Say What? This 'Progressive' Org Is Lobbying Against Paid Overtime to Keep Its Workers' Wages Low

U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) describes itself as a consumer organization that “stands up to powerful interests whenever they threaten our health and safety, our financial security, or our right to fully participate in our democratic society.”


Yet, the powerful non-profit organization is now using its clout for a campaign to erode the most basic health and security protections for its own employees—as well as for workers in all sectors across the country.

In an eyebrow-raising statement released last week, U.S. PIRG executive director Andre Delattre came out in public opposition to President Barack Obama’s new overtime rule. Obama is aiming to impose a change, starting in December, that guarantees overtime pay for most salaried workers who bring home less than $47,476 a year. This new rule effectively doubles the salary threshold for overtime pay, meaning that millions of workers will now be compensated for their overtime labor.

For an administration that has lagged in response to historic levels of inequality, the rule change is arguably the most pro-worker initiative Obama has taken during his presidency. Data shows that workers’ wages have largely stagnated in a country where 48 million people experience food insecurity. Demands for fair compensation have been a key rallying cry of low-wage workers across the country, who have put their jobs on the line to stage mass walkouts, protest and strikes in recent years.

How is it that a progressive organization can justify actively lobbying against Obama’s limited—yet much needed—reform?

Here’s what Delattre, the group’s executive director said: “The logic of the rule, as applied to non-profit, cause-oriented organizations, makes no sense. A person of means—in service of a cause to which they feel deeply committed—can volunteer to work for our organization for free for as many hours as they wish, but a person of lesser means—who is no less committed to the work we do—cannot agree to work for our organization for less than $47,476 without having their work hours strictly limited in order to keep our costs affordable. This raises First Amendment concerns.”

While the reasoning of this statement is difficult to follow, it appears that Delattre is arguing that poor people should have the “right” to work unpaid hours, because rich people can afford to do so.

Delattre went on to state, “Doubling the minimum salary to $47,476 is especially unrealistic for non-profit, cause-oriented organizations. Organizations like ours rely on small donations from individuals to pay the bills. We can’t expect those individuals to double the amount they donate. Rather, to cover higher staffing costs forced upon us under the rule, we will be forced to hire fewer staff and limit the hours those staff can work—all while the well-funded special interests that we're up against will simply spend more.”

Here’s the problem with that statement: U.S. PIRG has a reputation for exploiting young people who are seeking to do good for the world. As far back as a decade ago, former canvasser Greg Bloom noted in In These Times that the organization, in fact, has played a critical role in launching a massive canvassing industry that is “burning out progressive youth” while purging those who attempt to unionize. This trend inspired Dana Fisher’s book Activism, Inc., in which she argues that this canvassing industry is “strangling progressive politics in America.” More recently, Ethan Miller argued for In These Times that "PIRG has built an organization that revolves around underpaid, overworked employees—a structure that is simply not sustainable for the staff or the long-term health of the organization."

If we’re going to build the power to take on the world's injustices, we need to create an environment where young people can sustain their participation in the movement for the long-haul and, in good conscience, invite subsequent generations to do the same. This requires, at the very least, treating workers better than the corporations and "special interests" that groups like U.S. PIRG have built their reputations on opposing.

U.S. PIRG is lobbying against the paid overtime protections on the grounds that it will harm "cause-oriented nonprofits." But when a heavyweight non-profit comes out against this basic protection, it is in fact striking a blow against the the hard-fought right for all workers, from factory to fast food to domestic laborers.

Here’s what one former employee of a state PIRG organization, who requested that her identity to be protected, said in response to the organization’s lobbying against Obama’s overtime rule:

In a profoundly anti-worker and anti-consumer move, U.S. PIRG has come out publicly against the new rule protecting people from unpaid overtime, and states that it has been lobbying against those protections as well. Rather than reduce the workload for their employees, workloads that regularly run 60-80 hours a week, or paying a higher wage, they'd rather weaken protections for working people and seek a carve-out for the entire nonprofit industry. I worked here and there were parts of that work, especially the people that I worked with, that I absolutely loved. I might still be there if they had treated employees better. But this is a strong statement that they are committed to the over-worked and underpaid model. Can't believe I hadn't done it before, but I'm canceling all support both financial and otherwise.

AlterNet was unable to immediately locate a current or former worker affiliated with U.S. PIRG who was willing to go public, perhaps a testament to the organization’s power in the non-profit industry. But another individual, who works for an affiliate of the Public Interest Network—the larger umbrella group that includes U.S. PIRG, Environment America and state environmental groups, spoke to AlterNet anonymously.

“Everyone is working at least 50 hours if not more, and no one is making a lot of money,” she said. “It makes me think that we're not a true progressive institution if we're anti-worker.”

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