisticated, multimillion-dollar industry has developed to consult and advise employers on how to oppose unions and frighten workers. More than 80 percent of companies faced with union organizing efforts hire these consultants and law firms to wage anti-union campaigns. No other industrialized nation has such a powerful union-busting industry or weaker labor protections.” Kim Bobo, Wage Theft In America

We need laws and regulations to prevent companies from being allowed to launch these attacks. We need pro-union politicians to implement these laws. From there, little by little, unions can begin to gain back their strength and even out the playing field.

America Will Struggle After Coronavirus. These Charts Show Why. By David Leonhardt and Yaryna Serkez April 10, 2020. The New York Times

“Whenever the rate of unionization in America has risen in the past hundred years, the top one percent’s portion of the national income has tended to shrink.” Caleb Crain, the New Yorker

When America’s prisons are filled with non-violent drug offenders, the mentally ill, and people who couldn’t pay their legal fees — as opposed to wealthy embezzlers, wage-stealing CEO’s, and the Wall Street crooks who tanked the economy in 2008— you don’t have a criminal justice system. You have medieval dungeons.

When Black Lives Matter protesters are made out to be more dangerous than the police who shoot them dead to protect crime-ridden institutions, you don’t have a democracy. You have a dystopia written by Margaret Atwood, who famously never included an atrocity in her storylines that hadn’t happened to a real person at some point in history.

On the corner of Mason and Beach streets in Fisherman’s Wharf, there are two outlines of dead bodies painted onto the sidewalk. I used to wait with them for the tourist-packed F-train after a long day giving tours around the city.

The bodies belonged to Howard Sperry and Nick Bordoise, a longshoreman and a cook, who were killed by police in 1934 when longshoremen and sailers in San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, and Seattle went on strike. They called for safer practices, more hires, lighter loads, an independent union, and the integration of Black and white workers on the piers.

Government officials and employers accused the strikers of being communists. As evidence, they pointed to the Public Works of Art Project — social realism murals being painted by Diego Rivera’s disciples in San Francisco’s Coit Tower.

California Industries mural in Coit Tower by Ralph Stackpole. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

On a day now known as “Bloody Thursday”, the employers association decided to break up the strikes in Fisherman’s Wharf by sending in armed police who threw tear gas canisters into the crowd. When picketers threw the canisters back, police shot into the crowd, hitting three men and killing two.

Over the next week, several hundred thousand people marched down Market Street in solidarity with the longshoremen. Police arrested over three hundred protesters and five more were killed. Aided by the National Guard, armed vigilantes bullied protesters and raided (ie. destroyed) multiple workers’ centers.

F.D.R. later recalled that several officials asked him to intimidate the protesters by sailing a warship into the bay and pointing its guns toward the wharf. He refused.

I can think of another president who would jump at that chance, though.

The strikes ended with the longshoremen being intimidated into arbitration, but public opinion had changed so much at that point, many of their demands were eventually — slooowly — granted.

So goes the struggle.

So goes the loop.

If you or someone you know is dealing with wage theft or workplace safety issues, your current best bet is to find help through a local organization. The Better Business Bureau only cares about disputes between customers and companies and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration did nothing for me. Look for local workers’ centers or trade-specific unions. Some workers' centers are geared toward helping people of specific religious, racial, and cultural backgrounds.

And please VOTE for a president and for state and local officials who know their history, who recognize the systemic issues at play, and who have a plan to get us off this bus.

19 views0 comments


bottom of page