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Bush sells workers short – again

Rogue Strew | Monday, January 19, 2004

For the last time – my fingers are crossed – President Bush will read his State of the Union address to Congress and the public. This ritual of televised salesmanship will undoubtedly see him gloss over his sorry record with, among other things, labor. But recent events have refreshed our memory, as two prevailing themes in the disheartening narrative of Bush’s term have again united: murky euphemism and crony capitalism.Yes, themes. Our country, since Bush’s appointment, has borne witness to an unrelenting parade of Beltway artifice. Policies are hawked misleadingly as, for instance, the Clean Air Act, which relaxes pollution controls for 17,000 industries across the country, or the Healthy Forests Initiative, which opens remote woods to loggers. Pretense abounds, unquestionably, but close scrutiny reveals that businesses, not citizens, are the chief beneficiaries. These days, however, labor is again caught in Bush’s crosshairs: overtime pay is the specific target. At the center of the battle to revamp labor law is a proposed revision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Last fall, both the House and the Senate voted against the plan. But with steady pressure from the White House, lawmakers are expected to finalize the new rules this March.Established in 1938, the FLSA supplied working families with important employment protections – namely, minimum national standards for wages and overtime. Under FLSA rules, roughly 80 million workers are now paid time-and-a-half when they work more than 40 hours a week. In many parts of the country – even on our campus, I assure you – many of these workers depend on overtime pay for survival (if not a second job), especially where the minimum wage lies far below the living wage, or during an economic recession. But the White House, evidently, couldn’t care less.In fact, under the Bush proposal, a worker eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) could be ineligible to receive overtime pay. (A single worker making less than $33,178 and caring for two or more children could be eligible for the EITC, a federal income tax credit for low-income workers.) For the current administration, that would be overextending itself. Critics of the proposed rules say they could lead to 8 million Americans losing eligibility for overtime pay, largely white-collar workers earning more than $65,000 a year. Labor Department officials put the figure at around 650,000 and say 1.3 million low-wage workers now ineligible for overtime pay would start receiving it or a salary boost.Also, critics explain that workers – including police officers, nurses and store supervisors, to name a few – would face unpredictable work schedules and reduced pay because of an increased demand for extra hours, for which employers would not have to compensate workers, according to an Economic Policy Institute report released June 26.Bush is characteristically quick to brush such criticism aside – be it from unions, economists or even Congress. Needless to say, the White House and the Labor Department would never come clean about who wins and loses under their new rules. Instead, they point to the pluses of the Bush proposal: the 1.3 million who will become eligible for overtime. This is the sole evidence of their magnanimity.But recent headlines should dispel any lingering faith in the nobility of Bush’s aims, as they again expose with whom Bush’s loyalties lie. A couple of weeks ago, the AP reported that the Labor Department published tips on how employers can avoid paying overtime. These tactics range from meager raises to “payroll adjustments.” The Labor Department added reassuringly that, for some companies, the financial impact could be “near zero.” Big Business can cancel out the “family-friendly” benefits of the new rules.In other words, while the Bush administration readies another tax cut for those earning over $200,000 a year, it is briefing employers on ways to avoid shelling out deserved overtime pay. Can it possibly be any clearer where Bush stands on labor? Or how much he cares for working families? Our government is blatantly teaching Big Business how to short-change workers.This grand new fraud shouldn’t be terribly surprising. The Bush administration slights workers at every opportunity, couching each move in bogus rhetoric. This apathy – alias: “compassionate conservatism” – is boldly announced by both Bush’s tax cut plan and advocacy of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Where the latter expands the vast catastrophe of NAFTA, the former shifts the tax burden from the wealthiest to the workers, favoring the richest 1 percent of Americans with $500 billion over 10 years.It’s about time the Labor Department sends its moral compass in for repair. And for his role – laissez-faire laxity at least, hands-on complicity at worst – Bush should be ashamed of himself. But unfortunately, and ironically, many of those worst affected by Bush’s economic policies are the same ones who will vote to keep him in office. Roque Strew is now a political science major. In his spare time, he fights crime and writes rhymes.The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.