Labor unions have reason to be wary of changes in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.
Desperate workers protested and died to help win passage of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s progressive legislation 60 years ago - after a conservative Congress and U.S. Supreme Court had trashed fair labor practices again and again.
Today, we take the measuring sticks provided by that law for granted - a 40-hour workweek with time and a half for overtime, a minimum wage and no labor for children under age 16.
The New Deal legislation has served us well.
That, however, doesn’t mean it should be treated as sacred in the high-tech ‘90s - just approached with respect and caution.
On the surface, congressional Republicans appear ready to do just that by proposing laws that would give workers and employers more flexibility in scheduling the workweek. They have introduced bills that would let workers put in longer days in exchange for more three-day weekends, save up paid time off to attend teacher conferences or opt for time-and-a-half comp time instead of time-and-a-half pay for overtime work.
Federal employees have enjoyed flextime since it was made available to them two decades ago.
Yet, unions are wary of extending the practice to private employees. Union leaders fear the proposed changes would give private employers too much power - that employees would be coerced into working longer hours and giving up premium pay.
Big labor’s reaction to conservative rule may be nothing more than inflexibility and paranoia, rooted in Depression era labor wars. The average wage earner did suffer when big business reigned unchecked.
In 1936, for example, after dismissing federal wages and hours legislation, a conservative U.S. Supreme Court struck down a New York state law on minimum wages for women. At that time, tycoons were forcing children to work as many as 90 hours a week. The average steel worker’s clothes caught fire at least once each week, maiming 20,000 workers annually. And, according to author William Manchester in “The Glory and the Dream,” “girls working in 5-and-10-cent stores” were paid “5- and 10-cent wages.”
Since then, the Fair Labor Standards Act has helped the working stiff achieve a good standard of living.
Until the unions can back their fears with facts, flextime seems to be another improvement.
, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = D.F. Oliveria For the editorial board
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