Union of Lost Souls


There are millions of men and women in America who not only work hard every day but also put in overtime. Sometimes the overtime helps to pay the bills. Sometimes it helps them stay a little ahead of the game or to save for things they otherwise couldn’t afford, like a college education or a bigger house for a growing family. There was once a time in America when these men and women believed they could depend on Democrats in Washington to defend their interests and to battle to protect their rights.

That time is apparently gone. On Thursday, the House of Representatives—with seven Democrats absent, including presidential candidate Richard Gephardt—voted 213 to 210 to approve new regulations that would cut off a universe of Americans—anywhere from 1 million to 8 million—from guaranteed overtime pay. Under the new rules, backed by the Bush administration and campaigned for heavily by business lobbyists, those employees would still have to put in extra hours. They just wouldn’t get any extra pay. Instead, some would qualify for comp time—try paying the rent with that—and others would simply be reclassified as executives, even if they wield little managerial authority.

Where were the Democrats? Nowhere to be found. Gephardt was in Iowa getting an endorsement from the International Order of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, promising veterans of the picket line they’d be part of a new American prosperity. Among the leading Democratic contenders, neither Gephardt nor senators John Edwards, John Kerry, or Joe Lieberman returned repeated Voice calls for comment. The office of Representative Dennis Kucinich, a staunch labor supporter who voted against the measure, at least returned a call, as did former Vermont governor Howard Dean’s office. Dean spokesperson Tricia Enright says of Gephardt’s absence, “It’s disgraceful. . . . Don’t votes like this keep people off the picket lines?”

It’s fine for Dean’s people to take a shot at Gephardt on this issue, but the fact of the matter is that none of the presidential candidates made this into a major national issue. Neither did any of the Democrats in Congress. Yet all are counting on support from labor, and they’re likely to get it.

Even more mind-boggling is the reaction from organized labor. Bill Samuels, the legislative director of the AFL-CIO said he “was disappointed by the vote in the House.” Just disappointed? Is that all? He went on to say the next step was to try to win a vote in the Senate, a vote that hasn’t yet been scheduled, and about which labor leaders can only hope. Because if Kerry, Edwards, Lieberman, or Bob Graham decide not to be present, the unions are bound to lose. With such a narrow margin in the Senate—Republicans hold a one-vote majority—the chances of labor winning a vote there are viewed as very slim. And with the House vote sealed, the general consensus is that the new regs are a done deal.

Some labor execs have interesting theories as to why the candidates are not more outspoken about the issue. Nicholas Clark, an attorney with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), thinks the candidates may be lying low in order not to interfere with a bipartisan effort to beat back the administration. Meanwhile the Bush White House is working its own overtime to make sure the new regs go through. The president took a high-profile stand before the House vote, threatening to veto the education, health, and human-services spending bill if an amendment blocking his new overtime rules wasn’t lifted. For a president who has presided over the largest net job loss since Herbert Hoover to show such determination to cut workers’ overtime pay is, in the words of UFCW chief lobbyist Michael Wilson, “handing the Democrats an issue.”

If only. The day after the defeated amendment in the House, Wilson did show some fire in his belly toward the Democrats, and Gephardt in particular. Wilson said he now wants all the candidates to state publicly that on the day they’re elected president, they will immediately announce the reversal of the Bush policy. So far, only Kucinich has said unequivocally that he will.