Blank Sabbath: Sens. Sponsor Bill to Curb Wage Theft

Yesterday in Washington leaders from Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) made the rounds of Congressional offices, drumming up support for a measure proposed by Senators Sherrod Brown, Tom Harkin, and Richard Blumenthal that would begin to curb wage theft. The Senate legislation would specifically bar the misclassification of millions of workers as “independent contractors” rather than employees in an attempt to avoid paying payroll taxes.

But IWJ also seeks to expose the shocking extent of other forms of wage theft: failing to pay the minimum wage, failing to pay required overtime, forcing workers to work “off the clock,” and sometimes just not paying at all. The group has produced a short eye-popping video below about the “crime wave no one ever talks about.”

What should interest us is why employer cheating is now taken for granted as part of the New Normal in a country where conservatives so often invoke a Judeo-Christian heritage. Most folks who claim to revere the Good Book should know that screwing workers is one thing that is totally abhorrent to the God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. After all, God puts salvation history in motion when he responds to the groans and cries of unpaid laborers in Pharoah’s Egypt (Exodus 6:5). From that point forward the biblical emphasis on the just treatment of labor remains in full force and effect: 

Leviticus 19:13: “You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.” 

Deuteronomy 24:14-15: “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers…You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them…” 

Jeremiah 22:13: “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing and does not give them their wages…” 

Luke 10:7: “…for the laborer deserves to be paid.” 

I am convinced that the reason we generally ignore the exploitation of working people while lionizing our cheating, cheapskate “entrepreneurs” as social heroes has to do with the subservience of the whole American culture—including America’s faith communities—to a Pharoanic model of social organization.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann is at his best in describing Pharoah’s Egypt—and contemporary America—as a disordered place of unlimited exploitation and exhaustion. In this context the greatest blessing given at Sinai is the Sabbath principle and all of the related instruction about learning to share abundance. But of course the challenge facing those wandering Israelites—and still facing us—is the powerful appeal of clinging to the old familiar pattern of the strong dominating and exploiting the weak.  

Domination is the pattern we know best, after all, and the fact that we may choose to ignore the very long shadow cast by chattel slavery in our culture doesn’t make that shadow any less significant in the shaping of our consciousness. 

I have been doing some small group work lately with unemployed and underemployed people who have felt the mean edge of employer contempt in both large and small ways.

They aren’t counting on employer ethics to improve anytime soon. Instead they want two things: a strong and effective government pushback against the worst abuses and an opportunity to create new cooperative enterprises built around a culture of respect for people. Sadly, most do not see unionization as part of the path forward. Most feel that the union era has come and gone.  

So something is still stirring down there in Pharoah’s brick yard. And while most politicians and pundits ignore it, but we have good reason to believe that the God of the bible does not.

peterlaarman@gmail.com'

Peter Laarman is a United Church of Christ minister and activist who recently retired as executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting in Los Angeles. He remains involved in numerous justice struggles, in particular a campaign known as Justice Not Jails that calls upon faith communities to critique and combat the system of racialized mass incarceration often referred to as The New Jim Crow.