Overtime fight wins a rare victory on Capitol Hill

News Analysis

These days, with Bush in the White House and Congress locked down under Republican control, a legislative victory for workers is rare. But 22 Republican members of Congress, many from swing states, and under intense election year pressure, defied President Bush and voted for legislation Sept. 9 that would preserve overtime pay for up to 6 million American workers.

While the battle for the 40-hour work week is far from won — the Senate is expected to begin work on its version of the appropriations bill this week — the House action, which Associated Press characterized as a “sharp rebuke” of the administration, indicates that the ultra-right monolith is not as strong as it’s cracked up to be. And this pre-election victory demonstrates winning tactics that can lead to Bush’s defeat on Nov. 2.

The House voted 223-193 — not even close — to attach an amendment introduced by Rep. Dave Obey (D-Wis.) to the appropriations bill that authorizes spending on health and education. Obey’s amendment blocks the Department of Labor from spending any money to put its new rules into effect. These new rules grant employers the option of avoiding their overtime obligations by reclassifying not only whit-collar, but also blue- collar and pink-collar workers, as “managers” and “professionals.” The new rules took effect Aug. 23.

The AFL-CIO came out swinging when the new rules were originally proposed in March 2003. “We weren’t alone, all worker and economic justice advocates got on board,” AFL-CIO spokesperson Sarah Massey told the World. Even though the great majority of union members would not be immediately affected because they work under collective bargaining agreements that protect their overtime pay, organized labor took the long view and came out as a strong fighter for the whole working class — union and nonunion.

Due to its quick and aggressive action, it was the labor movement that clearly defined the issue for the American people. “It was a pay takeaway, clear and simple,” said Massey.

A massive protest campaign bombarded members of Congress with 1.6 million messages — letters, faxes, and especially e-mails. The result: another vote, the fifth time in Congress, to stop the Bush administration from slashing overtime paychecks.

“I think that organized labor has raised enough legitimate questions about how this new overtime rule would work that we are justified in using the appropriations process to block its implementation,” said Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.) in a statement explaining his vote to defeat the new overtime regulations. A spokesperson for Tim Murphy, another Pennsylvania Republican who voted no, explained Murphy’s vote bluntly: “We have a lot of union members in our district.”

The overtime fight is not just symbolic — it’s about dollars and cents. Overtime pay, for those who currently get it, makes up 25 percent of wages, an average of $160 a week. Bush’s corporate constituency stands to pump up its profit margins by keeping these billions out of workers’ paychecks and in corporate bank accounts.

Roberta Wood, the PWW’s labor editor, can be reached at rwood@pww.org.