Over the last 50 years, working people in the United States have been under attack. From union busting in the 1980s to the current gig economy and private equity bleeding entire economic sectors dry, these efforts have made it impossible for most working people to exercise their fundamental right to unite and negotiate with the people who profit from their labor. The fight against working people has also exposed major problems with our system of collective bargaining, including the racist exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers from collective bargaining rights. This systematic exclusion has created an underground economy that disproportionately exploits undocumented immigrants and other vulnerable workers. Colorado Jobs With Justice is committed to building power for workers to create meaningful change to address the exploitation that workers experience, because tinkering with the current system will never be enough. Rather, we must envision bold new frameworks of worker organization and representation, labor law enforcement, and corporate governance to maximize worker power and create a more equitable society.
In recognition of this reality, the Clean Slate for Worker Power initiative is exploring how we can reconstruct labor law in order to bring balance to our economy and politics. Helmed by Sharon Block and Ben Sachs of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, Clean Slate has been a multi-year project engaging with key stakeholders including academics, organizers, advocates, and labor practitioners that will release a comprehensive set of recommendations of needed policy changes in January 2020.
The Clean Slate initiative is focused on changes to be enacted at the federal level. But such changes, especially the bold solutions that workers really need, do not happen in a vacuum, nor are working people waiting for the passage of legal reforms in order to engage in collective bargaining. Indeed, the collective bargaining experiments and campaigns in which working people are already involved must inform the proposals for rethinking labor law. That is why Jobs With Justice has partnered with Clean Slate to support local organizing campaigns aimed at winning innovative pro-worker policies while building power in their communities. The Clean Slate Project and JWJ are overseeing two fellows in Denver and Portland brought on to support these campaigns and connect the local work with the broader Clean Slate project.
As the Denver fellow, I feel very lucky to continue to fight for economic justice in the place that I call home. My fellowship is focused on enforcement of labor standards, particularly on the issue of wage theft. In Colorado, more than $750 million is stolen from workers each year. While there have been some encouraging enforcement developments in the last ten years, they fall well short of providing meaningful relief to the thousands of workers who have their wages stolen each year in Colorado.
As my fellowship goes on, we are working with IUPAT Local 79 and other partners to explore local implementation of ideas that have been identified by the Clean Slate team, including:
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for the oppression built into systems that control workers’ lives. But by building power locally and creating transformative, meaningful changes, we can take the first steps toward change on the scale that the Clean Slate initiative contemplates: creating an economic and political system where workers are valued and empowered.
The first time I encountered the Denver Justice Project was at a District Attorney Forum following the 2016 Martin Luther King Day event. Black Lives Matter 5280, elements of Denver Justice Project, and other community members took over the MLK event, re-navigating the parade to march adjacent to the corporatized, whitewashed celebration. This moment is one of my most treasured, empowering moments in my life as I can still remember being enveloped in the spirit of revolt and the embrace of community power. Throughout the entire event; through the drums, the singing, the chanting; rang a phrase that echoed in Denver for months. “Why is Michael Marshall dead?” I joined the Denver Justice Project a few months later, coming from a national organization called Justice Together. And I did so, in part, because I need people to know why Michael Marshall died. And more importantly, what to do about it.
Michael Marshall was killed by police in November 2015. He was Black. He was homeless. He was mentally ill. One night he was staying in a hotel that he had frequented when he lost his Bible and had an episode which led to him asking the hotel to call the police. Denver Police showed up and arrested Michael for trespassing and brought him to the Denver jail with bail set at $100. Because of a mere $100, Michael was kept in the jail where he suffered another episode and in response, five police officers, each twice Michael’s size, piled on top of him; beating him, yelling at him, and suffocating him until he died. His lifeless body was secured in a restraint chair as if he was still a threat while officers laughed nearby. He was taken to the hospital where he was eventually removed from life support by his family, who were never informed that he had been arrested to begin with.
Michael Marshall existed at the intersections of being Black, impoverished, homeless, and mentally ill. And because of that, he was killed. He was arrested because he was homeless, jailed because he was too poor to afford bail, killed because our system treats mental illness with violence, and was denied justice for his murder because he was yet another Black man killed by our decidedly criminal “justice” system.
Denver and the rest of Colorado need to stand against the systemic issues that allowed Michael Marshall to be killed. We need to be fervent in our opposition to policies such as Denver’s urban camping ban that criminalizes homelessness. We need to be deliberate in our fight against gentrification which forces people working for stagnant wages out of cities that become too expensive to live in. It is time to demand that issues such as mental health, drug addiction, and poverty be treated as public health issues rather than public safety issues. We must redefine what safety even looks like and how we, as community members, can ensure safety since our system uses notions of public safety to perpetuate racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and violence.
The Denver Justice Project focuses on three aspects of police accountability: the role of the district attorney, the discipline matrix, and independent oversight. All three of these measures failed Michael Marshall as the DA didn’t file any criminal charges against his murderers, only two officers involved were disciplined by virtue of receiving two week suspensions, and the independent monitor could do little more than issue a letter of condemnation. We continue to work on these areas, but we are also ardent in saying that what we need is transformation rather than reform. We need to get in the practice of envisioning what a world would look like if we couldn’t call police to address issues and instead had to rely on our own community to help us. This happens by organizing workers, neighbors, families, and students and using an intersectional lens to reclaim the definition of public safety and drastically transform the way justice is pursued in our society.
Michael was more than his identity and experiences. He was a warm soul who never intended to hurt anyone. According to his family, he had a great sense of humor and for the most part, genuinely enjoyed life. His charge of “trespassing” was one that posed no safety risk to others. He wasn’t a threat to anyone. So why is Michael Marshall dead?
Denver Justice Project is a community organization that focuses on transforming law enforcement, seeking racial justice, and ending mass incarceration. Like our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter: @DenJustPro. Visit our website to schedule a Know Your Rights Training at DenverJusticeProject.org
While not a household concept, wage theft is a rampant problem. The Colorado Fiscal Institute estimates that $750 million in earned wages is stolen from Colorado workers each year, and the Economic Policy Institute estimates that $50 Billion is stolen from workers nationwide on an annual basis. This widespread theft disproportionately victimizes low-wage workers, immigrants, women and racial minorities. It can drive workers to financial ruin, increase stress, upend relationships, undermine civic participation, and hamper economic mobility.
There are many ways that wage theft can happen. The most obvious is non-payment of wages—when employers do not pay workers for some or all of the hours worked. Underpayment of wages—when employers pay workers less than promised, or pay less than the state or federal minimum wage, or deny workers overtime wages—is another form of wage theft. Employers engage in wage theft when they misclassify workers—either as independent contractors to avoid paying worker’s compensation, unemployment compensation, and income tax, or as exempt salaried workers to avoid paying overtime hours. Wage theft also occurs when employers illegally deduct the cost of tools, materials, and transportation necessary to do the job from workers’ paychecks (deduction violations) and when employers pay workers who receive tips less than is required by law, or force workers to share tips with managers or employers (tip violations).
Wage theft primarily harms low and medium-income workers, including construction workers, agricultural workers, nursing home workers, garment factory workers, and restaurant workers. In a survey of low-wage workers in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, one quarter of workers were paid less than the required minimum wage, two of every three workers experienced meal or break violations, and three of every four workers were underpaid or not paid at all for overtime work. Disturbingly, almost 70% of the workers had experienced at least one pay violation in their previous week of work.
The sheer amount of money stolen from workers across the U.S. is staggering, but the impacts of wage theft go far beyond that dollar amount. Many of these impacts are fairly obvious: people who work long hours without overtime pay are deprived of the opportunity to either get another job or to spend more time with their families and friends; wage theft can deprive people of the money needed to save for a home or to send kids to college; for the lowest paid workers, wage theft is the difference between paying the utilities or losing service, between paying rent or getting evicted, between providing food or going hungry. But, the impacts of wage theft are not limited only to the victims of wage theft. In fact, wage theft harms all Americans in many ways. Read More about Wage Theft and Its Consequences HERE
What to do if a worker becomes a victim of wage theft? Contact Towards Justice at (720) 441 2236 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Towards Justice is a non-profit organization that empowers America’s chronically marginalized workforce to address systemic injustice, defend family financial stability, and ensure that work is the most effective strategy for economic success in our country.
Towards Justice offers bilingual (English/Spanish) free and confidential legal intakes and case analysis to wage theft victims in Colorado. For more information visit our website: www.towardsjustice.org