A Socialist Labor Party Statement—

Sneak Attack on Labor Standards

Congress Targets Overtime Pay, Eight-Hour Day

Labor reform laws rarely are what they appear to be and rarely result in the positive gains they ostensibly are meant to establish. Exceptions that appear to prove the rule may not be the exceptions they seem to be when closely examined. Close examination will often reveal that what labor reform laws establish is what the ruling class considers to be in its political or material interests at the time.

Labor’s ‘Victories’

Times change, however, and when the changes affect capitalist needs, labor reform “victories” of the past can be undermined, circumvented or simply scrapped. When headlong attacks on such reforms may seem impolitic because they could arouse the ire of the working class, more subtle methods are called into play. The eight-hour working day, and new efforts to finesse it by tampering with laws governing overtime work, offer a prime example of this.

Never universally accepted by the capitalist class or universally applied to all workers, increasing capitalist-class opposition to the eight-hour day has led to bills in the House and Senate that amount to an all-out attack on the eight-hour standard for the “normal” workday.

Eight-Hour Day

The original demand for the eight-hour day sprang spontaneously from workers of the last century who sought an end to being driven like beasts of burden to work 10, 12, 14 or more hours a day at the will of their capitalist exploiters. After many demonstrations, lengthy strikes and bloody clashes, the eight-hour day eventually gained general acceptance as the standard for the “normal” working day. It also became the basis for the five-day, 40-hour week in the United States—although it never was legally mandated and its application has never extended to all workers in all industries. The closest it came to legal status was by implication—when the so-called Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 mandated time-and-a-half pay for certain categories of workers who worked more than eight hours on a given day or over 40 hours in a given week. This requirement was augmented in some states by laws that extended overtime pay requirements to occupations not covered under the federal act.

Purpose of FLSA

The FLSA’s enactment was due perhaps as much to the capitalist class’ need to stem potentially threatening levels of unemployment—to spread existing jobs around to more workers—as to workers’ demands for certain limits on the duration of their daily or weekly exploitation. No doubt improvements in the means and methods of production, enabling higher rates of profit from fewer workers working fewer hours, also played a part.

Just as the 1938 passage of the FLSA and later state laws reflected the material and political interests of the capitalist class at the time, the present effort in Congress to do away with the FLSA’s overtime provisions reflects the material and political interests of that class today. Competitive pressures and new production methods have forced the increasing adoption of 24-hour factory schedules to squeeze the most out of labor. They have also fostered “lean” workforce practices that also favor the use of overtime over the hiring of new workers.

Forced Overtime

According to The Los Angeles Times, the average weekly overtime (time beyond 40 hours per week) put in by manufacturing workers increased by 40 percent from 1980 to 1988. In 1990, the rate at which overtime was increasing was double the growth rate of the official workforce, and it hasn’t slowed much since. While millions of workers forced to put in rising overtime hours do so without overtime pay because they are salaried or otherwise exempt from FLSA provisions, the rising millions who do fall under its provisions form an increasing damper on capitalist profits at a time when workers lack any organization that might enable them to struggle against capitalist encroachments.

Bills in Congress

Congress, obedient to capitalist-class interests, has responded to the situation with bills in both Houses that, as Labor Notes described one of them, “would grant employers greater flexibility and cost savings in implementing the 10- and 12-hour day ‘alternative’ or ‘compressed’ work schedules associated with lean production and ’round the clock operations.”

In the House, H.R.2391, the so-called Compensatory Time for All Workers Act, pretends to promote flexibility for workers in consideration of their family needs. Workers would get the choice of being paid for their overtime in their paychecks or as compensatory time off, accrued at time-and-a-half after 40 hours in one week or 80 hours in two.

But for unorganized workers, this “choice” may be much like the “choice” involved in accepting over-time demands in the first place. As Labor Notes put it, “generally overtime is only voluntary as in, ‘If you don’t come in on Sunday, don’t come in on Monday.’ ” Any unused compensatory time off would be paid at the end of the year or some other “agreed upon” term, and terminated employees would be entitled to be compensated for unused compensatory time off only at regular rates of pay, not time-and-a-half.

Moreover, taking the “agreed upon” time off could be a problem—as in don’t plan any vacations around it. H.R.2391 provides that an employee who has accrued and who requests compensatory time off should be able to take the time off “within a reasonable period after making the request if...[it] does not unduly disrupt the operations of the employer.”

The Senate bill, S.1129, misnamed the Work and Family Integration Act, goes even further. It would pay overtime or compensatory time off—again subject to the “choice” of the worker—after 160 hours in a four-week period, with other provisions similar to those in H.R.2391.

Reform Illusions

Clearly, such legislation has nothing to do with flexibility for workers—the only flexibility entailed is that of employers to legally squeeze more out of workers for less.

As state and federal overtime regulations are modified or eliminated, the opportunities for employers to increase the number of l0-hour or longer shifts, step up productivity and realize substantially greater profits increase significantly. For workers there are no benefits in a return to conditions where exploiters can again unilaterally determine the length of the working day. The illusion of a shorter workweek or paid time off is no compensation for a steady diet of longer workdays that can and will lead to increased fatigue and otherwise undermine their health and welfare. Daniel De Leon was right when he said:

“Eight-hour...laws are essentially dust in the eyes of the workers. Whatever relief may lie in them is essentially lost through the circumstance that they are left to the enforcement of the political agencies of the capitalist class, the class in whose interest it is to break or scuttle them....Experience has shown that they do not cause the employment of more men; on the contrary, improved machinery is introduced needing fewer men, and those who are kept at work have to work with so much greater intensity.”

What the capitalist state appears to give in the way of reform is more often a sleight of hand calculated to play on the sentiments of workers and deflect their attention from the absolute need to abolish capitalism and establish socialism. These are important lessons for workers, who must learn to reject all reforms and reformers if they are ever to effect their own emancipation from the worsening conditions of life under capitalism. Only by building their own movement with the goal of abolishing capitalism and its system of production for private profit—and working to successfully replace that system with a socialist one based on production for human needs—can they hope to build the society of abundance and leisure they deserve and need to live as human beings should.


Socialist Labor Party of America, P.O. Box 218, Mountain View, CA 94042-0218 • www.slp.org • socialists@slp.org

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