The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

New attack on wages:
Ending the legal right to overtime pay

Jul 14, 2003

The U.S. House of Representatives recently cleared the way for the Labor Department to change federal rules concerning overtime pay. The Labor Department says it wants to change the rules in order to "modernize" them and make them less "confusing."

It's true, there is nothing confusing about these new rules: they are an open attack on the hard-won principle that companies should pay workers time-and-a-half for all hours worked over 40 in a week.

To begin with, an estimated 1.3 million white collar employees who earn over $65,000 a year will lose the right to overtime pay they now have. In addition, another estimated eight million workers earning between $22,100 and $65,000 a year, will lose their overtime pay rights. Among the hundreds of classifications involved are emergency medical technicians, licensed practical nurses, draftsmen, surveyors, cooks, dental hygienists, and paralegals, as well as many lower level supervisors.

By eliminating overtime pay rights for only particular categories of workers and those with the highest pay, the government hopes to drive a wedge into the working class.

This change is only the beginning of an attack on the time-and-a-half rule. To get this one by, the administration sugared it up by changing the rules that affect the lowest-paid workers, raising the cut-off below which overtime is supposed to be paid. This was hardly a new gift to the lowest-paid workers, however, since this limit had been frozen at its 1975 level for 28 years, meaning that inflation had excluded more and more low-paid workers from legally guaranteed overtime pay. The new limit, which makes up less than two thirds of what inflation costs, is still set so low that – at best – only about a million workers will gain anything.

Covered up by this small improvement is the real aim of the rule change, which threatens overtime immediately for over nine million workers and indirectly threatens overtime pay for tens of millions more.

This is only the beginning of a much wider attack on the right to overtime pay that will eventually fall on every worker – whether or not they are covered by federal labor standards, whether they are in a union or not.

The working class has a long tradition of fighting to reduce the hours of work while increasing the total weekly pay. Workers fought repeatedly to have their hours of work reduced from 12, 14 or even 16 hours a day down to 10 and then 8 hours. The workers forced the bosses to give up some of the fruits of increased productivity to those whose labor created more production.

In the 1930s, when workers were fighting to decrease hours of work at no loss in pay, the government responded by setting a premium for all hours worked beyond 40 a week or eight in a day. When the federal government wrote this principle into law in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the unions considered it a victory.

It was far from that. It was a way to divert workers from fighting to reduce their hours further. The vast increases of productivity since mean that a 20-hour work week could be standard with weekly wages higher than those based on heavy overtime.

Instead we have heavy overtime as the way to get a decent income. And now the bosses feel so bold they think they can even take back the overtime premium.

No! It's long past the time when the workers should begin to refuse the bosses' demands.