Wage Theft Vigil
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Dickson Street at the Railroad Track
Forty-six years ago, back in the fall of 1964, I was in my first year of law
school. One of the required courses – all the first year courses were required – one
of the required courses was Contracts. We read case after case presenting unusual
or unexpected situations, where the dispute could be resolved only by a court; the
parties could not reach an agreement on their own.
Did I mention that we just had a new roof put on our house?
What we didn’t study in that course on Contracts were the easy cases. A
man agrees to work for a roofing company, for $10 an hour, to be paid at the end
of each week. The man works five eight-hour days. At the end of the week he
expects to receive $400. Of course, he realizes there are deductions for Social
Security and so on. Without offering any excuses at all, the owner – I’m making
this up; this is not my roofer – refuses to pay him.....
From the law student’s point of view, that would be an easy case. From the worker’s point of view, it’s a mostdifficult case. He can’t pay the rent; he can’t buy the groceries.The right to be paid for one’s work, to be paid the agreed-upon wage, is so
basic, so obvious, that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights doesn’t
explicitly mention it. Article 23 of the Universal Declaration talks about a right to
work, about equal pay for equal work, about a right to remuneration that will
ensure worker and family “an existence worthy of human dignity,” but the
underlying simple right to be paid for one’s labor isn’t mentioned. It didn’t have
to be. No one would dispute it.
When Jesus talks about paying workers, he doesn’t tell us about the
vineyard owner who refuses to pay his workers. No, he talks about the vineyard
owner who pays them too much. He pays the workers who worked the full day the
standard wage for a full day’s work. But then he pays those who worked just the
last few hours of the day the same amount. Unfair, the full-day workers complain.
And we would probably agree that the arrangement is unfair. But the vineyard
owner didn’t stiff any of the workers. Everyone was paid. [Matt. 20:1-16]
So I don’t get it. I don’t understand how anyone could hire a worker; the
worker does the job; and then the boss refuses to pay them. I don’t suppose that
someone who would behave like that would be transformed by my quoting the
Bible to them.
I’m sure they’ve heard of the Ten Commandments. They probably couldn’t
name them all – I don’t think I could myself – but I have no doubt that they would
recognize “Thou shalt not steal” as one of them. What could be plainer than that?
Rev. Dave Hunter
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fayetteville