The fight against overtime - Jon Bekken

An article by Jon Bekken about the effects of overtime on workers. Originally appeared in Industrial Worker #1618 (December 1998)

The average work week in the United States has been growing for years, as employers schedule workers for more and more overtime, lunch breaks vanish, and weekends increasingly become a distant memory.
In many plants, bosses have turned to 12-hour days or six- and seven-day weeks in order to increase production without hiring new workers. Even in white-collar jobs, the 8-hour work day has practically disappeared. Meanwhile, millions of workers struggle to get by on part-time work or no work at all.

There are no hard statistics on how often bosses force workers to take overtime, but overtime hours are definitely on the rise - the average worker now puts in 5 hours a week, an all-time record - and mandatory overtime is increasingly at issue in labor negotiations.

The issue has come up in several recent strikes, including General Motors, United Parcel Service, CP&I Steel and several communications companies. "Employers are attempting to force more labor out of their current employees rather than create new jobs. That's the bottom line," said labor consultant Jim Grossfeld.

Even workers who once welcomed overtime as a means of compensating for stagnating wages are getting fed up.

After 24 years of fixing phone lines, Baltimore lineman Joseph Bryant was fired by Bell Atlantic last year for refusing overtime because he needed to pick his two children up after school. "I was just trying to balance the overtime," he said. "When you've got kids, you can't just leave them."

Bell Atlantic insisted that Bryant should have hired someone to take care of the kids, so he could be available to work scheduled overtime two to three days a week. With the support of his union, Bryant won his arbitration 18 months after he was fired from his job. But workers without union contracts or the means to survive lengthy arbitrations often do not dare question their bosses' demands.

Overtime robs parents of time with their children and strains marriages. It causes fatigue, stress and other health problems. It keeps millions of our fellow workers on the streets, even in the midst of what the bosses say are good economic times. And it steals our free time - time that workers fought for in often-bloody struggles over the last 150 years.

When 35,000 members of the Communications Workers of America struck US West in August, their complaints included forced overtime that frequently meant 60-hour work weeks. Workers won a cap on mandatory overtime at 16 hours per week next year and eight hours per week beginning in 2001. The new Bell Atlantic workers' contract said they can't be forced to work back-to-back six-day weeks and, for most of the year, they can refuse to work more than 10 hours of overtime per week.

But that begs the question of why we are forced to work any overtime at all.

In France, the 35-hour work week is now the legal norm. Many U.S. workers have won union contracts setting the work week at 30 to 35 hours. Increased productivity and new technology mean that far more dramatic reductions in the work week are possible, if we're organized to demand them.

The labor movement was built on the struggle for shorter hours. It's time to return to that tradition and fight first to reclaim the 8-hour day, and then to renew the push for substantial reductions in the work week. It's our time, and the bosses have been stealing it for far too long.

Originally appeared in Industrial Worker #1618 (December 1998)