Wage theft – a common crime in the United States with rare consequences for the thieves – costs American workers $50 billion annually. Worker Justice Wisconsin sees hundreds and hundreds of workers every year at their center in Madison alone who have been denied wages or employee benefits that are rightfully owed to them – workers who weren’t paid for their hours, they weren’t paid overtime after working 80 hours a week, or they weren’t paid at all.
Many of these workers are immigrants, people of color and women who feel like they have no place to turn to.
“With all of the workers and attacks on immigrants, on those specifically on marginalized communities, an organization like Worker Justice Wisconsin is more important than ever today,” Sergio González tells Madison365. “Worker Justice Wisconsin specifically works with and advocates for low-wage workers and those that have trouble getting representation in workstations and have minimalized voice in the workstation. For an organization like Worker Justice Wisconsin, their main goal is to help them organize and to help them find their voice in the workplace.”
González is a University of Wisconsin-Madison historian, author of “Mexicans in Wisconsin,” and longtime board member for Worker Justice Wisconsin. He will also be the keynote speaker at their upcoming Faith-Labor Breakfast on Friday, April 27, 8-10 a.m. at Christ Presbyterian Church, 944 E Gorham St.
“This is the 18th annual Faith-Labor Breakfast, and it will be a morning to for information, inspiration, and connection to others who care about worker justice,” Becky Schigiel, executive director of Worker Justice Wisconsin, tells Madison365. “It is also our major fundraiser. We lost all of our federal funding last year, about one-third of the worker center budget, due to national cuts to worker education. Worker rights laws violations are common in our own community, especially for low-wage earners, immigrants, women, and workers of color. We are hoping people who care about workers will get a ticket or support us. “
This year’s Faith-Labor Breakfast is going to be a special one because it’s the first breakfast where Worker Justice Wisconsin is out on the public stage. Worker Justice Wisconsin is a combination of the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice and the Workers’ Rights Center.
“This is our first breakfast since we’ve reunited the worker center and the coalition parts of this movement toward economic justice in Wisconsin. We’re having the event the day before international Workers’ Memorial Day (April 28), so that people can stay for a commemoration of lives lost on the job in the last year,” Schigiel says. “We’ll be focusing on wage theft, discrimination, and worker safety, all issues that face Wisconsin workers, including the several hundred we’ll meet within Dane County this year. We’ll hear from workers sharing their experiences, Sergio Gonzalez and our national network. The event will be primarily in English, with interpretation to Spanish.”
Worker Justice Wisconsin builds collective worker power through training, labor rights education, collective action and community engagement, with an emphasis on interfaith involvement. They prioritize worker-member involvement and leadership development, while working as a coalition to make change. Worker Justice Wisconsin fights for a population that has been historically afraid to speak out.
“A lot of these workers are in really tenuous positions. They are the most marginalized because they have the least amount of power in the workspace,” González says. “Oftentimes, workers most important power is their voice. [For] workers who are working in these really contentious spaces where they are afraid that they might lose their jobs if they speak out or there might be retribution against them or their fellow workers, many times believe its a better choice to stay quiet and shoulder the load and not contest stolen wages or workforce discrimination.
“The job of Worker Justice Wisconsin, working in collaboration with labor unions and faith organizations, is to open up those avenues for workers to have a voice,” he adds.
The Faith-Labor Breakfast event this Friday will be titled “Worker Justice in Wisconsin: Wages Theft, Discrimination, and Worker Safety” and will feature a panel of workers and a talk from González, the special guest keynote speaker.
“At the breakfast, what I’m going to try and do is to bring in my expertise as a historian into these conversations. I think in 2017-2018, we feel like we’re under attack from so many different angles and so many different avenues,” González says. “As a historian, I think it’s my job to put this all into context to remind communities that work in allyship with different marginalized groups that we’ve been here before in different ways.
“That’s not to say that the conditions we see before us are not tremendous and the obstacles in front of us are not large, but to say that we’ve found ways in the past to work in solidarity and work in coalition and to create solutions,” he adds.
As a labor, immigration and religious historian of Latino communities in the Midwest, González says that he really wants to highlight some different stories where undocumented, Latino immigrant workers in the past have faced similar obstacles. “And how they’ve looked inward and outward to form coalitions to fight back those barriers.
Worker abuse is a topic that all of Madison should be concerned about, González says.
“Madison is a very small big city. It’s a place where our communities are in constant contact with each other, even if we don’t know it. What affects people in a part of a city that you might not interact with or people in communities that you might not have relationships with very quickly will affect you,” González says. “Our lives are intimately connected. I think that since the 2016 election people from a variety of different communities have been looking for a way to get involved and feel like they have power to enact some sort of change.
“Worker Justice Wisconsin and the Faith-Labor Breakfast are opportunities for these different communities to come into contact and to know that the struggle of one group is always connected to that of others,” he adds. “As we move forward to work to dismantle some of these barriers that subjugate people and make them less than, it’s important to know that the more hands we have available to do this work, the easier that work will be.”
González is excited to speak at the event, he says. There will also be a strong faith component and a strong labor component at the event.
“I’m really excited to hear from our panel and to hear people who are actually doing this work on the ground,” he says. “Actually putting energy into making their workplaces more equitable places.”
These worker rights issues are all intimately connected to race and class and gender and sexual orientation and documentation.
“But what we often find when we have these conversations like we do at the Faith-Labor Breakfast is that those identifying markers are often not as important as the struggle we are going through together,” González says. “Having these conversations about how you organize in your workplace and how you organize at your religious site, and sharing those tactics and strategies can do a lot to expand the work that communities are doing.”
Schigiel is also excited about the event, a fundraiser for an agency that began 19 years ago as a coalition of congregations, unions, and people in the community.
“That’s who we still are – all of us in support of livable wages, worker health and safety, and the right to organize,” she says. “We are also one of only two worker centers in Wisconsin, a place where people earning low wages and experiencing wage theft, discrimination, and other problems can learn about their rights and how to assert them. When their wages are stolen, they are hurt and work and don’t receive treatment, or they face discrimination in maintaining employment, it affects their families, and it matters to our whole community’s experiences of poverty, homelessness, and hunger.”
For more information about the 18th annual Faith-Labor Breakfast, click here.