Work in the South Conference

By Juchan Rim, Tulane University

The Work in the South Conference—hosted by the Workplace Justice Project (WJP)—brought up many important topics of debate. The panels focused on the historic background of low-wage work since World War II, an overview of the southern labor market, and possible solutions to the challenges that low-wage workers face, which include wage theft, racial and employee discrimination, and little to no employee benefits, especially in the South.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour and $2.13 for tipped workers, a wage that is barely enough to live on. The state of Louisiana, along with five other states, does not have a minimum wage; businesses with a net income of less than $500,000 that do not conduct interstate commerce do not have to comply to the minimum wage law. Additionally, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 has the 14c exemption which allows employers to base disabled workers’ wages off their productivity without complying with the federal minimum wage law. In the Bureau of Labor Statistics of 2013, about 1.5 million workers age 16 and over earned the federal minimum wage, while another 1.8 million earned below the federal minimum wage. Annual incomes depend on gender, age, and ethnicity; in 2011, men earned an average of $48,202 while women earned $37,118. Real median household income was the lowest among African Americans and Hispanics, at $32,229 and $38,624 respectively, while White and Asian Americans earned $55,412 and $65,129 respectively. How did this come to be?

Douglas Blackmon gives the keynote address at the 2015 Work in the South Conference

Douglas Blackmon gives the keynote address at the 2015 Work in the South Conference

In the period between the Civil War and World War II, black southerners experienced institutional racism; author Douglas A. Blackmon has called this period “the Age of Neoslavery”. At the end of the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment was passed, which abolished slavery with the exception of a punishment for a crime. However, southern states—whose economies (run mainly by cotton and slave labor) were devastated by the war—passed laws known as the Black Codes, which restricted African Americans’ freedom and forced them to work for little to no wages. One of the defining laws in these Black Codes was the vagrancy law, which allowed authorities to arrest unemployed free African Americans and force them into either county labor or private employment (convict-leasing system)—prisoners could be a source of revenue for southern states. Slaves were replaced with convicts and the working conditions were often brutal. The convict-leasing system became a source for economic development in the South.

By 1890, 19,000 people were imprisoned, 90% of whom were African American men. The growth of the Southern economy (industrialization and agriculture) helped the U.S rise to become a global economic leader. Employers in the south also relied on peonage (which was outlawed by Congress in 1867), and sharecropping (which required African Americans to take out loans with interest rates above 60%). This racial segregation and exploitation restricted the lives of southern African Americans, and prevented them from integrating into American life. Poverty was widespread, and institutional racism intensified. Racial segregation was upheld by the U.S Supreme Court in the separate but equal doctrine. By the turn of the century, peonage laws were enforced, but many of those found guilty were lightly punished or pardoned. In 1909, the NAACP was formed, which called for the reformation of the justice system and labor laws in the South. African Americans started joining the NAACP and labor unions. Finally, in December 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt’s attorney general Francis Biddle issued Circular No. 3591 as part of the war effort; this enforced the prosecution of those guilty of involuntary servitude (Slavery By Another Name).

Representatives from Show Me $15 and a Union and SEIU Local 21 talk about organizing in Louisiana

Representatives from Show Me $15 and a Union and SEIU Local 21 talk about organizing in Louisiana

The Wagner Act was passed in 1935, and is a labor law that guarantees basic rights to private sector employees to organize labor unions and engage in collective bargaining and collective action. It faced opposition by the Republican Party, and soon after World War II ended, the Taft-Hartley Act was passed, which restricted the activities and powers of labor unions, and prohibited radicals as union leaders. It was passed by Congress as a response to the Strike wave of 1946. Millions of veterans returned home after the war; Congress passed the G.I. Bill of Rights which encouraged home ownership and higher education. The U.S experienced a golden era of economic growth, with a boom in manufacturing and consumerism. The GDP grew, the middle class prospered, and labor union membership peaked in the 1950s. Military spending also soared because of the Cold War and Korean War. The economic boom came to an end in the early 1970s with the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in 1971 (the U.S ended convertibility of the U.S dollar to gold), the 1973 oil crisis, the 1973-74 stock market crash, and the growing inflow of imported goods. The economy experienced stagflation during the 1970s. Income inequality also shot up drastically during this decade, a period known as the Great Divergence. Income inequality has been growing ever since and is correlated with the decline in labor unions, globalization, and privatization (Dezhao).

The outsourcing of jobs into the private sector has had very negative effects on the middle and working class communities. It has contributed to an increasing income gap; the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. Income is shifting towards the wealthy, who tend to spend less than the middle class, slowing down economic growth. Profits are concentrated into private corporations and therefore are not used for public benefits and costs. The private sector is usually not as efficient as the government, as their main objective is to make money. This could cause an inferior quality of goods and services and cuts in essential services such as the water supply and electricity. This also means less transparency, wage cuts, and fewer work benefits. Throughout the years, private industries have fought to drive down the costs of their goods and services in order to maximize profitability. These industries focused on employing non-unionized workers and fought against private sector unions. This negatively affected the bargaining power and abilities of private sector unions. As a result, private sector unions have been declining in numbers (Moberg).

The decrease in labor unions, particularly private sector unions, is correlated with a decrease in wages and employee benefits; in 2012, union workers earned about 20% more than non-unionized workers. Labor unions have been less prominent today than in the past: union membership has halved since its peak in 1980. Currently there are 16.2 million labor union members. The majority of labor unions are public sector unions, despite the public sector having a lower number of workers than the private sector: 35.7% of government workers are unionized compared to 6.6% of private sector workers (“Union Members Summary”). The declining union membership is due to the changing market structure, public opinion on collective bargaining (particularly right-wing opposition), neoliberal policies (deregulation and privatization), economic globalization, and the power that employers and their privatized companies hold. In order to counter the effects of globalization, unions have been promoting labor regulations internationally; they have also opposed free trade agreements such as NAFTA and DR-CAFTA (Mary Jane). However, employers have employed restrictive strategies to reduce unionization, such as the illegal firing of union employees. Additionally, undocumented workers have almost no power or bargaining ability with their employers, and they are a huge part of the labor force in the United States.

The Workplace Justice Project (WJP) is a legal services clinic dedicated to native and immigrant low wage workers experiencing wage theft, harassment, discrimination, and safety violations in the workplace. The WJP’s weekly Wage Claim Clinic assists these low wage workers through workshops and seminars that guide them through the process of litigation for their unpaid wage claims. The New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and its organizations Congress of Day Laborers and Stand with Dignity are post-Katrina organizations that support the poor, working-class African Americans and Hispanic immigrants, and organize communities against racial and employee discrimination. These organizations have given a voice for many minorities in New Orleans. Fast-food workers are also being represented by Fight for $15, an organization and movement to fight for a livable wage; on April 15, workers from around the nation will go on strike for better wages and workplace treatment. The Service Employees International Union, one of the largest labor unions in the United States, unites two million members from the U.S, Canada, and Puerto Rico, and is supporting Fight for $15.

Bolle, Mary Jane. “DR-CAFTA Labor Rights Issues.”Congressional Research Service Report for Congress Order Code RS22159. 8 Jul 2005.

Slavery By Another Name. Dir. Sam Pollard. Prod. Catharine Allan and Douglas Blackmon. By Sheila Curran Bernard. PBS, 2012. PBS. PBS. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.

Dezhao, Chen. “The “Decline” of U.S. Economy: A Historical Comparison.” China Institute of International Studies, 2006. Web. 10 Apr. 2015. 

Moberg, David. “Privatizing Government Services Doesn’t Only Hurt Public Workers.” In These Times, 6 June 2014. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.

“Union Members Summary.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 23 Jan. 2015. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.

Douglas Blackmon’s Keynote Address at the WORK IN THE SOUTH 2015 Conference

On March 6th, 2015 at Loyola University College of Law, Mr. Douglas A. Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to WWII, gave the keynote address for the the WORK IN THE SOUTH Conference. Setting the historical context for the conference, Blackmon framed the discussion of why low-wage workers in the South are more vulnerable than workers in other regions. 



Right-to-Work Law Likely in Another State

The Wisconsin state Senate on Wednesday passed a right-to-work bill, sending it for likely approval to the GOP-controlled state Assembly. Supporters of the Wisconsin right-to-work law note that laws like it are sweeping the Midwest, and have already been passed in Michigan and Indiana. They say it will help make the state more competitive for business.


Wisconsin is the latest state to propose a right-to-work law

A right-to-work law is a statute in the United States that prohibits union security agreements, or agreements between labor unions and employers. 

While the pro-business package offered to businesses by right-to-work states can be appealing, it has also been shown that wages, employer-sponsored health insurance and employer-sponsored pensions in right-to-work states are lower than those in non-RTW states, and that RTW states have a higher percentage of low-wage jobs. While overall economic growth may occur more rapidly in RTW states, the benefits of this style of growth favor businesses over communities.


The U.S. Once Had Universal Child Care, But Rebuilding It Won’t Be Easy

As reported by NPR, “in urging greatly expanded subsidies during his Tuesday [State of the Union] address, the president referenced a national child care program that was in place during World War II, when his grandmother and other American women were needed in the nation’s factories. The program is not widely known today, but if it seems hard to believe, you can see evidence for yourself on YouTube.”

These days, affordable, quality childcare in the U.S. is hard to find, and yet crucial to the participation of so many parents in the workforce. “This grainy newsreel from Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, Calif., shows smiling toddlers doing puzzles, painting and listening to a woman play music. All this plus lunch and snacks, for 50 cents a day, or about $7.25 adjusted for inflation… The Works Project Administration first ran the day cares. The idea was to employ teachers and to also watch kids so that their unemployed parents could look for jobs. When women replaced deployed soldiers in the domestic workforce during World War II, the government funded a major expansion.” Read more or listen to the original story from NPR here.

The 3rd Reconstruction

Each time there has been a demographic shift in America that threatens the existing balance of power, new election laws have appeared to try to insulate the electorate from the emerging population. 

Rev. Dr. William Barber: The 3rd Reconstruction

Another City Resident Recovers Unpaid Wages Under New Brunswick Wage Theft Ordinance

“This first of its kind in New Jersey, the local law allows the city to deny the renewal of operating licenses, issued annually on December 1st, if any wage theft claims against the business are not resolved. Because a business cannot remain open without an operating license, the ordinance incentivizes not only adherence to federal and state standards for minimum wage and for overtime, but also settlement of any wage disputes in a timely fashion.” Read more about the case of Irene Lopez seeking unpaid wages of $5,000 from La Hacienda Grocery Store here.

Demonstrators gather outside La Hacienda in support of Irene Lopez

Demonstrators gather outside La Hacienda in support of Irene Lopez

Several U.S. cities, like Seattle, San Francisco and Miami, have passed their own Wage Theft Ordinances.




Federal Court Strikes Down Rule on Pay for Home-Health Workers

Late Wednesday afternoon, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., struck down a proposed change to the Fair Labor Standards Act that would have required private and state-managed home health care agencies to pay their employees overtime and minimum wage.

Home health attendants and aides, disproportionately African American, female wage earners—neither nurse nor maid, but a combination of both—have historically been singled out for denial of basic labor rights. The DOL issued a new rule in September of 2013, which would have finally included home-care workers under FLSA coverage. The overall rule was set to take effect on Jan. 1 of this year, but the portion struck down Wednesday was put on hold until Jan. 15 pending the court’s decision.

Maria Fernandez, Bernardo Vega

Home health aide Maria Fernandez, right, helps Bernardo Vega, 88, left, make the bed as she performs household chores for Vega and his wife. Fernandez works for United Home Care Services which provides health care and home care services for elderly and disabled adults. Photograph by Lynne Sladky — AP


“The affected workers—often known as personal-care aides, home-health aides or certified nursing assistants—typically bathe, dress and feed elderly or disabled patients. A large percentage of them are hired directly by people with disabilities or their families. Others are employed by private companies that provide services. Workers typically are paid with Medicaid funds administered by states.

“Many home-health workers already are paid more than the federal minimum wage—currently $7.25 an hour—but don’t get paid time-and-a-half when they work more than 40 hours a week. Many also have no health-care coverage themselves.”

Read more from Time, Fortune and the Wall Street Journal

DACA & DAPA: Avoiding Scams

President Obama has announced a series of executive actions on immigration. USCIS is NOT yet accepting applications or requests for these initiatives. Visit for information on when to submit a request.


Avoid Scams: Beware of anyone who offers to help you submit an application or request at this time based on the President’s announcement—it may be an immigration scam. More information about the Executive Actions on Immigration.

Acciones Ejecutivas sobre Inmigración: No solicite todavía. El Presidente Obama anunció una serie de acciones ejecutivas sobre inmigración. USCIS aún no está aceptando solicitudes o peticiones para estas iniciativas.

Evite estafas: Tenga cuidado con personas que le ofrezcan ayuda para obtener beneficios relacionados con el anuncio del presidente; podría ser una estafa de inmigración. Mas información sobre acciones ejecutivas sobre inmigración.

Visite para información sobre cuándo presentar una petición.






One Map Reveals Just How Hard It Is to Pay Your Rent in America


“Real estate database Zillow has published a map with the minimum wage required to afford the median rent in metropolitan areas across the country without spending more than 30% of income, and the numbers are simply staggering.” For example, “around San Francisco, a person needs to earn $59.72 an hour, or $119,440 a year.” 








Read more here or take a look at the interactive map here

The Case Of The Missing Wage Thief

Four years after winning a lawsuit demanding $1.5 million in back wages and damages from the restaurant that employed them, none of the plaintiffs have seen any of the money. “Countless immigrants in the restaurant industry work long hours for illegal wages. And even when they get a court of law to rule in their favor, they very rarely see a penny of the money that was taken from them.” The owner shut down his restaurants and “disappeared like a ghost.”

/buzzfeed news

/buzzfeed news





“Cao’s story is both strange and ordinary… At every job, Cao worked 11 or 12 hours a day, six days a week. He was paid flat wages that never added up to more than $1,300 a month, always in cash, and with no such thing as overtime pay… Wage theft is an everyday occurrence in American restaurants, especially for workers like Cao. The Restaurant Opportunity Center’s study of the industry in eight major cities across the country found that 46% of workers reported overtime violations, one of the most common ways of skirting wage laws. As for New York City, the National Employment Law Project estimated in 2008 that there are overtime violations in 75% of the city’s restaurants.”

Read more here.