I recently took part in a series of public demonstrations organized by the Workers' Dignity Project, which is a branch of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) concerned with the recovery of stolen wages.
In this case, a dishwasher named Bernardino had been shorted over $10,000 dollars in wages by a Nashville restaurant owner. After nearly a year of phone calls and letter writing campaigns, Bernardino had received multiple promises of financial compensation but absolutely nothing in the way of hard currency. Meanwhile, his former employer, Vito, had invested a sizable chunk of capital in a new restaurant which also happens to carry his name.
By the time I was given the opportunity to join the campaign, we had exhausted our repertoire of polite, private tactics. If Bernardino, along with his family and a small network of supporters, couldn't recover his wages, then maybe a hefty dose of public shaming would do the trick. So, a couple of Saturdays ago I joined about 40 supporters of the Workers' Dignity Project for a dinner-rush picketing of Vito's Ristorante and Wine Bar.
We made signs. We marched. We chanted.
"No paycheck, no pasta!"
"Ho ho, hey hey, Vito has got to pay!"
"Don't eat injustice!"
It was, all in all, a huge success and a lot of fun to boot. Bernardino's wife was thrilled with the outpouring of support and a number of passersby expressed their support. Not even the angry, bald bouncer doing his best tough-guy act could dampen the mood. (It took every ounce of my self-control to keep myself from saying, "Don't worry, we'll be out of your hair soon.")
But not everyone saw the appeal. "Isn't it counter-productive?" "How's he supposed to pay his workers if you shut down his restaurant?" "Shouldn't this be handled in court?"
To be clear, this wasn't the sort of senseless rabble-rousing that some of the more straight-laced among us usually associate with protesting. We weren't asking for redistributive justice or making extravagant demands. That our protest was necessary at all is indicative of a completely unacceptable, egregious injustice. In no circumstances should anyone need to resort to public shaming in order to collect what they are rightfully owed. The Prophet Amos told us to "let justice roll down like mighty waters." If only! Bernardino is being made to scratch and claw for a supply-side trickle.
But that's an ethical argument. The chances of Amos convincing a wage thief to reform their ways are slim, and basic decency is rarely a match for greed. But there is another course of action available to victims of wage theft. While you can't always pull on their employer's heart-strings, it'll always smart when you cripple their cash-flow. By bringing unjust business practices to the public's attention, the Worker's Dignity Project presents wage thieves with the option of either paying their workers or continuing to conduct business in the face of tremendous negative publicity. This tactic, so far as I can tell, resembles the workings of an idealized capitalist society much more so than a social justice agenda.
The economist Milton Friedman argued in Capitalism and Freedom that societies require no arbiter of justice other than an unfettered free market. From this perspective, any outside imposition on the workings of markets is detrimental to freedom, societal well-being, and the "free market of ideas."
For example, Friedman argued against federal laws that mandated non-discrimination in the work place. If society wished to establish that non-discrimination was better than discrimination, then those two ideas should have been allowed to exist side-by-side in the market of ideas as well as the market defined more concretely. As non-discrimination edged out discrimination in the market of ideas, it would become increasingly costly for employers to "indulge their taste for discrimination." (Note: "indulging a taste for discrimination" is economist speak for what normal people call "being a bigot.") As employers drove up their own cost of business through discriminatory hiring practices and found that increasingly fewer people were willing to buy things from a segregated workplace, the discriminatory employers would be driven out of the market.
And eventually...Voila! No more discrimination! And it was all achieved without any coercion or intervention from big, evil government.
Presumably, wage theft can be countered in the same way. If consumers had to choose between a restaurant that rips off its dishwashers and another that pays them their agreed upon wage, one would hope that the vast majority of patrons would choose the employer who pays their workers. Of course, a restaurant's patrons typically have no way of telling whether or not the establishment that they've chosen pays their workers, and wage thieves are able to continue exploiting their workers without consequences.
This gets us back to Mr. Friedman and the one flaw in his theory--it's wrong. More specifically, one of the basic assumptions undergirding his idealized market--perfect information--is not met, which is to say that consumers are not able to access all of the information they might like to have before making a well-thought-out purchase. If the market somehow dictated that corrupt businessman declare their injustice to their patrons, then we could reasonably expect that "the invisible hand" would shove them out of business's way. However, that is not the case. The reality is that the market needs a little bit of help from some folks with a conscience.
So if you happen to drive by the Workers' Diginity Project picketing a restaurant, resist the urge to write off their actions as left-wing clamoring. Roll down your window and thank them for being the sort of conscientious capitalists who put wage thieves on guard, assuring for all of us that the market works for the whole community.