Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Workers Feeling the Pain of Bush's Victory
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Those who warned that working people would suffer severe consequences if President Bush was re-elected were not exaggerating. The first major post-election battle pitting Bush and his allies in Congress and corporate business against organized labor and its congressional allies made that all too clear.

The ridiculously easy victory of Bush and his Republican friends that denied overtime pay to millions of Americans was just the beginning. Labor's foes are now certain to use the political strength they showed in winning that battle to try to further diminish workers' rights and economic standing.

Labor and its Democratic friends will be losers in those battles, too, unless they meet the demands for reform and greater strength raised by many within their ranks. If nothing else, the seriousness of their loss in the battle over overtime should spur them into action. To saddle workers with even more would be disastrous.

How serious is the overtime loss? Well, the Republican-controlled Congress' refusal to support the move by Democratic members to block implementation of new Labor Department rules on overtime eligibility will cost as many as eight million workers as much as $250 a week each in pay. And that's overtime pay that many badly need just to make ends meet.

The new rules, backed strongly by Bush, allow employers to save billions of dollars by reclassifying workers as managerial, professional, administrative, supervisorial or executive employees. That includes workers in a wide variety of occupations who make as little as $23,660 a year - blue-collar and white-collar workers alike, in private and public employment. They will no longer be eligible for the overtime pay of 1 1/2 times the regular rate they previously earned for hours worked beyond 40 in a week.

The Labor Department actually claimed it was simply a matter of updating outmoded rules in order to provide "new, stronger overtime protections." That's extremely unlikely, to say the least. For in issuing the new rules the department advised employers that if they couldn't reclassify workers they could nevertheless limit their pay by cutting their hourly rate, so that even if they worked extra hours at the overtime rate, the employees' weekly pay would remain the same.

That's what Bush and his employer buddies were after: making certain that the bulk of the ever-increasing volume of overtime work goes to underpaid workers who needn't be paid extra to do it. It will amount to a pay cut for the many employees who currently work overtime. And it will mean an end to the pesky lawsuits that have been filed against employers in record numbers over the past few years by workers seeking overtime pay that was denied them under the old rules.

Many of those previously paid overtime not only face reduced paychecks but also unpredictable work schedules and longer hours, since their employers can now assign them extra work without the extra cost of overtime pay rates. Workers who still must be paid overtime face losing overtime work to those who don't have to be paid overtime.

Employers with extra work to be done may find it cheaper to assign the work on overtime to current employees who are no longer eligible for overtime pay rather than hire new employees to do the work. Even employers who don't want to shortchange their workers may feel compelled to follow suit in order to keep their labor costs competitive.

As AFL-CIO President John Sweeney says, it amounts to "one of the biggest pay cuts in American history - special delivery straight from the White House."

It does, however, give the AFL-CIO a good selling point in its drive to organize that vast majority of workers who remain outside unions. For union members generally are covered by contracts that guarantee them overtime pay after 40 hours a week regardless of government regulations.

The organizing drive tops labor's priority list, and it should. But labor
has another key task in the newly convened Congress - to join with its Democratic allies in their promised drive to overturn the overtime ban. It's an important opportunity for America's working people to prevail over those who exploit them for financial and political gain.

Copyright 2005 Dick Meister