Happy Labor Day

Listening to the Republican convention, I was stunned to hear the following in the middle of President Bush’s speech:

“The times in which we work and live are changing dramatically. The workers of our parents’ generation typically had one job, one skill, one career, often with one company that provided health care and a pension. And most of those workers were men.

BUSH: Today, workers change jobs, even careers, many times during their lives. And in one of the most dramatic shifts our society has seen, two-thirds of all moms also work outside the home.”

Remember, this is a carefully crafted speech, where every phrase was clearly vetted by the pollsters and focus groups. Are soccer moms still considered swing voters this election? And do soccer moms work for pay?

The domestic policies mentioned were pretty much a laundry list of the usual Republican proposals: private investment accounts for social security, check; tax credits for health insurance, check; beat-up on trial lawyers, check; tax cuts, check.

Two of the proposals did strike me as interesting, so I took a closer look:

“In this time of change, many workers want to go back to school to learn different or higher-level skills. So we will double the number of people served by our principal job training program and increase funding for community colleges.”

Is Bush really proposing to increase funding for the Workforce Investment Act? No, spending would continue to be cut, as it has been steadily over the Bush administration. He’s convinced that administrative efficiencies could squeeze more training out of the same dollars. And funds would be moved around from one program to another. No real increases.

“In a new term we will change outdated labor laws to offer comp-time and flex-time. Our laws should never stand in the way of a more family-friendly workplace.”

Here’s the deal on this one: Most hourly employees are required to be paid overtime — time and a half — if they work more than 40 hours in a week. The Republicans have been arguing that they should be able to provide workers with comp time instead — paid leave hours to be taken at a different time. As a federal worker, I can earn comp time; for example, I came in an hour early a couple of days last week so I can come in late on Wednesday, when my son starts preschool. It’s a popular benefit.

So what’s the catch? Labor unions and others have been adamently opposed to the comp-time proposals, because they’re convinced that employers will abuse them — requiring workers to take comp-time instead of overtime, but then only allowing them to use it at employers’ convenience (e.g. when there’s a quiet time at work), rather when the worker wants it (whether for a parent-teacher conference, or to get outdoors on a perfect spring afternoon). Particularly for temporary and seasonal workers, there’s a lot of potential for abuse — you could require holiday workers to work 60 or 70 hours weeks, let them earn comp time, and then tell them they have to use it all up in January because they’re being let go at the end of the month. Such workers would lose all the benefits they currently get from overtime, and wouldn’t gain at all.

The Republicans argue that it’s crazy to stop most workers from getting a benefit they want because of the potential for a few bad employers to abuse it, and say that there will be protections for workers in the law. And the unions say “oh right, the way you enforce protections in current law. Not a chance.” The problem is they’re both right.

Have a good Labor Day. Remember the bumper sticker: “The American Labor Movement: The People Who Brought You The Weekend.”

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