One afternoon in mid-August, Senator Hillary Clinton visited a Nevada hospital to participate in a union-sponsored “Walk a Day in My Shoes” program for presidential candidates. There she learned firsthand about the new realities of work schedules for nurses–and many other wage-earners.
Clinton expressed amazement at the workload of a typical healthcare professional. “Your mother worked me to the bone today,” she told the children of Michelle Estrada, RN, during a dinner-table conversation at their home later that evening.
What’s really amazing–and appalling–is that Estrada’s twelve-hour days are not unique. Americans today spend far more time on the job than workers in any other advanced capitalist country. Whether unionized or not, most lack the legal protection necessary to resist forced overtime and “nonstandard” shifts. As a result, one of labor’s greatest twentieth-century achievements–the eight-hour day and forty-hour week–is rapidly becoming a thing of the past for millions of people, with neither the AFL-CIO nor “labor-friendly” Democrats doing much about it.
For unions, the decline of the eight-hour day is no minor embarrassment. Their ninteenth-century movement to shorten ten, twelve and fourteen-hour work days spawned general strikes in the 1880s, the Haymarket Martyrs and worldwide celebrations of May Day ever since. Until the New Deal, US workers rallied, marched and lobbied for humane work schedules that would–in the words of the old labor song–provide “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.” When Congress finally enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1938, the eight-hour day became standard, thanks to union bargaining and the FLSA requirement of “time-and-a-half” pay for any hours worked in excess of forty during a single week. Well into the 1970s, some union activists–particularly in the auto industry–even sought a reduction in the forty-hour week.
Extra pay for overtime hours–whether legally mandated or privately negotiated–was not intended to fatten weekly paychecks. It was supposed to be a financial penalty, encouraging employers to expand their workforce rather than rely on overtime to meet production needs. But as Kim Moody and Simone Sagovac explain in Time Out: The Case For A Shorter Work Week: “When job-based benefits like health insurance began to bulk up labor costs, premium pay ceased to be a deterrent to overtime. It became cheaper for employers to schedule overtime than hire new workers.”
Offering lots of overtime–and creating worker dependence on the additional income derived from it–paved the way for today’s widespread “alternative work schedules.” These can require ten and twelve-hour days as part of a “compressed work week” or regular weekly shifts that include Saturday and Sunday, with no extra pay for weekend work (as once required in most union contracts). The FLSA doesn’t impose any limit on daily or weekly working hours (and excludes millions of workers, such as home-care providers, from its overtime pay requirement). In the absence of union contract language making overtime voluntary at some point in the day or week, workers such as nurses in understaffed hospitals often face management pressure to work beyond their basic twelve-hour shifts.