Want More Overtime? Raise Pay in the South and in Retail!

Little Rock       The Department of Labor has issued its revised rulemaking proposal on overtime eligibility for nonexempt workers.  A federal judge in Texas had halted the Obama administration’s efforts to move the number from $23,660 to double that amount at $47,476 annually.  Instead, the current proposal would move the number to $35,308 based on 2017 figures, and, reading the DOL proposal more closely, perhaps higher based on 2018 figures after the comment period, if this proposal passes muster.

Did they pull the $35,308 figure out of their ear or what?  Although I had somehow never realized this previously, their justification this time, as it has been in 2004 at the time of the last increase in overtime pay, was tagging the rate at 20% of the average wage of salaried employees in the South as well as retail workers nationally.  The Obama Administration had come up with the $47,476 figure by trying to scale the benchmark up to 40% of the average wage of salaried employees in the South.

Hopefully, you’re starting to get the picture.  It’s not a question of “the South shall rise again,” so to speak, but that everyone cannot rise again without the South.  There’s a certain cruel justice in this, as I write from deep in the South.  It’s a reminder that we have a national workforce rather than a regional one, even if Congress’ stubborn refusal since the George W. Bush administration to raise the federal minimum wage has increasingly forced local and state efforts to raise wages as politicians continue to ignore the economic reality of workers widening the gap for workers in the USA based on location.

The DOL this time around claims this bump will benefit 1.1 million workers, which is significant.  Others point out that the Obama DOL claimed 4 million workers would become eligible for overtime.  In a footnote in the current proposal, the DOL estimates that an additional two million workers would likely benefit who have been “nonexempt” (which means in English that they were not exempt) but were making over the 2004 allowable minimum weekly level of $455, but less than the newly proposed level of $679 per week, because they would “now fail both the salary levels and duty tests.”  The DOL in this footnote says that such workers would “have their overtime-eligible status strengthened in 2020” when this new rule would go into effect, which in non-legalese, plain English would mean that another 2 million workers would be able to collect overtime.   The proposal also adds another 200,000 workers who were making over $100,000 under the old rule and would now be eligible with the threshold moved up over $140,000.  Another point worth making is that the new proposal also mandates a review and adjustment every four years, which means that workers will not be stuck for a full fifteen years in the future, and that’s very important.  In short, the wage level is lower, but the number of potential beneficiaries is not as wide it would seem as reports are making it.

Everything being equal, and, frankly, it never is, this is not a bad deal.  If anyone wants better, the new rule is pointing out a clear path for future organizing.  If we can organize enough workers in the South or in retail nationally to move the average wages up, then all the benefits will trickle up from the bottom.

To me that sounds like a plan, though I doubt if many will be lining up to make it happen.

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Life Stirring in “Remnant” Unions in Pacific Northwest

public lands in Seattle for housing

Corvallis    Driving through rush hour on both sides of Portland early in the morning in route to Oregon State University I was listening to an interview on KBOO, the 50-year old community radio station broadcasting from that city.  The interview was with a professor at Berklee Music College in the Boston area who didn’t teach music but political science.  He had written a book he was promoting about eco-socialism, and they were discussing it enthusiastically.  At one point, the host mentioned the Dakota Pipelines fight in 2017, and the fact that a number of building and trades unions had supported the pipeline against the native peoples and many progressive groups.  He bemoaned the fact that what he called “remnant unions” were so often on the wrong side of environmental issues.

Remnant unions?!?  Wow, we think of the fact that unions are embattled, losing court cases, fee payers, and overall density of membership compared to total jobs, but even though we know intellectually that only one in twelve workers are now in unions, there’s something about calling these once mighty workers’ organizations “remnants,” like they are the last of a dying breed, that is a gut punch.

Talking to union organizers and activists at the screening of “The Organizer” in Seattle at Southside Commons organized by LeeAnn Hall, Derek Birnie, and Jonathan Rosenblum and sponsored by SEIU locals, UAW, One America, and others and listening to the questions after the documentary was reassuring though.  There’s still life stirring in unions on the coast.

I caught up with an organizer involved in a UAW drive at Tesla in Fremont, California for the last three years, who was hopeful given worker response to the Elon Musk craziness of recent weeks.  He reported that they were more upset about the constant pressure on production and confused about the hundreds of “volunteers” who are Tesla-fan-owners who come in to help boost sales at the end of every quarter for this desperate company.  Another big bunch, also with the UAW, was organizing student teachers and adjuncts at the University of Washington, and were raring to go.

An organizer from California told me about working closely with ACCE, the former California ACORN, on trying to unravel the impacts of Prop 13, finally!  He was more discouraging on the prospects of the coming statewide referendum that would allow cities to enact rent control in California cities that ACCE has been leading, but it’s still a fight, so no one can count them out yet.

An organizer reported booming out to work with the great provincial union and ACORN ally in Canada and internationally, the British Columbia Government Employees Union.  He had his hand in the municipal elections there as well as being blown away about the progress BCGEU has made in achieving over 50% density among casino workers in BC.  Ok, that’s Canada, but getting back to the US, I caught up with old comrades with SEIU as well.  One organizer told me about the plans moving forward for SEIU to spearhead a project to build 500 units of affordable housing in Seattle where average housing sale prices have been astronomical and have priced workers out of the city.  They had convinced the Washington State legislature to allowing surplus state land to be used for such publicly beneficial purposes for free, rather than requiring market price acquisition, making such projects feasible, which could be a real breakthrough for both labor and the community.

In the questions and comments part of the screening, people advocated for hard discussions about mistakes we were making in organizing and a clear-headed evaluation of our organizing models.  I even got a great question about organizing in Argentina! For sure, there’s still signs along the Pacific of union revival, but it was also clear why I support these screenings.  They are great organizing tools to bring the community of organizers together, and that gives me hope on many different fronts as well.

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