by Chirs Townsend, your Capitol Hill Shop Steward....
....also, United Electrical Workers Lobbies for a Workers' Rights...click here...
Washington, D.C. - With more than 200 Republicans and Democrats from the House of Representatives just back from a bipartisan love-in in Hershey, Pennsylvania, working people now have 50 new reasons to be scared of what's ahead. The weekend bipartisan bash was thrown by an outfit called Pew Charitable Trust. Nothing like a free corporate-sponsored resort weekend to help everyone from both big parties learn to appreciate each other a little better.
Maybe during the friendly conversations over shrimp and cocktails, they chatted about how good it would be to give working families "flexibility" by rolling back overtime pay. The "Working Families Flexibility Act," introduced in the House January 7 and assigned the bill number HR#1, has already been passed by the full House. It would allow employers to offer hourly employees compensatory time off in lieu of overtime pay.
The bill's sponsor is Republican Rep. Cass Ballenger, a simple factory owner from North Carolina, who refers to the proposal as a "long overdue change." Bosses like Cass have been trying to repeal the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) since it was passed in 1938. This is the slickest attempt yet. Worse, the nation's chief Democrat, Bill Clinton, has endorsed the concept of the bill - although not, at this moment, the Ballenger version.
The Senate version of the bill, introduced by Sen. John Ashcroft (R-MO), has an even more ridiculous name: "The Family Friendly Workplace Act." And it would go even further by, among other things, replacing the 40-hour workweek with an 80-hour two-week standard, allowing employers to press workers into back-breaking overtime over the course of a single week.
Of course, the bill's big-business sponsors insist, this is all strictly voluntary: Under both bills, exercising the comp time option would be only by mutual agreement of employer and employee.
Don't believe it for a minute.
A corporate lobbyist blew it during hearings on the Senate bill in mid-February: She gave away the real motive for this bill. Susan Eckerly of the National Federation of Independent Businesses told a Senate Labor and Human Resources subcommittee that small businesses "can't afford to pay their employees overtime. This [flextime] is something they can offer in exchange that gives them a benefit." That is, under this bill, employers will have the option of not paying us overtime. An embarrassed Eckerly later told reporters she wished should could take back her comments.
Here's the way the bill would work. Say you work fifty hours this week. The boss - if she or he feels like it - will bank 15 hours of "time off" for you, instead of paying for 15 hours of overtime. Down the road, as long as you give "reasonable" notice, you can take some of your saved-up time off - as long as you don't "disrupt" the boss's business. Boss will even let you save up to 240 hours of time, promising to pay you at the end of the twelve month period (that s/he picks out) for all the time you weren't allowed to use during the year.
Under the Senate bill, the boss could calculate your overtime over a two-week period instead of the current one. So Boss makes you work 55 hours this week, cuts you back to 25 hours next week, and pays you for a straight 40 hours both weeks. Only if you "volunteer" for the special treatment, of course. Welcome to the "family friendly" world of comp time, where the boss is once again in complete control of your life!
Apart from the Eckerly blooper, the friends of big business have done a good job promoting this scheme. In hearing after hearing, they've trucked in working moms to tell Congressional committees that repealing overtime pay will give them more flexibility. Like the woman from an unorganized Timken roller bearing plant in North Carolina, who told the legislators that comp time instead of overtime "would benefit workers. This would allow all workers the flexibility for themselves and self-directed work teams in the workplace. In a self-directed work team environment ...[the current requirement that wage workers get overtime] may create a situation where the team members will not feel equal." Nothing - not even overtime pay - should get in the way of our feelings of solidarity with management!
By putting Mom's picture on the front of this bill, proponents have put a human face on this otherwise evil-sounding proposal. Too many of our own allies in and out of the labor movement have been confused and disarmed by the "we-only-want-flexibility" arguments.
We have to ask some tough questions about this bill. For starters:
If this bill passes, how long will it take before bosses move to stop paying us all types of leave, sick, and vacation time unless it's been "earned"?
You can make your opinion heard on Capitol Hill by calling your lawmakers toll-free (compliments of the AFL-CIO): 1-800-LABOR21.
UE campaigns on the Hill for "Jobs, Living Wage..."
A Capitol Hill hearing room exploded in applause when UE's Director of Organizing, Bob Kingsley, announced that his union and the Labor Party are working together to give Americans the constitutional right to a job at a living wage. Kingsley was speaking at a roundtable discussion on "jobs, living wages and workers' rights for all" sponsored by progressives in Congress.
That was one of the more positive responses UE members got during their annual political action conference in Washington March 2-5. Fifty-eight delegates representing 29 UE locals spent two days on Capitol Hill confronting lawmakers on workers' issues. They heard some shockers along the way:
Rep. Thomas Petri (R-Wis) assured the delegates that he could live on a minimum wage income. (Uh-huh. Wish you'd try it.)
Sen. Rod Grams (R-Minn.) boldly told delegates that he would support federal guarantee of only half of workers' Social Security benefits. Grams' aide then added, in an apparent effort at humor: "See? Republicans aren't half bad."
And Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) told the workers that he agonizes about the gap between rich and poor. UE members were not impressed. "Apparently his status as a rich person keeps him from doing anything about it," said Charlene Winchell of UE Local 1121.
-- Peter Gilmore