Ain’t No Power Like the Power of Your Ex’s Mom

In 2007, a group of janitorial workers came to Fuerza Laboral’s office because they hadn’t been paid for several weeks of work. One of the workers was Santa’s son. Santa was his last name, but that’s all anyone ever called him; a clean-shaven-jolly old man who often came to our meetings and, no matter how raucous they were, promptly fell asleep.

Santa’s son was ticked, as were the other workers. It seems like the most basic thing–to be paid for your work–but it’s one of the most common and longest-running scams of unscrupulous employers: send people to work  and then intimidate and threaten them, often with violence, from returning to pick up their pay.

This was no different. Santa Jr. and friends worked for a physically intimidating karate instructor who ran a cleaning company out of his dojo. After his workers labored for three weeks without pay, he described in detail the horrible things he, as a black belt, would do to them if he ever saw them again.

We decided to use their anger as motivation and, after a quick training, went down the street to the karate studio, with protection in the form of group solidarity and a video camera.

Even though it was mid-morning when we entered to the dojo, all the curtains were drawn and a sleazy red light illuminated the boss’ desk where he sat, with a huge velvet painting of Jesus hanging over his head. My skin crawled; the place oozed grossness.

“Pay up now!” we chanted. He grabbed the desk phone off the receiver and bellowed, “I’m calling the authorities!”

My coworker burst out laughing and soon all of us were laughing. “Go ahead!” someone retorted.  “What are you going to tell them? ‘I run an unregistered cleaning company out of a karate studio and my workers stormed in because I didn’t pay them?’”

I don’t know if he’d ever been laughed at before, but it really caught him off guard. There were a couple more exchanges (“Turn that thing off!” he kept shouting to the video camera), until, totally flustered, he opened his wallet and pulled out a stack of cash that included a bunch of hundred-dollar bills and paid in full. Who hangs out in a red-light-lit room under a velvet Jesus with thousands of dollars in his pocket? Yup, this guy.

For the next few days, he drove his bright red SUV in front of our office, screaming out the window how he was going to kill us. Then, during our Saturday meeting, we were talking about the action and describing the boss, and Lola, a feisty lady with long silver hair, stood up. “I know him!” she said. “He used to date my daughter, and…” She paused, gritting her teeth, deciding not to share any more details.  “…if I ever see him again I’ll tear him up!”

She didn’t have to wait long. Boss man had made a habit of driving by every day, and that day was no exception. When he stopped in front of the office to yell his threats, Lola opened the front door and stepped onto the sidewalk. The face of this enormous black-belt karate instructor contorted into sheer terror at the sight of barely 5-foot Lola. He stepped on the gas and never came back.

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