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Is Cutting Benefits For Public Workers Actually Wage Theft? Reframing the Right's Attacks On Unions

"Wage theft" has been a helpful frame for labor unions to fight for their workers' rights. Could it be applied to attacks on public workers' pensions--or Social Security?

Compensation for work performed is not guaranteed in the United States, even with significant worker protections in place, thanks to the actions of unscrupulous employers. Employers may withhold overtime pay owed, pay less than minimum wage, renege on benefits contracts, and engage in other activities that labor activists label as wage theft; in all of these cases, an employee works as agreed, and does not receive payment or other forms of compensation in return.

"Wage theft" sounds more aggressive, and flashy, than terms like "withholding compensation," which is exactly why organizers started popularizing the term in pushes like the Retail Action Project's attempt to recover unpaid overtime for workers at clothing retailer Mystique and advocacy work on behalf of vulnerable immigrant laborers.

The wage theft meme spearheaded by private sector unions represents a significant rhetorical victory on the part of the left to capture public attention. Paired with hard action in the form of pushes for regulatory compliance with overtime, minimum wage and other laws pertaining to employee compensation, it has also created positive changes for workers. Justin Molito, an organizer with the Writer's Guild of America East (WGAE), a private sector union that has worked extensively on this issue, says “It's important to call it what it is, which is wage theft. When somebody robs a bank, they call it theft.”

There are direct tie-ins with this meme and the current pensions crisis for beseiged public employees, if union organizers, workers and the public are ready to go there. By reframing the debate on the pensions crisis to emphasize that proposals to cut pensions amount to wage theft, the tone of the debate changes, as does the approach to resolving the situation.

The attack on public employees in the United States ramped into high gear in Wisconsin earlier this year, but the underpinnings were laid in an endless series of features, mainly in the conservative media, fingering public employees for everything that is wrong with America. Public employees have been public enemy number one for well over a decade, as ample newspaper archives attest.

Many of these stories twisted facts or outright lied but it didn't matter; readers still absorbed and repeated the erroneous information, and conservatives rode the rising ride of public sentiment against public employees all the way through a series of unionbusting attempts across the nation. The protest upsurge in Wisconsin notwithstanding, popular sentiments repeat myths about public employees living high on the fat of the land, sucking up tax dollars and taking advantage of unreasonably generous benefits like paid vacation time and pensions.

The public sector is one of the few places where such benefits are still routine. Rather than expressing outrage about the fact that people like teachers, firefighters and social workers receive such profligate benefits as time off from work, members of the general public should be asking why benefits in the private sector are dwindling (with the exception of those at a few large corporations). 

The growing pensions crisis highlights the role of anti-public employee rhetoric in public sentiment and resulting policy. In numerous states, pension funds are running dangerously low, with some set to run out as soon as 2017. The pensions crisis has dominated the news in states like California, where the media is eager to blame public employees, and their unions, for the problem; if only those pesky public employees would take their licks with the rest of us, the state could be solvent!

The pensions crisis was created by the states, which clearly anticipated their looming unfunded liabilities and failed to act, perhaps under the assumption that by the time the crisis became a serious problem, the public could be successfully turned against public employees, and wouldn't protest proposals to cut pensions and increase employee contributions to pension funds. The recent decision on the part of the US Postal Service to stop paying into its pension fund to meet budget shortfalls was received with hardly a ripple, for instance. The federal government made the problem even worse by borrowing against its pension funds, and many of the states did the same, but this is rarely reported in scaremongering stories about how public employee pensions are driving the nation into insolvency.

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