Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Wage Theft

From Kathleen Hulser, writing on the New-York Historical Society blog, comes word of an interesting new book by Kim Bobo, Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid—And What We Can Do About It. This book covers an issue of interest to all Americans, including historians.

Kathleen, who became sensitized this issue while working on the slavery show at the Historical Society, writes "This modern form of stealing work time is a hidden scourge that labor economists say costs America billions of dollars a year. If the Department of Labor were to crack down on these widespread practices, a great deal of earned income would flow to those most in need — all without raising taxes or creating new programs."

Historians enter this picture under the heading of scholarly work. Getting published in academic journals and books is an important part of getting recognized as a historian. But most of this writing is unpaid. For tenured professors, this isn't a big problem. But for public historians, who have to make their time pay to earn a living, writing for free can seem like a cruel use of valuable hours.

The first time I heard the implications of this recognized clearly was when I was a graduate student, eking out a living on a combination of a scholarship, adjuncting and moving furniture. I was wrapping up extensive revisions on my masters essay, which was to be published in American Jewish History, when my mother asked me what I would be paid for all the work I was doing.

Nothing, I replied.

She thought for a long time and then said, "Well, they must assume that all historians are rich. Because only a rich person could afford to work that much for free."

Enough said.

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