After 30 years, I still remember my rage and frustration. I was cleaning up after a hot, hard eight-hour shift at Oregon Steel, when the foreman came into the locker room. “Put your work clothes back on and go back to work,” he told me. “We need another man on number two furnace.” I had no choice, if I wanted to keep my job.

Today, it is not only industrial workers. Increasingly, from the executive suites to the custodial crew, we are on call 24/7/365. The corporate machine comes first, our families a distant second. And many are not even getting paid for the extra time on the job!

On April 20, Bush’s Department of Labor issued a press release with the headlines: “Workers Win with Labor Department’s New Overtime Rules – Fair Pay Initiative Guarantees Overtime Rights for Millions of Workers.” Let’s see what who really won what, and when.

In 1938, workers really did win, when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). This established the 40-hour week, with time-and-a-half for overtime.

The FSLA was a big victory, but it left professionals, executives and some other salaried workers “exempt” – not protected by the overtime provisions. This might not have been much of a problem in 1938. But today, there are tens of millions of workers who get a fixed monthly salary and are expected to work as many hours as necessary to get the job done without additional pay.

For example, a programmer at IBM told me that he regularly works 50 hours a week, and the other people in his office work even longer hours. They don’t get extra pay, but they hope to keep their jobs! Many – perhaps the majority – of computer professionals work under similar conditions.

Enter the Bush administration. Under new Department of Labor (DOL) rules, workers earning less than $23,660 per year will now get overtime pay, even if they are managers, professionals or other “exempt” workers. The DOL press release boasts, “This strengthens overtime protection for 6.7 million low-wage salaried workers, including 1.3 million salaried white-collar workers who were not entitled to overtime pay under the existing regulations.”

As usual with the Bush administration, while they give us crumbs with one hand, they are stealing big slices of the cake with the other. When the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) investigated these claims, they found that “The total number of salaried, white-collar employees earning less than $22,100 a year and working more than 40 hours per week is only 737,000,” not the 1.3 million claimed by the DOL. And the EPI estimated that more than 8 million workers would lose overtime protection. This is not surprising – the DOL invited top employer groups to help write the new rules, which now make it easier to classify salaried workers as professionals, administrators, or executives in order to deny them overtime pay.

According to the AFL-CIO, over 1.5 million workers have sent protests to Bush, and the Senate voted to block the overtime changes, but Republican maneuvers allowed the DOL to issue the new regulations without congressional approval.

The April 20 announcement did contain a number of changes from the DOL’s original proposal, including raising the minimum for exemption from $22,100 to $23,660 and protecting some workers who earn between $65,000 and $100,000 per year.

Issuing the new rules practically on the eve of May Day is an added affront to workers. May Day, celebrated around the world as the International Workers’ Day, grew out of the nationwide strike for an eight-hour day, held in the United States on May 1, 1886. It took decades to win the FLSA in 1938, and employers have been undermining it every since. Already, U.S. workers put in more hours on the job each year than those in any other developed country.

One of the reasons we are in a job-loss recovery is that employers are increasing production by making their remaining employees work harder and longer. The new Bush administration regulations make it even easier for companies to do this.

On this May Day, a holiday commemorating those who fought and died for the eight-hour day, we should commit ourselves to stopping and rolling back all the damage being done by the Bush administration. And remember the words of folksinger Charlie King: “Our life is more than our work, and our work is more than our job.”

The author can be reached at economics@cpusa.org.

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CONTRIBUTOR

Art Perlo
Art Perlo

Art Perlo lives in New Haven, Conn., where he is active in labor and community struggles. He does research and writing on economic issues in Connecticut, including work with the Coaltion to End Child Poverty in Connecticut which helped pave the way for the movement for progressive tax reform in the state. He writes on national economic issues for the People's World, and is a member of the CPUSA Economic Commission.

 

 

 

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