The United Food and Commercial Workers Union filed a $35 million lawsuit Monday against John Morrell & Co. on the 50th anniversary of the federal wage-hour law, accusing the nation's fifth biggest meatpacker of refusing to pay for overtime worked.

The legal action was called the biggest private wage and hour suit filed against a private employer.The suit, filed in federal court in Sioux City, Iowa, accused Morrell of failing to pay production workers in Iowa and Kansas for time spent daily putting on, taking off and cleaning required safety equipment.

Al Zack, chief spokesman for the union in Washington, said an estimated 5,000 workers could receive back pay if the suit is successful. The employees work at meatpacking plants in Sioux City and Sioux Falls, S.D., and Arkansas City, Kan., and are represented by the UFCW.

The suit seeks payment of unpaid wages, overtime and penalties for the past three years.

Ron Hass, chairman of the safety committee of UFCW Local 1142, told reporters outside the courthouse in Sioux City: "What we want is just an honest day's wage for an honest day's work and every hour we work we expect to be paid for."

Hass said, "It'd be just like working at McDonald's and you're the chef. You're putting out the food, but when it comes to cleaning the grill, you're doing it on your own time. I'm saying it's not right."

The federal wage and hour law - officially called the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act - took effect 50 years ago, Oct. 24, 1938. When the federal minimum wage law was proposed, President Franklin Roosevelt said, "A self-supporting and self-respecting democracy can plead no justification for the existence of child labor, no economic reason for chiseling wages or stretching workers' hours."

William Wynn, president of the UFCW, said, "Fiftieth anniversaries normally call for a celebration. But, as recent government and private litigation demonstrate, there are still major companies cheating and chiseling workers out of wages they should rightfully receive."