Sunday, January 12, 2014
Obama Changed the Most Racist Law in the Country
Home care workers were excluded from labor protections
as a deal to win southern support for the New Deal.
By David Callahan
September 18, 2013
President Obama dramatically altered one of the most racially damaging laws in America when the Department of Labor announced that it would extend minimum wage and overtime protections to home care workers. . . . Seventy-five years ago, Franklin Roosevelt achieved a historic victory—but a morally compromised one—when he signed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938. The law created the modern labor regulations that we're all familiar with today, including the minimum wage, overtime pay, and much more.
Yet getting the FLSA passed entailed a major concession to southern Democrats, who successfully fought to exclude agricultural and domestic workers. Why? Because, as legal scholar Juan Perea has shown in his illuminating history of the law, that exclusion was seen as crucial to preserving a southern way of life that hinged on exploiting cheap African-American labor—both in the fields through a sharecropper system not much different than slavery, and in homes where black domestic workers played much the same role they did in Antebellum times. . . .
The Obama Administration's action in this area yesterday doesn't come close to fully addressing the range of exclusions from federal labor law that disproportionately affect workers of color. But it's a big step in the right direction.
White House Brings Minimum Wage, Overtime Protections
to 2 Million Home Care Workers
By Dave Jamieson
17 September 2013
WASHINGTON -- In a move that will change working conditions for two million Americans, the Labor Department announced Tuesday the enactment of a new rule that will extend minimum wage and overtime protections to home care workers, one of the fastest-growing occupations in the country.
As of Jan. 1, 2015, the long-awaited change will end a 38-year-old carveout that excluded workers who attend to the elderly and disabled in their homes from the basic labor protections enjoyed by most Americans. The home care industry had waged a prolonged lobbying campaign against the proposal, claiming it would raise prices on low-income customers and force companies to cut workers' hours.
The White House, however, has said that such a rule would rectify an injustice for a large pool of workers who log long hours for generally low pay. The change will also deliver on a personal promise that President Barack Obama made on the issue.
The Labor Department posted the final rule on its website Tuesday.
Most hourly workers in the U.S. are protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act, the bedrock Depression-era law that established the federal minimum wage and time-and-a-half for hours worked over 40. But when Congress tweaked the law in 1975, it added the so-called "companionship exemption," which excluded workers who provide
"companionship services for individuals who (because of age or infirmity) are unable to care for themselves."
The law effectively carved out home care workers, whose ranks have grown significantly in recent years as the elderly have come to rely on their care. Such workers tend to clients who can't handle all the basic chores of home life on their own, like bathing, dressing and eating. According to the Labor Department, the occupation is expected to grow by 70 percent between 2010 and 2020, "much faster" than the average for other jobs in the U.S. economy.
Proponents of the White House rule change maintain that the exemption has helped keep wages low for home care workers. The median annual pay in the field was a little over $20,000 a year in 2010, even though many workers log well over 40 hours in a week doing overnights at clients' homes. . . .
The president later called the job "heroic work, hard work."
The Echoes of Slavery: Recognizing the Racist Origins of the
Agricultural and Domestic Worker Exclusion
from the National Labor Relations Act
By Juan F. Perea
Blacks and Southern Agriculture
To understand why the exclusion of agricultural and domestic employees
is racist requires some background information about the New Deal Era.
Black Americans during the Depression were “the most disadvantaged major
group in American society” and politically vulnerable due to their
disenfranchisement and lack of representation.17 The black population in
1930 was predominantly southern, rural, and impoverished.18 Over half of
the blacks living in the United States in 1930 lived in the South.19 Black
employment in the South was disproportionately concentrated in unskilled
agricultural and domestic labor.
Since the time of slavery and up to the New Deal, plantation agriculture
had been the most important feature of the southern economy and society.
Just as the antebellum southern plantation system depended on the forced
labor of black slaves, so postbellum southern agriculture depended on
exploitation and subordination of black labor. The formal abolition of slavery
in the Constitution made little difference. One writer described the situation
in 1936: “Slavery was too integral a part of the social life of the South and
too vital to the interests of certain classes to be suddenly eliminated by a
mere constitutional amendment. [It was necessary to find] new ways of
perpetuating the Negro’s enslavement.” Agriculture, and the exploitation of
black labor to support it, remained particularly and uniquely important to the
South during the New Deal Era.
Southern landowners developed many ways to keep black farm laborers
under their control through economic duress and violence. The primary
technique was the tenancy system, which involved, typically, blacks living
and farming on land owned by a white farmer and paying the owner rent.23
White landowners kept black tenant farmers and wage laborers economically
subservient by keeping them in a constant state of debt. Farm owners
furnished their impoverished black farm workers with necessary supplies,
including seed, fertilizer, and tools from plantation stores on credit.
By inflating the prices of supplies and charging exorbitant interest rates on loans,
farm owners guaranteed that their tenants were permanently in debt to
them. Backed by threats of violence and recapture, landlords required their
tenants to pay off such debts before they could leave the farm. Such debt
peonage continued despite repeated Supreme Court decisions declaring the
practice unconstitutional. In addition, landowners kept black farm workers
economically dependent through other practices such as stealing or failing to
pay for their crops, evicting the tenants, stealing their furniture and means of
transportation, and other illicit means.
The Politics of the New Deal
The southern political economy, therefore, depended on the economic
and social subordination of blacks through exploitation, violence, and
segregation.30 Southern Democrats in Congress were unified in their desire to
uphold segregation and to resist any threats to the Jim Crow South. They
voted as a bloc to uphold the racist values of their region.
There were two principal threats to the racially segregated southern
political economy. First, initiatives that improved the economic welfare of
blacks relative to whites threatened to reduce the economic dependence and
subordination of blacks. Such initiatives included benefit payments or
unemployment insurance under the Social Security Act, equal and
minimum wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act, or equalized
bargaining power under the National Labor Relations Act.
Second, centralized federal administration of any such programs, rather than local
administration, threatened to disrupt the racist status quo of exploitation and
inequality for blacks. During the New Deal Era, Southern Democrats dominated Congress. “Throughout the [1930s], the representatives of Dixie remained entrenched
in the most powerful seats in Congress. Southerners controlled over half the
committee chairmanships and a majority of leadership positions in every
New Deal Congress.” Because Southern Democrats held the balance of power, Congress and President Roosevelt had to acquiesce in their demands
to ensure the passage of legislation.
President Roosevelt simply would not embrace civil rights or egalitarian
measures because they endangered the coalition necessary to enact his
legislative agenda.40 Roosevelt’s highest priority was enacting remedial
legislation for most Americans, even if it meant excluding blacks and
rejecting civil rights measures.41 According to Roosevelt, “First things come
first, and I can’t alienate certain votes I need for measures that are more
important at the moment by pushing any measures that would entail a
fight.”42 Responding to the problems created for blacks by lower wages
under the National Recovery Act, Roosevelt commented that “[i]t is not the
purpose of this Administration to impair Southern industry by refusing to
recognize traditional differentials.”43 Explaining his failure to support antilynching
legislation, Roosevelt said:
I did not choose the tools with which I must work. . . . Had I been
permitted to choose them I would have selected quite different ones. But
I’ve got to get legislation passed by Congress to save America. The
Southerners by reason of the seniority rule in Congress are chairman or
occupy strategic places on most of the Senate and House committees. If I
come out for the anti-lynching bill now, they will block every bill I ask
Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing. I just can’t take that
There can be no clearer example of Roosevelt’s willingness to sacrifice
fundamental humanitarian and equality interests of blacks than his failure to
support anti-lynching legislation. Members of the President’s Administration,
like Roosevelt, also accommodated racist southern desires.
In the eyes of congressional and presidential decisionmakers, then, the
politics of the Era required the exclusion of blacks from the New Deal. Only
by excluding blacks could Southern Democrats both gain federal benefits for
their impoverished region and preserve the racist status quo in the South.
Only through race-neutral language could Northern Liberals countenance
excluding blacks without directly alienating black political support.