Workers tell Bush: Hands off overtime

WASHINGTON – Hundreds of angry workers from across the nation picketed the U.S. Labor Department June 30 to protest a new Bush administration regulation that could terminate overtime pay for eight million workers.

The Labor Department claims employees engaged in an “executive, administrative, or professional capacity” would lose overtime protection. But the protesters countered that workers earning as little as $22,100 per year could be exempted from the overtime law.

At least 42 Democratic senators and 100 Democratic House members sent letters to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao demanding that she rescind the new work rules.

“Our grandparents died for the 40 hour workweek. Don’t let the government take it away,” said a hand-lettered placard carried by one union picketer. Another proclaimed, “May 1886: 15 killed marching for the eight hour day,” a reference to the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago commemorated by workers every year on May Day.

“Did you know that the Labor Department did not have one hearing on a plan to cut overtime pay for eight million workers?” thundered AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Rich Trumka at a sidewalk rally. The AFL-CIO had rented space in the Labor Department auditorium, a routine practice. But Labor Secretary Elaine Chao cancelled the meeting when she got wind of its purpose.

During the 90-day comment period, which expired June 30, more than 75,000 people sent in messages of protest.

“Taking away overtime will kill jobs,” Trumka continued. “This is economic poison. Overtime pay for work beyond 40 hours a week is a legacy of a century-long fight by workers for dignity and respect. The American working class is not going to allow them to turn back the clock.”

Crews from at least 15 network and cable news crews covered the event. Morton Bahr, president of the Communications Workers of America (which includes the Newspaper Guild), told these workers they will be among the first denied coverage under the overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act which requires time-and-a-half wages for every hour worked beyond 40 hours in a given week.

“There is a sleeper in these rules that would permit employers to apply these regulations to twenty million or more workers,” Bahr told the World. “This is a juicy incentive for the enormous greed we have seen from corporate leaders in recent years. Workers across this country will make their voices heard when they march to their polling places in November 2004 and cast their ballots.”

Judith Conti, Legal Services Director of the D.C. Employment Justice Center, said that “far and away the biggest problem we see is unpaid wages, unpaid overtime. … These regulations will give employers added incentives to chisel on wages. This is a dangerous, slippery slope.”

Bob Adams, a bakery manager with a supermarket chain in Minneapolis-St. Paul, told the crowd that he could be forced to work 56 or 60 hours at straight time pay. “This is part of a systematic assault on working Americans,” he said.” If we don’t stop it now, it will spread to all workers.”

Tim O’Brien, a reporter at a newspaper in upstate New York, said starting salaries at his newspaper are $28,000. “These are clearly working class jobs. I can barely pay my bills. Overtime is not for luxury items. It pays to fix the roof.”

John Garrity of Philadelphia said he represents 2,000 civil service employees. At least 500 face loss of overtime protection, he said. “This is a pay cut for 500 public employees,” he said. “We saw the greed and corruption of Enron and WorldCom. This is the same thing. I want to see a million people in Washington protesting these cuts. It’s a disgrace!”

Maurice Thomas, a broadcasting engineer at ABC for 25 years said, “I was on the job while my kids were growing up. I missed their birthday parties to insure a clear, bright image on the evening news. Now they are going to take away my pay. This is a travesty against working people, a crime against those who work in the media.”

Beverly Daniels, a staff worker for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, held a placard, “Bush, keep your filthy hands out of my paycheck.”

“This is an issue for workers in every industry,” Daniels said. “We’ve been fighting all our lives for fair wages and decent hours and now they want to take it away from us.”

Jered Bernstein and Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute exposed the new regulations in a 17-page report. “The Administration’s proposal would create, in effect, a massive subsidy to employers paid for by their employees,” the report charges. “It will create a rush-to-the-bottom pressure that will eventually force even reluctant employers to participate to keep their labor costs competitive.”

In their letter to Chao, the senators charged, “Our citizens are working longer hours than ever before, longer than in any other industrial nation. At least one in five employees has a workweek that exceeds 50 hours. Protecting the 40-hour workweek is vital to balancing work responsibilities and family needs.”

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