Democracy Works Overtime

You made your voice heard.

Last Friday, September 5, I wrote for AlterNet that there was “One Day Left to Oppose the Biggest Pay Cut in History.” This Wednesday, September 10, the United States Senate defied a threat of a White House veto and voted 54-45 to defend overtime pay.

OK, so there were two working days to oppose the biggest pay cut in history. The Republicans delayed the vote hoping that the four Democratic Presidential candidates -- Senators Edwards, Gephardt, Kerry and Lieberman – would be out of town.

At stake was an amendment that Senator Harkin proposed to the funding bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. That amendment tells the Bush Department of Labor (DOL) it can expand the categories of workers who are entitled to overtime pay but not exclude anyone who has those rights now.

Allowing employers to require workers to work longer hours for less pay -- and thus supercharge their profits -- was the goal of the proposed regulations that DOL issued on March 31, 2003. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA), if you work more than 40 hours a week, you should receive pay at time-and-a-half for the extra hours.

Congress passed the FLSA to urge employers to spread work around -- still critical as our Bush-led economy sheds jobs -- and not to exploit the workers they have. Congress wanted workers to have a little control over their lives. In the words of Senator Biden on September 9:

“The value we are operating on is that people who do not get much say in how and when and where and under what conditions they work, when you ask them to work more than 40 hours, should get paid overtime. ... How many of those folks in the new service economy have any more control over their jobs than those folks who did manual labor 40 years ago?”

Professionals, executives, and administrators should -- at least in theory -- have more control over their work than other workers. So the FLSA exempts them from the right to overtime pay. But the proposed DOL regulations would redefine the terms to swallow the rule. According to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, if the regulations become final, they will end a right to overtime pay for more than 8 million American workers.

Lobbying furiously against the Harkin amendment were the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Mortgage Bankers Association of America, the National Federation of Independent Business, and similar organizations. They contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to elect George W. Bush. The proposed regulations are payback.

For once, a public outpouring -- your voice -- overcame Big Business. The AFL-CIO e-activists alone generated more than 180,000 faxes and e-mails. Phone calls and letters poured into the Capitol. The impact was profound. In addition to every Democratic Senator except Miller, six Republican Senators – Campbell, Chafee, Murkowski, Snowe, Specter, and Stevens – resisted White House and business pressure.

This campaign is far from over. On July 10, the House of Representatives voted 213-210 against a measure like the Harkin amendment. The conflict means representatives from the two chambers will have to hash out a common position. Please tell your Representative to vote to instruct the House conferees to agree to the Harkin amendment.

The Washington Post described the vote on the Harkin amendment as a “rare victory” for Democrats and labor. Having our elected representatives serve the interests of American workers and families should not be a rarity. Speak out – and help make rare victories more common!

For continuing updates about the biggest proposed pay cut in history, check

Paul E. Almeida is the president of the Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO, which comprises 25 AFL-CIO unions representing four million people working in professional, technical and other highly skilled white collar occupations.

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