No Labor Protections in Obama’s Overtime Plan
Activist and author Eugene Puryear challenges the Fair Labor Standards Act and the president’s claims that this will indeed be a benefit to working people.
JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: What’s up world, and welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.
Late last night President Obama announced yet another of what he calls steps toward our union becoming a little more perfect. According to the president, his Affordable Care Act, the recent Supreme Court decision protecting same-sex marriage, and now his Fair Labor Standards Act all comprise measures meant to now assure that every American who works for it can benefit from our national success.
For some important critical investigations of these first two claims conducted here at The Real News Network, we invite viewers to see Jessica Desvarieux’s recent interview with Dr. Margaret Flowers, and Dharna Noor’s recent interview with queer activist Yasmin Nair. As for Obama’s claims about the benefits of this new act and its impact on workers’ pay, let’s hear from the man himself.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What we’ve seen is increasingly companies skirting basic overtime laws. Calling somebody a manager when they’re stocking groceries and getting paid $30,000 a year. Those folks are being cheated.
BALL: This of course seems still a far cry from candidate Obama’s once upon a time claim to defend the rights of workers to unionize. Particularly his claim to defend the Employee Free Choice Act, or EFCA.
OBAMA: Time we had a president who honors organized labor. Who’s walked on picket lines. Who doesn’t choke on the word union. Who lets our unions do what they do best and organize our workers.
BALL: So will this most recent act do as Obama claims, make ours a more perfect union where workers are adequately compensated for the work and surplus they produce? To answer this and more is Eugene Puryear. Puryear is in the leadership of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, an activist with DCFerguson Movement, and author of Shackled and Chained: Mass Incarceration in Capitalist America.
Welcome, Eugene, to the program. Thank you for joining us.
EUGENE PURYEAR, DIRECTOR OF FIELD OPERATIONS, JUSTICE FIRST: Well thank you so much for having me.
BALL: So as I said in the intro, I’ll ask you the same. Will this new act from President Obama have the kind of impact on working people that he claims, and is it sufficient?
PURYEAR: Well, I think it will have a significant impact, I mean, that’s for sure. I mean, he speaks to one of the workarounds that many corporations have used to underpay people. I don’t think that it will pay them exactly what it’s worth and I don’t think it’s adequate for that reason. I mean, the entire wage system operates on the premise that prices are set in such a way in order to realize a certain amount of profits, and also to cover some of the costs, including labor. So of course the assumption, the implicit assumption, is you go to work for a certain period of time and the value you create at your job does not fully accrue to you. Some of it accrues to those who own your business.
So in and of itself I think it won’t be the full value. And I think also it’s not necessarily fair, because I think what we have to realize is that many of these corporations that are doing this, Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, that have these arbitrary classifications of managers, are actually paying them far below anything like a living wage in the areas where they live.
So even with the additional overtime, which is more than welcome, and quite frankly something that was criminally done, I think we’ll still be seeing people getting paid below what a living wage is. And also, it still encourages massive overwork through overtime as opposed to these massive Fortune 500 companies hiring more individuals, as well.
BALL: But I know that those who defend this act and who defend the President are going to at least make the argument that this is better than nothing. That this is a step in the right direction, that he is indeed living up to his promise to be of benefit to working people. What do you say to that argument?
PURYEAR: Well, I think to say that it was the best that could be done or the best in this situation is sort of assuming that it’s the only thing that the president could have done. And I think what we’ve seen is the president, whether the Lilly Ledbetter Act, whether it’s this recent decision on overtime, whether it’s the federal executive order on the minimum wage for certain federal workers or workers in federal facilities, I should say, that he’s been willing to at times sign in pieces of legislation that improve the living standards of workers, and rightfully so. But that he has not been willing to take on labor law, which is the bigger issue.
I mean, the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have been the most powerful tool for unions to organize since the National Labor Relations Act, even though the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency, that was thrown in the trash once Obama signed his oath of office. We haven’t seen him aggressively push on any real labor law.
And the reality is, governments don’t control capital [inaud.], and this is what unions are and workers are facing up against, is this global drive of a race to the bottom. And if any president really was looking to improve the rights of workers beyond simply just executive orders and strokes of pens, they would also be doing something more lasting which is attacking labor law, and freeing the hands of the organized labor movement from these draconian anti-labor measures that have been pushed by pro-business interests over the years.
BALL: So do you see this as a kind of end around the fight for unionization, or his previous stance on EFCA, or claims to defend EFCA, and even an end around, of this current fight around the Fight for 15, as it’s described, an adequate working minimum wage?
PURYEAR: I think it’s something like that. I mean, I think coming off of the TPP, where the president highly angered the labor movement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, this is a way to certainly burnish his reputation. It’s something that people have been talking about his entire presidency as a big issue. So it’s a way to sort of check a win in the labor column. And I do actually think that this, like many other measures, is the type of thing that–similar how the president often will highlight correct things, like after Baltimore the need for better housing and jobs in the African-American oppressed communities, while not actually doing anything that makes it easier to ameliorate these problems.
So I think this is another way to see that you are pro-labor without giving power back to the labor movement. It keeps the issue of workers’ rights firmly in the hands of the good will of politicians, not in the strength of the labor movement. And I think that certainly is an end around, around what he was saying when he was running in 2008, at least.
BALL: So quickly and lastly, Eugene Puryear, you’ve mentioned a little bit about what a president genuinely interested in defending labor might do. What do you think the rest of us should endeavor to do as we move forward into another election season, or just in general in response to the devolving conditions of working people in this country?
PURYEAR: Well, I think the reality of working people in this country is that most people are unorganized. And I think the number one task of anyone watching this is, you know, if you’re in a workplace that doesn’t have a union, organize a union. If you know someone who isn’t in one, tell them to organize a union then organize your friend’s family and community to back them.
Because the reality is the only way you have rights on the job is to get together with your fellow workers and to collectively bargain as is your right, regardless of what the boss has told you, regardless of what they make you sign. You have the right to join a union. You have the right to organize a union and not be intimidated. You should fight for a union, fight to support your friends and family who are organizing unions, and seek to improve the conditions in your community.
BALL: Eugene Puryear, thank you very much for joining us here at The Real News Network.
PURYEAR: Thank you so much for having me.
BALL: And thank you for joining us here at The Real News Network. For all involved, I’m Jared Ball. And as Fred Hampton used to say, we say the same. To you we say peace, if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace, everybody. Catch you in the whirlwind.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.