Labor Advocate Online

Getting Back On Message On Overtime
by Bill Onasch

The Bush administration, through executive order, is changing rules regarding premium pay for overtime. The AFL-CIO is rightly opposing this scam to rob workers to enrich our bosses. We should support the federation’s ambitious campaign.

But some of the arguments cited by the AFL are troubling. The special overtime web site features quotes from several "working families." Virgil Bishop, of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, says, "The overtime money pays for all the things that make working worthwhile." Kenny Williams says he works overtime to "make things easier for my daughter and son ." "We’d be devastated without the OT now—we have no more corners to cut," says the Farrar family.

It is undoubtedly true that "middle class" life style can generally only be maintained by families with two or more breadwinners working substantial amounts of overtime. But is this the American Dream we should be mobilizing to defend?

Remembering Our Mission
The labor movement that we know today was largely built initially around the fight for an eight hour day, forty hour week—once considered an almost revolutionary demand. Finally, after decades of battle, sometimes bloody, that standard was codified into national law, covering most workers, with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1938.

There were strong arguments for that great reform: the increased productivity of workers through the first part of the twentieth century meant that bosses could cut hours of work without cutting pay—and still make increased profits. Shorter work weeks would help put the unemployed to work. Increased leisure time would open up new potential markets that could expand the economy even more.

But aren’t those same arguments more relevant than ever today?

We Pay A Price For Our Productivity
Certainly the growth in productivity has been explosive. Consider the impact of just new technology:

Continuous casting and electric arc minimills can produce more steel than ever with a fraction of the workforce needed a generation ago.

Coal mines aren’t pick-and-shovel anymore. Huge boring machines underground and highly polluting strip mining dig record amounts of coal while the United Mineworkers have fallen to less than ten percent of their membership numbers when FLSA was introduced.

In 1938 freight trains had a crew of five. Every major rail center had an army of clerks, operators, dispatchers, and others to keep the traffic flowing while tracking every freight shipment. Today most trains have a two-person crew and just one may not be far away. With bar codes on the rolling stock and remote TV cameras in the yards, only a handful of clerks are needed to keep track of everything on computers. With virtually all track now protected by sophisticated versions of ABS there is no longer a need for operators and one dispatcher is expected to control movements over thousands of miles of track.

Computer controlled metalworking machines and assembly line robots have made countless manufacturing positions redundant.

Even in the back offices computer data bases have finished off the file clerks, word processors have greatly reduced the need for typists, and fewer draftspersons are required with CAD/CAM.

We could go on and on with lists of huge gains in productivity. At one time the labor movement would have been demanding that the workers share in these gains by working fewer hours with no reduction in pay. Many European unions, working through their own political parties, took that road and won shorter work weeks and annual vacations of four to six weeks guaranteed by law.

Falling Behind the Rest of the World
In 2001, the latest year for which international comparisons are available, U.S. workers averaged 1821 work hours per year. In Holland that number was 1346. Norwegians had to work a little longer, 1364. The Germans, with their famous work ethic, really had to sweat it out—1467 hours. Of fifteen industrialized countries surveyed only Koreans worked more hours than Americans. Even the workaholic Japanese, who a decade before had worked 200 hours a year more than us, brought their average down to exactly the same as the U.S.

But after 1938 the movement for shorter hours virtually disappeared from the agenda of the American mainstream union movement. Despite these incredible increases in productivity, especially since World War II, workers were encouraged by boss and often union bureaucrats alike to work more hours—golden time-and-a-half, sometimes double time hours. That’s the way to put your kids through college, to buy that third car, or the bass boat, or whatever suits your fancy. A bitter union militant I knew in my youth called this then new generation "overtime whores." It wouldn’t take layoffs to shatter their lives—cutbacks in overtime would be enough.

And that’s where we stand today. A major campaign by organized labor not for fewer hours but for defense of overtime pay. I think even Sam Gompers and Bill Green* would have trouble with this.

Refocus the Vision
Yes, I signed the petition against the Bush order and I’ll join other protests as well. But the campaign we really need to mount is a resumption of our historic fight for shorter hours. Here’s what the Labor Party has to say in our platform:

"More Time for Family and Community
A 32-Hour, 4-day Work Week
Double-time Minimum for All Overtime
An Hour Off with Pay for Every two Hours of Overtime
20 Mandatory Paid Vacation Days for All
One Year Paid Leave for Every Seven Years of Work

Each year we become more and more productive at work. In a fair and just economy, increased productivity should allow us to work fewer hours, not more. Yet compared to the late 1960s, we are now working an average of more than one extra month annually. We work longer hours and have less vacation time than almost all workers in the industrialized world. While many of us cannot find work, factory overtime is now at record levels because it is more profitable to pay overtime than it is to hire new workers. Enough is enough. We call for amending the federal labor laws to: Define the normal work week to 32 hours without loss of pay or benefits. Provide a minimum of double-time pay for all hours worked over 32 hours a week and 8 hours a day. Forbid compulsory overtime. Mandate one hour off with pay for every two hours of overtime. Require twenty days paid vacation for all workers in addition to the federal holidays. Provide one year of paid educational leave for every seven years worked. Taken together these proposals will create millions of new jobs and allow us free time we need to care for our families and to participate in our communities. More family time and more community participation should be the fruit of increased labor productivity."

Now that’s a vision that can inspire workers. If we are going to mount a major fight let’s fight for a better future—not just to preserve the dismal present.

*Sam Gompers and Bill Green were early presidents of the American Federation of Labor. They were conservative craft unionists who generally opposed most efforts at social legislation.

February 3, 2004