by Bill Onasch
Behind the Hype and Outrage
It will be a long, tortuous process, likely downsized along the way, but the President’s executive order that the Department of Labor overhaul overtime rules brought cheers from the House of Labor and fighting words from the Chamber of Commerce. It was also denounced by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives as “an end run around Congress.”
The last changes in overtime rules also came through executive order evading a divided Congress. In 2004, President Bush II expanded the definitions of “professional” and “managerial” to reclassify millions of low wage workers. The same order lowered the minimum income line for “salaried” worker exemption from the overtime premium of the Fair Labor Standards Act to 455 dollars a week–23,660 dollars a year.
After a period of “public comment,” the DoL will raise the bar for exempting employees to a yet to be proposed new limit. California has the highest state cut-off, presently 640 dollars a week, scheduled to go up to 800 in 2016. New York is currently 600, bumping up to 675 in two years. Millions of fast food, retail, bank, call center, and computer technician workers could benefit but the New York Times cautions, “…it is possible that strong opposition could cause Mr. Obama to scale back his proposal.”
Why is this fix coming only in the second year of Obama’s second term? The President explained it would have been wrong to move while the country was in recession but now that job totals have returned to pre-recession levels (more about that later) it is appropriate to make such adjustments. In his Saturday morning radio address, labor’s White House “friend” also lamented that employers trying to do the right thing by paying time-and-a-half for over forty face unfair competition from those who don’t. These motivations will undoubtedly be twisted by the GOP to support the Chamber arguments that raising wages kills jobs.
Of course, bosses don’t hire just because labor is cheap. They expand their workforce when they need more work to be done to enhance their profits. But they certainly take advantage of mass unemployment and worker anxiety to reduce wages and benefits–and they’ve done an effective job. Complete figures for 2013 are not yet available but in 2012 worker wages were only 42.6 percent of the Gross Domestic Product–an all-time low–while profits set new record heights.
Floyd Norris has an article in the Saturday New York Times entitled Private Employment Slowly Reclaims Pre-Downturn Peak. He duly notes,
“In February, the government reported last week, 115,848,000 people were employed by the private sector, just 129,000 fewer than the peak set in January 2008, just after what became known as the Great Recession began. That is well below the average gain in recent months.”
Norris makes some good points about the length of this recession and weakness of rebound compared to past postwar downturns and includes some useful charts. He acknowledges one important caveat–public sector employment is down 2.4 percent from 2008.
With the destruction of the US Postal Service just getting started, growing municipal bankruptcies, and even proposed cuts in the traditional employer of last resort, the US Army, it seems likely the public sector will decline further, not recover.
This claim of restored employment levels also ignores other important factors such as population growth over the past six years and the surge in part-time and temporary work. Even if the quantitative 2008 level is reached it is a qualitatively different labor force and labor market that will leave our class with a lower living standard and less job and income security. Bush II was the captain who initially steered us in to recession but it’s been on Obama’s watch that the qualitative, long run damage to the working class has been done while the ruling class has never had it so good.
The Fair Labor Standards Act needs major reform–in both hours and wages–going far beyond the tinkering of the executive order or the President’s 10.10 minimum wage proposal.
The FLSA does not reflect the ongoing exponential growth of worker productivity since its enforcement began seventy-four years ago. A fair standard today would be a six-hour work day with no reduction in present pay–as well as four weeks of guaranteed paid vacation, and full pay for health related absences.
Because the minimum wage has not kept anywhere near the pace of inflation it is today poverty level. Even 10.10 is still inadequate. We need a minimum wage of at least fifteen dollars an hour–indexed to the inflation rate.
These reforms would not put the Job Creators out of business but it would force them to create jobs. This would also provide us with more time for “what we will,” and offer most of today’s working poor a better life.
The richest ruling class in history, who doggedly oppose even the President’s milk toast executive order, will, of course, fight such a perspective tooth and nail. These objectives cannot be completely won piecemeal through isolated workplace battles, even by the minority of the working class presently organized in unions. We need to cover all workers by law to achieve these goals.
Since there is no significant sector of the present Twin Party Establishment who would touch such needed comprehensive reforms with a ten-foot pole, the only viable option is a mass working class party of our own. In our present situation, the logical launching pad for such a party is our only class-based mass movement–our unions. Reviving the labor party movement is essential.
Certainly we should not neglect more limited struggles. One of the most important and high profile is the determination of super-exploited fast food and retail workers fighting for Fifteen and a Union. If you are in the Kansas City area, I hope I will see you at a support action called by Jobs with Justice at a McDonald’s this Tuesday, from 11:45-12:30. We’ll gather in the parking lot of the Walgreens at 39 & Broadway. There is also a vibrant movement for a fifteen dollar minimum wage in Seattle. Other important local battles are being waged to defend public education, our Postal Service and public transit. Some of our unions are involved, even initiating such actions in a new spirit of revival.
The kind of labor party envisioned by Labor Party Advocates would build these struggles–and in so doing would build itself. We need a coordinated class struggle in the workplace, community, and political arenas.
I am certain that the upcoming Labor Notes Conference will provide much information and inspiration about the workplace and community fights. That alone makes it well worth attending. It is my hope that the political challenges can be part of the plenary, workshop, and interest group discussion generated there as well.
* The British workers movement lost two historic figures last week. Tony Benn, who renounced his entitlement to a peerage to remain a leader of the socialist left within the Labor Party passed away at age 88. Bob Crow, militant general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, died unexpectedly from a heart attack. He was only 52.
* International Viewpoint reports that 50,000 participated in a March for Peace in Moscow Saturday–ten rimes bigger than a prowar demonstration. Other antiwar actions took place in Peterburg, Ekaterinburg and Nizny Novgorod. Among the speakers at the Moscow rally were a Ukrainian peace activist and Nadya Tolokonnikova from Pussy Riot.
* From the Bismarck (North Dakota) Tribune, “Police and state health officials are investigating the illegal dumping of radioactive filter socks in an abandoned gas station in the tiny remote town of Noonan in Divide County….Socks used to filter oil production fluids are banned from disposal in North Dakota because they concentrate naturally-occurring radiation.”
* An AP dispatch from Aliceville, Alabama, “Environmental regulators promised an aggressive cleanup after a tanker train hauling 2.9 million gallons of crude oil derailed and burned in a west Alabama swamp in early November amid a string of North American oil train crashes. So why is dark, smelly crude oil still oozing into the water four months later? The isolated wetland smelled like a garage when a reporter from The Associated Press visited last week, and the charred skeletons of burned trees rose out of water covered with an iridescent sheen and swirling, weathered oil. A snake and a few minnows were some of the few signs of life. An environmental group now says it has found ominous traces of oil moving downstream along an unnamed tributary toward a big creek and the Tombigbee River, less than 3 miles away. And the mayor of a North Dakota town where a similar crash occurred in December fears ongoing oil pollution problems in his community, too.”
* It wasn’t the roasting chestnuts that prompted a New York Times dispatch that opened, “Parisians taking public transportation to work on Friday were surprised and delighted to find free subways and buses for the next three days, but the reason was a bit less cheerful: Air pollution had reached an unusually high level and was expected to continue unabated through the weekend.”
* Thanks to my old friend Peter Rachleff for drawing my attention to a Madison Capital Times story that began, “The solidarity singers who gather daily at the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison have a pair of surprise guest musicians joining their chorus — Pussy Riot. Two members of the notorious Russian female rock group known for their outspoken protests, Nadya Tolokonikova and Masha Alyokhina, make a surprise appearance in a new video extolling Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen to drop the state’s prosecution against the singing protesters.”
* The White House was very pleased with Affordable Care Act enrollment progress. The percentage of uninsured Americans plunged from seventeen percent–to a mere 15.9. One possible problem that they hope is not a trend is that a significant number of those who signed up for plans failed to pay their first month premium.
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