After what was for me, the stunning re-election of Barack Obama, I was tempted to retreat like a turtle into its' shell and declare an end to my short career as a political activist. I was sucked back into activism through my local tea party, the Mid-South Tea Party, and the friends I have made there.
Our tea party focuses on local, state and federal issues. We split up responsibilities for each of these areas among the group, and have a group of activists specifically focused on each area. My activism has largely been on a local level. We monitor city and county agenda meetings and get involved on zoning, taxes, schools and all spending measures. Last fall we discovered that one of our county commissioners was introducing an ordinance to combat wage theft at a county level.
Wage Theft is a term widely used in Progressive circles for the practice of under-paying employees, forcing them to work off the clock or not paying over-time and any violation of state and federal laws for employee compensation. While this practice is illegal and immoral, it is not clear how large a problem it is. If you Google wage theft you will likely find a numbers of wage theft cases against non-unionized workplaces.
Last year, the wage theft fight went local. It started with a study from Florida International University, authors Cynthia S. Hernandez and Carol Stipek, estimating that between 60 and 90 million dollars are taken from Florida workers per year. More information on the group behind the study can be found http://www.risep-fiu.org/. Claiming that there was not sufficient federal or state law to address wage theft unions and community activist organizations worked to have local laws enacted to address wage theft. Both Broward and Dade Counties passed wage theft ordinances last year. These ordinances make it very easy to file a claim and carry heavy penalties for companies found in violation of the policy. In Broward County unions are also allowed to make claims to the county.
A Democrat Commissioner for my county in TN worked to bring forth wage theft legislation modeled after the Dade county ordinance for parts of our county, while the city of Memphis itself is considering the legislation as well. Worker's Interfaith Network based in Memphis supported the measure. The Mid-South Tea Party local group decided to oppose this legislation as it goes above and beyond state and federal law to create an extra enforcement bureaucracy leaving businesses more vulnerable to frivolous or illegitimate claims. It is difficult to measure the impact such an ordinance would have on business, but even the most ethical of companies are vulnerable to claims from disgruntled employees. The cost of fighting the claim may be more than simply paying off the complaining employee or former employee. Either way it is an additional expense for businesses that already must comply with state and federal law on wage issues.
When a business leader spoke out against the ordinance, "WIN" started a PR campaign against his place of employment falsely accusing the business of supporting wage theft despite the fact that there were no claims of wage theft against this business. WIN planned a protest against the business. Our local team had been monitoring the website for this organization and tipped off the manager of the targeted business about the protest and they were able to hire extra security for the protest. The tea party also decided to stage a counter protest in support of the right of businesses to speak out against bad legislation.
It was very difficult to come up with a strategy to counter-act a protest in favor of something as emotionally charged as wage theft legislation. Claims that something is anti-business have limited appeal, particularly in progressive areas. We focused our counter protest on the fact that they were falsely accusing the business of wage theft simply because they spoke out. Our protest focused on the importance of jobs, free speech, and fair dialogue.
Things I learned from the protest.
1.) The media will catch at your worst moment. The camera is the most important thing. Don't let the other side get you off message.
2.) The best sound-bytes won't be on the newscast. So take your own video
3.) Politicians sound completely different when caught off camera.
I was mostly disappointed that the media did not air a stellar interview with an employee of the business under protest. She was fabulous speaking in defense of her employer. The protest by WIN jeopardized the reputation of this business and consequently the jobs of the employees at that particular business, Our counter-protest was well-received among the employees we encountered.
Final votes on the ordinance came on the heels of the protest. First the County Commission had Committee meetings to discuss the ordinance. Our group had done research to outline the actual cost a business might incur with this ordinance over a relatively small claim of wage theft. We discussed where our metro area ranks as business friendly (50 out of 50), and emphasized that this bill creates an additional bureaucracy making business conditions more uncertain for people looking to employ people in our area. Plus, once they have the separate ordinance in place beyond state and federal law, it could be expanded to have different pay rates and other requirements for hiring in our area, making it more desirable to employ people in neighboring counties. Recent census data shows that people and businesses do tend to leave ares of high regulation and high tax burden.
The big vote was January 14th. Prior to the vote, a republican county commissioner sought to get tax and donor records from WIN that was backing the ordinance. They did not comply. We also learned that WIN works out of AFL-CIO headquarters. Despite this revealing information we could not discuss the union connection out of fear of alienating some of the commission members in a highly democrat county. WIN had brought about 20-30 people to the meeting. We heard testimony in support of the ordinance from union leaders, religious leaders, lawyers and citizens with personal stories (or stories of people they know) speak in support of the ordinance. They also brought professionally made signs. Our local tea party group followed up with the same arguments and concerns expressed at Committee meetings. The ordinance was also opposed by restaurant and hospitality business groups and The Chamber of Commerce.
Unfortunately, as a citizen activist, I had to leave the meeting before the vote, my but fellow activists stayed to the end and the ordinance was defeated. We won!
This took a lot of effort and it didn't come easily. Our local group has been monitoring county meetings and speaking out against and for various proposals for years. We have spoken out and exchanged communication among commission members. It started out opposing a simple ordinance, but over time many in our group now have relationships with both democrat and republican members of our commission. It took a lot of effort for us to get to where we are, and we have a long way to go, but these are the steps we have to take to get our community back.
Other facts about local wage theft legislation
1.) Palm Beach county Florida allocated additional funds to allow wage theft victims to have the legal backing to go through existing channels for relief.
2.) A business group in Florida is considering commissioning a study on the impact of local wage theft ordinances on local business.
3.) More counties are continuing to take up wage theft legislation.