Working 9 to 5. Taking care of business and working overtime. Everybody’s working for the weekend. The 40-hour workweek is so ingrained into American culture that we sometimes take it for granted. But it’s important to remember that generations of workers fought and even died for the right to balance work and life.

In the 19th century, 10- or 12-hour shifts were common, and weekends were often just another day at work. In 1886, factory workers in Chicago marched for better hours under the banner “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what we will.” The proposal was so threatening to factory bosses that armed strikebreakers were dispatched to fire into the crowd. The Haymarket Affair was just one dramatic episode in a long struggle to end the grueling work schedules of the Industrial Revolution.


It wasn’t until decades later that these common-sense measures were passed into law. Under pressure from unions, Franklin Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established a 40-hour workweek and mandated time-and-a-half pay for additional hours worked. That’s why those of us in the labor movement like to say that we’re the folks who brought you the weekend.

But now that hard-won progress is eroding. In 1975, 65 percent of salaried American workers could earn overtime pay. The salary qualifications have only been adjusted once since then, and big business interests have been quietly chipping away at overtime for decades, so that fewer and fewer people qualify. Today the salary cap stands at only $23,660 and as a result, in 2013, only 8 percent of salaried workers qualified. That’s part of how we got to the economy we’re in today, where families are working harder than ever but earning less than they were decades ago.

A recent Gallup poll found that nearly two-thirds of salaried workers and more than one-third of hourly workers are putting in more than 40 hours on the job each week. In fact, a full quarter of salaried workers and one-tenth of hourly workers say that they’re working more than 60 hours at the same job each week, and yet in most cases they aren’t earning any extra income. Those kinds of schedules are a prime example of an unbalanced economy where worker productivity is climbing higher and higher, yet wages are still flat-lining.

Right now, the president is proposing a rule change that could turn this situation around. If the salary threshold from 1975 were merely adjusted for inflation, approximately an additional 15 million people would get paid for their extra time next year. The idea is to bring overtime back to middle-class Americans. It’s the right thing to do, for families and for our economy.

The extra money that ordinary workers could earn with overtime pay in decades past helped to build the prosperous middle class that emerged after World War II.  When regular people have a little money to spend, our economy grows and our communities thrive. But right now, your average worker has tightened her belt as far as it goes. In a recent Federal Reserve survey, nearly half of American households say they don’t even have $400 in emergency funds.

Overtime pay also encourages bosses to hire more people. After all, why would you pay time-and-a-half to keep an overworked employee around for 60 hours a week when you could just bring in somebody else? There are plenty of unemployed workers out there who would gladly take on all those extra hours. And plenty of the people who are working long hours now would prefer to have more time with their families.

The proposal to change overtime rules just makes sense. But don’t expect it to happen without a fight. Some politicians seem hell-bent on dismantling the basic structures of working life. Last year, a couple of state legislators in Wisconsin even tried to get rid of the weekend — and believe it or not, they weren’t laughed out of the building. These are real threats that are already having a profound impact on our personal lives and our pocketbooks.

It’s a tough time for America’s working families, but we’re inspired by those who marched for an eight-hour day a century ago.  History reminds us that this isn’t just a matter of bureaucratic policy and economic jargon. Our predecessors in the labor movement fought hard for the right to earn a decent living without working from sunup to sundown. They wanted to have time with their families. They wanted to be treated as human beings who have lives beyond the office or worksite. And they put their lives on the line to achieve those things. It’s up to us to keep that legacy alive.

Saunders is president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.