In the early 1900s, an Industrial Workers of the World member would yell in the middle of a crowded area: “Help, I’ve been robbed!” Once a crowd had gathered to hear his cry, he would add “I’ve been robbed by the capitalist system!”
Echoes of that early cry can be heard all over the world, but specifically in Nashville, Tennessee on December 2. Workers’ Dignity/Dignidad Obrera, an organization that fights for workers who have been abused by their employers, staged a protest over a case of wage theft.
Jennifer Reed and José Luis Tolentino recently moved to Nashville only to be faced with severe exploitation. With few options for work in an unfamiliar location, they took up a contract to do maintenance work for Un J. Kim. They performed various services for Kim in both her apartment complex, Lexington Apartments, and her laundromat, Margie’s Scrub-A-Duds. For 89 days, they worked without days off, and up to 15 hours a day. They are demanding $34,700 each.
Tolentino reported, “We worked for Ms. Kim and she promised us payment and never paid us. She promised us $10 an hour working in maintenance.” In place of payment, they were often given food. Reed added, “She benefitted through our hard work.”
Socialists recognize theft in the very foundation of capitalism, as the profit that capitalists make are nothing but the unpaid wages of the working class. But this goes further than that as Kim abused her workers beyond what is considered reasonable in any capitalist society.
Workers’ Dignity/Dignidad Obrera has been fighting a campaign to get Reed and Tolentino the money they are owed. Although the organization assists exploited workers with their cases, the workers themselves have full power over the campaigns. This campaign has included having their members call Kim to complain, sending letters to her, and finally bringing a letter to her in person, all to no avail. Kim has received notoriety in the past for mistreatment of workers, including one complaint that she paid an employee with meals at a Chinese buffet. In a bizarre return of feudal norms, she has had tenants behind on their rent pay off their debt through labor.
A Nashville Scene article reported that, “The Metro Nashville Codes Department website lists the Madison complex as having 26 open sets of complaints containing dozens of individual violations that date back as far as January 2011. The complaints vary, ranging from plumbing and electrical issues to lack of heating facilities and smoke detectors. In 2009, Lexington Gardens made headlines when it was the subject of three fires in one 48-hour span.”
Around thirty members of Workers’ Dignity/Dignidad Obrera and their allies, including members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Democratic Socialists of America, and the Peace and Justice Center, showed up at Margie’s Scrub-A-Dubs to protest the horrific conditions Reed and Tolentino faced. They carried signs saying “89 Days Without Pay is 89 Too Many” and “Wash Away Wage Theft.” When we told one passerby about what was going on, he was shocked. “What? And I see [Kim] down at the casino.”
There has yet to be a reply from Kim, but the group is used to this. Cases can last for months, and even though many cases are won, they are not always successful. This did not deter anyone present. The hope that Reed and Tolentino had on their faces at seeing their supporters was truly inspiring. Reed referred to Workers’ Dignity as her “family.”
According to Workers’ Dignity/Dignidad Obrera’s website, “Through nonviolent actions, more than 150 workers have recovered more than $350,000 in stolen wages since April 2010.” This is a remarkable accomplishment for any organization fighting for workers rights, but it is clear that their activism is not limited to just wage theft. Decorating the walls of their meeting hall are quotes and images of Thomas Sankara, Che Guevara, and Malcolm X. It is clear the group understands the connection between the various issues plaguing capitalist society, with it being well understood that you cannot fight capitalism without also fighting sexism, racism, and homophobia. Bigotry and exploitation have no place in a society built on dignity.