Fighting to protect what we have

The decades’ long fight by U.S. workers for an eight-hour day began in earnest with strikes and parades on May 1, 1886, and culminated in victory more than 50 years later with enactment of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in July 1938.

The FLSA, second only in importance to the Wagner Act when it came to protecting workers rights, mandated that work performed after 40 hours in any week be compensated at a rate one and one-half times the regular rate of pay, established a $.25/hr minimum wage, provided for equal pay and contained provisions relating to child labor. As President Roosevelt said when signing the legislation, these objectives were designed to “protect workers unable to protect themselves from excessively low wages and excessively long hours.” But, like everything else in a society where the never-ending battle between “us” and “them” – it’s called the “class struggle” – is the only constant, there is nothing that says what was won yesterday was won for all time. And such is the case today where the right wing has launched a two-front attack on the FLSA.

The first, and most immediate, is the March 27 decision by the Department of Labor to rewrite the FLSA regulations dealing with who is and who isn’t covered by the Act’s overtime provisions. The AFL-CIO says the proposed rule changes – they take up 39 pages in the Federal Register – “would affect a wide range of the more than 80 million workers protected by the FLSA.” Interested parties have until June 30 to present written comments on the proposed changes.

The Federation questions the White House claim that the proposal will extend coverage to thousands of lower-income workers by raising the income ceiling for workers to automatically qualify for overtime pay. The AFL-CIO points out that most of these workers are already covered, while the proposed changes in job definitions and duties will allow employers to classify additional hundreds of thousands of workers as “exempt” and thus ineligible for overtime pay. The AFL-CIO says the Labor Department proposal:

Excludes previously protected workers by reclassifying them as managers, or administrative or professional employees ineligible for overtime pay. Establishes income limits that eliminate certain middle-income workers in aerospace, health care and other industries from overtime protections.

A second assault on FLSA is underway in Congress, where pending legislation in both House and Senate all but abolish the overtime penalty. These bills allow employers to “pay” for overtime hours worth time-and-a-half with straight-time “comp” hours on a one-for-one basis. The most far-reaching is HR-1119, the misnamed “Family Time Flexibility Act,” that has already cleared its first legislative hurdle and awaits final action in the House of Representatives. Under its provisions, employers would be allowed to withhold payment for a maximum of 160 overtime hours in any year and repay them at some future date with compensatory hours A separate provision in S-317 would eliminate the 40-hour workweek altogether and substitute an 80-hour two-week work period. Workers who work 50 hours in one week, for example, would not receive any overtime pay or comp time.

On the surface HR-1119 and S-317, its companion measure in the Senate, give employees the right to decide whether to accept comp time instead of paid overtime. But, as Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) wrote recently, “Contrary to what the bill’s proponents say, HR-1119 doesn’t create employee rights. It does, however, create a dangerous new employer right—the right to delay paying any wages for overtime work for as long as 13 months.”

For all practical purposes this means employees lend their overtime pay to their employer – all without receiving any interest or security in the event of bankruptcy. (The Small Business Administration says 550,000 businesses folded in 2000, with more than 200,000 going bankrupt.)

Eisenbrey says “fundamental economics” teaches that since comp time makes overtime work cheaper, employers are more likely to schedule it. The EPI is also concerned about two other aspects of the campaign to force workers to accept comp time in lieu of paid overtime: First, that it undermines the fundamental goal of the FLSA’s overtime rules which are meant to discourage overtime work by making it more expensive and, second, that the Labor Department’s Wages and Hour Division has fewer than 1,000 inspectors for a labor force of 150 million workers and seven million workplaces.

This approach that combines the lack of inspectors with indifference on the part of Labor Department officials, hits immigrant workers, many of whom lack documents or the protection of a union, with a special vengeance.

Ellen Bravo, director of the National Association of Working Women, told a congressional hearing that, instead of weakening the FLSA by undermining its overtime payment provisions, Congress should impose limits on mandatory overtime and provide a “minimum number” of paid sick days that could be used to care for either personal illness or a sick family member. She also called for an increase in the minimum wage that is indexed to inflation and enactment of a Fair Pay Act and Paycheck Fairness Act, to remove gender and race discrimination as criteria in compensation.

The AFL-CIO is conducting a “Write the President Campaign,” urging people to plug into their web site (www.aflcio.org) to send a letter to the White House expressing “disappointment and outrage” at Bush’s proposal to change federal overtime pay rules. “Please don’t take this step backward,” the letter reads, adding: “I urge you to withdraw parts of your proposal that would cut the paycheck of any worker and instead work to create jobs and increase wages.”

************************

World’s unions mark May Day

In its May Day Manifesto, the 158 million member International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) called for mass demonstrations around the world to demand respect on a range of issues including workers’ rights, quality public services, workers’ health and safety, ending poverty, and rights and opportunities for young workers.

“Respect for workers rights is a major part of the agenda we are putting forward, particularly as we gear up for the next WTO Trade Ministerial meeting in Cancun in September this year,” Guy Ryder, ICFTU general secretary, said. The AFL-CIO is the confederation’s largest affiliate.

Warning that the international community faces major challenges at this key moment in history, especially in the aftermath of war in Iraq, the manifesto said, “The outlook for the global economy is weak and confidence in the will and ability of governments to work together is low.”

The ICFTU called for action to stimulate the global economy, restore confidence in an effective United Nations and build democratic global governance in the interests of all adding: “Action must also be taken to achieve and strengthen development, quality public services and respect for workers’ rights. And from the ILO (the UN’s International Labor Organization) to the workplace, governments, unions and employers must tackle the scourge of discrimination against women, migrants and marginalised groups.”

The ICFTU called on the global labor movement to stand together to organize and mobilize working people to fight exploitation, oppression and discrimination. “And we will build global solidarity in order to build a just and democratic world where all can live their lives with Respect and dignity,” its manifesto concluded.

Alexander Zharikov was re-elected as the general secretary.

The left-led World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) also called for unity of the world’s movement. In its May Day Message, the federation saluted the millions of working people and their allies “who are in the forefront of struggles to defend their jobs, wages, living standards, to uphold the UN Charter and to work for economic development and social progress the world over.”

The WFTU used the occasion of May Day to expresses its solidarity with workers everywhere who are opposing militarism and war and are “denouncing the deliberate defiance of international law as was shown by the recent invasion and occupation of Iraq.”

The WFTU May Day Statement said it is imperative that all countries respect international law and the UN Charter, and that the International Monetary Fund and World Bank respect the rights of nations and peoples.

The WFTU branded as “absolutely unacceptable” the fact that governments are wasting scarce resources on a new arms race at a time when “greater financial resources are demanded for education, public health, housing and other social necessities.”

WFTU joined the ICFTU in calling for intensified actions to defend trade union and human rights and in condemning the murderous attacks on trade unionists in several countries, in particular Colombia.

The WFTU statement concluded with an appeal to unions in all countries to “further strengthen their efforts to advance the globalization of struggles for peace and social progress and against corporate globalization, privatization and forced economic integration such as the ‘Free Trade Area of the Americas.’”

The author can be reached at