If ordinary working people needed some hard evidence that this Republican government in Washington is not on their side–that it is, in fact, out to get them–they finally have it in a very simple form: the effort in Congress to eliminate overtime pay.
It’s easy for Bush and Republicans in Congress to trick people into supporting a massively regressive tax cut package. They offer crumbs to the middle class while handing out hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax breaks to the rich, and everyone thinks it’s a good thing. But the bill now being considered in Congress, which will make it much easier for employers of people making less than $65,000 a year to take away their overtime pay is a straight-forward, unambifuous screw job.
For years, during both Republican and Democratic administrations, the government has been chipping away at the 40-hour week, one of the central victories of the labor movement during the early years of the 20th Century. They exempted salaried people, they exempted people classed as management even if their salaries were pathetic. Still, up to now most people who work for a living could count on getting time and a half for being required to work more than a 40-hour week (or in some professions, like trucking, for having to work more than an eight-hour day).
The purpose of the overtime law, known as the Fair Labor Standards Act, was to create an economic disincentive both to discourage employers from overworking their employees, and to encourage them to hire more people. The idea was, if you wanted your employee to work longer, it would cost you more.
Employers, particularly in the latter half of the 20th century, when health and other benefits became more common, hated the idea of time and a half pay for overtime. They didn’t want to have to hire more workers, because then they had to pay more healthcare benefits, and more unemployment insurance if they had to later lay people off in slower economic periods. Yet if they didn’t add employees, they had to pay time and a half to existing workers to get the job done. Not surprisingly, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and other business lobbying organizations have been lobbying to get rid of overtime for a long time.
The irony is that employers in the ever more dominant service sector–touted by business lobbyists as the reason that overtime pay is obsolete–don’t really face much in the way of extra costs for hiring extra employees these days anyway, since so few of them employ people full time these days, or pay them benefits. Still, the very idea of having to pay time and a half to workers sticks in the craw of most employers, who seem anxious to return to the good old days of the 19th Century.
With Republicans in charge of both houses of Congress, and Bush in the White House, they see their opportunity to do just that, and they’re pushing hard for it now. (At this rate, we’ll probably see them pushing next for an end to child labor bans.)
The U.S. labor movement is fighting a rear-guard battle against the bill, but the odds are against them. Only 13 percent of U.S. workers are now in unions, and half the Democrats in Congress wouldn1t know a real worker if they saw one. Meanwhile, for Republicans, this bill is red meat.
Weakened as it is, the organized lobbying effort by the labor movement has scored a victory in the initial battle. After over 250,000 people contacted their congressional representatives telling them to oppose the measure, the House Republican leadership postponed a vote on the bill, fearing that they didn’t have enough votes for passage. They’ve vowed to bring it back after they’ve had a chance to work over those party representatives who appeared to have defected.
If the measure passes, it will be a huge financial disaster for the 75 million American workers who are currently covered by the overtime rules, who stand to lose billions of dollars a year in pay. While it would not, at least immediately, change the overtime rules for workers earning less than $22,100 a year, it would hit hard at those earning between $22,100 a year and $65,000 a year–the pay range within which the law would allow employers to finagle their way out of paying time and a half. The trick would be to classify those workers as “professionals” or “management”–an easy sleight of hand in a time when the Labor Department, which technically monitors such things, is a lapdog of management. As well, under the bill, employers would be free to “offer” workers an option of comp time in lieu of mandatory overtime.
While the law says employers could not coerce employees into selecting comp time instead of overtime, critics say that it would be almost impossible to enforce such a rule. Employers would have too many ways to retaliate against workers who made the wrong choice–denial of favored vacation dates, denial of promotions, etc. Such punishments would be hard to link to a worker’s decision to exercise their right to choose overtime over comp time.
The U.S. Chamber, a prime mover behind the drive to eliminate overtime, insists that all it is trying to do is “clarify the rules,” but with billions of dollars a year in overtime pay at stake, it is clear that this is really nothing but a power play aimed at wresting a hard-won New Deal-era right away from American workers in order to fatten the wallets of management.
This is one Republican power grab that American voters will not likely forget come November 2004, though. Indeed, it’s November and December–the run-up to the Christmas holiday season–when most workers earn their fattest paychecks, thanks to overtime.
If this bill goes into law, this next Christmas season, and the one following, will see workers coming home with substantially thinner pay envelopes.
Dave Lindorff is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. A collection of Lindorff’s stories can be found here: http://www.nwuphilly.org/dave.html