Ahead of May Day, the eight-hour work day under attack in Congress | KUOW News and Information

Ahead of May Day, the eight-hour work day under attack in Congress

Apr 28, 2017

When you’re out marching on May Day in Seattle on Monday, remember how the tradition began: as an attempt to get workers an eight-hour day.

And then think about this: Some labor advocates say the eight-hour day is under attack in Congress.

University of Washington historian James Gregory explained that the movement to cut the length of the workday started in the 19th century, when 10- or 12-hour work days were the norm. Gregory said the labor movement tried to fix that: 

"The celebration of May Day commemorates a general strike that started on May 1, 1886," he said. "Hundreds of thousands of workers across the United States walked out demanding shorter work days. This was the start of the eight-hour day movement, which years later resulted in legislation."

Eventually, the Fair Labor Standards Act passed during the New Deal, in 1938. So nowadays if your boss asks you to work more than eight hours in a day, or 40 hours in the week, you get paid extra.

But are we headed for a rollback?

"The May Day marches that are going to be taking place on Monday actually circle back to the originating cause," Gregory said, "because right now Congress is considering effectively abolishing the Fair Labor Standards Act: the eight-hour, or time-and-a-half overtime provision, that has been a workplace right for the last 80 years."

The bill before Congress now is called the Working Families Flexibility Act.

If it passes, instead of overtime, employers could give compensatory time or “comp” time. Republican Cathy McMorris-Rodgers of Spokane supports that because she says it gives employees options so “they can be present in their family’s lives.”

Democrat Suzan DelBene, who represents the 1st Congressional District north of Seattle, disagrees.

"I think we want to make sure that workers do have flexibility, but that doesn't mean presenting a false choice like this bill where you aren't guaranteeing that employees can even use their accrued comp time,” she said. “There's no remedy if they're denied being allowed to use that.”

The Working Families Flexibility Act is expected to be brought to the floor in the House next week.