Bush’s Overtime Law – Defend the Right to an Eight Hour Day

In one fell swoop the Bush Administration obliterated the core of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act – one of the most important gains of 150 years of Labor struggle in the United States – the right to a forty-hour work week. While the media devoted most of its attention to the ridiculous war records squabble between the two corporate candidates, barely a word was said in mention of the new anti-worker overtime regulations. That is, until the Democrats decided they would do a little election year "window dressing" and put up some token resistance in their usual last minute drive to appear "worker friendly".

It’s frankly absurd that at the beginning of the 21st century – well over a hundred years after we first began to fight for this demand – we are still struggling for the 40 hour work-week. With the level of technology and wealth we have as a society, we should be talking about the 30 hour week, the 20 hour week, even the 10 or 5 hour week. But as long as workers do not have political and economic control over their lives, the bosses and their political representatives of both parties will attempt to steal our most basic rights like a thief in the night.

Despite the setback suffered by the Bush administration on this issue (both houses of Congress have voted to overturn the law – though he can override them), the struggle is not over. We cannot entrust our most fundamental rights to the election year shenanigans of the Democratic Party. This demands an immediate call-to-arms of the entire Labor Movement! Every trade union across the United States must mobilize to defend our most hard fought right. Now, more than ever, we must break with the Democratic Party which cannot serve two masters – big business and the working class – at the same time. Time after time, they have shown their true colors and class loyalty.

After dragging through deliberation in the House of Representatives and the Senate, the changes in the regulations were put into the labor codes on August 23rd. The laws first allow for workers earning less than $23,000 per year to qualify for time-and-a-half over their regular hourly wage when working over 40 hours a week, and makes workers earning over $100,000 per year exempt from earning any overtime pay at all. Workers earning more than $100,000 per year will receive "comp time" off instead of overtime pay, meaning these workers will receive paid time off in addition to vacation at their employer’s choosing.

But the devil is in the details. In addition to using annual earnings as a qualification or exemption to receiving overtime pay, the new regulations also call for an employer administered "duties test." Under this section of the new regulations, any worker, no matter how low their pay, is exempt from any overtime compensation if their duties are deemed administrative or "executive." For example, the night manager of a McDonald’s restaurant, despite his or her rock-bottom wages and the fact that most of the work is the same as the regular cooks and cashiers, would now be exempt from earning overtime wages. Under this duties test, millions of workers can simply be reclassified as managers by the bosses, stripping them of a large portion of their livelihood and trampling on their right to a 40 hour work week and an eight hour day. Finally, the law directly spells out that health care workers, specifically nurses, medical technologists, physician’s assistants and dental hygienists are completely denied the right to overtime pay despite their hours or pay. What is more, as the health care industry is one of the few sectors of the economy that is still h

The Labor Department’s official statement states that 6.1 million low-wage workers will now be allowed to earn overtime pay, while very few workers who earn overtime pay now will lose out. This is a lie that the laws themselves expose. The regulations will make more than six million workers exempt in addition to those who now qualify, and this does not take into consideration those workers who will be classified by their employers as "executives." The bosses will be allowed to pick and choose – based on professional objectivity and not the bottom line of course!

Of those workers who work over 40 hours a week, it is estimated that overtime pay accounts for 25 percent of their annual income. What also must be remembered is that even under the original 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, only 11.6 million of the 115 million workers eligible for overtime pay received it. The new regulations represent a gigantic cutback against the existing coverage, meaning these new clauses will nearly eliminate all overtime pay. Lastly, while not affecting unionized workers under current contract, these laws will have a direct effect on all future collective bargaining agreements. These laws are targeted at all workers – organized and un-organized.

These new overtime regulations represent an attack on the working class in the USA on a gigantic scale. If the laws remain on the books it will mean a significant drop in the living standards of the working class as a whole. At a time when the working class is already being squeezed from every direction, this new attack must be counted among the worst. After crashing to a halt in 2001, the economy has yet to recover its year 2000 levels of employment, investment and GDP growth. Despite a slight pickup in economic activity, the recent "recovery" has been a jobless one with the official unemployment rate still around 5.4 percent, which does not take under-employment or long term unemployment into account. The billion-dollar-a-week occupation of Iraq has bloated the national debt, giving the bosses’ representatives in Congress an easy excuse for cutting public aid funding. State governments remain in their worst fiscal crisis in history.

Despite the fact that the largest portion of those living in poverty are children, President George W. Bush had this to say on August the 28th to a rally in Troy, OH: "We’ve got to make sure our work rules are family friendly. That means flex time and comp time to allow moms and dads to spend more time with their children." Mothers and fathers in Ohio, which has lost more than 230,000 jobs since 2001, are sure to appreciate the President’s generous gift! However, if Mr. Bush continues with his generosity to the working class, he, along with the rest of the capitalist class can expect a gift of their own – a resurgent labor movement.

The day the new regulations were added to the labor laws the AFL-CIO called rallies in Florida, Missouri, Ohio, and at the steps of the Labor Department in Washington, D.C. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney had this to say to a rally in the Capital: "History will record that on August 23rd in 2004, America’s workers suffered the single biggest pay cut ever – since the founding of our country." His statement is absolutely correct. But what now must be entered into the pages of labor history is whether or not the working class will defend its rights through mass action, or if yet again the AFL-CIO bureaucracy will place its hopes in the Democratic Party.

The ability of the trade union bureaucracy to "snatch defeat from the jaws of victory" is an established fact. Several leading Democrats have worked to revoke the new laws in Congress. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic Party leader, issued a statement saying that at a time when the working class was feeling the pinch of the failed economy, the "Democrats will continue (?!) to use every means available to protect overtime pay and enhance the standard of living of working Americans." But if the Democrats have continually used "every means" to defend the rights of working people how could the laws have been successfully put into effect in the first place? Where was the rallying cry from these people months ago when the laws were first put to Congress? If the Republican Party was able to successfully shut down the entire government in 1996, why couldn’t the Democrats at the very least have staged a walkout? The answer is simple – the Democratic Party is not a party of the working class, it is a party of the corporate elite and the capitalist class just as much as their Republican "foes." They are enemies only insofar as both pro-big business groups want to get their hands on the levers of political power and the national treasury. We cannot depend on these representatives of capital to defend our interests. The working class can only rely upon its own forces!
The fact that the current Presidential election is the fourth consecutive time that the AFL-CIO leadership has labeled a NAFTA supporter "worker-friendly" is an abomination of unmatched proportions. Enough is enough! For more than half a century, the American working class has been delivered bound and gagged to the tender mercies of the bosses’ parties. Working Americans must have their own party. We already have the trade unions to defend our interests on the industrial front. When will we begin to organize our defense on the political front? The time to begin building a mass party of labor is now.

The friends of the Democrats will tell us that we must focus all of our energies to defeat Bush. He is the worst President in history, isn’t he? That’s probably true, but more importantly, we must ask ourselves: who will replace Bush? Kerry has already made it clear that he will not provide a real solution to the major crisis facing us today, the bloody occupation of Iraq. His "health care plan" bears a striking resemblance to Clinton’s pledges to turn around the health care situation. Clinton ended up cutting half of all Medicare / Medicaid rolls and giving the remainder over to private HMOs. Kerry is simply another of the capitalists’ spokesmen. The time to build a mass party of labor is more urgent than ever. The Democrats have proven themselves not only incapable of defending the working class, but they are actually the more skillful representatives of the bosses.

It is already clear that the labor bureaucracy will try to lean on their fair weather friends for a solution. But the history of the last forty years already gives us an answer as to whether the Democrats can be relied upon. Sweeney & co. know very well that they must at least put up a limited fight in order to maintain their positions. However the AFL-CIO ‘leadership’ cannot be depended on to defend the working class either. This group is a bureaucratic clique that has congealed at the head of the movement and its own petty interests run counter to those of the mass rank and file. On their own they will not mobilize the forces of labor. They will be pushed into action only by pressure from below, and at a certain point these two will come into conflict. The workers will begin to realize that their current leadership is inadequate to the task.

Every time the giant of the US Labor Movement begins to move, the bureaucracy becomes uneasy in its perch, fearing its cozy relationship with the political representatives of Capital will be threatened along with their perks and privileges. This is why the leadership has so far offered token resistance. But as the attacks on the working class continue and increase in volume, a resurgence of the class struggle is inevitable. A pendulum cannot swing in one direction indefinitely, nor can pressure be built up forever without an explosion. Whether or not this latest attack will awake the working class has yet to be seen. But one thing is for certain, the time when the American working class will stand at its full stature and reclaim its old traditions of struggle is clearly ahead.

The workers’ mass organizations – the trade unions – must be mobilized to defend our right to a forty hour work week! The working class can rely only on its own forces – not a penny, not a vote for the Democratic Party! We need to build a working class party to solve working class problems! For a mass party of labor based on the unions!

Want to get involved? Drop us a line to join the fight for socialism in our lifetime:

Donate to Socialist Revolution


Click to Subscribe to Socialist Revolution Magazine


Socialist Revolution is the official publication of the US Section of the International Marxist Tendency.
Contact us at info@socialistrevolution.org or 646-791-6279