They were paid half the going rate for adult workers.
No parades or surprise parties are likely to be on tap Monday when Massachusetts passes the anniversary of a milestone of U.S. labor law. A century ago, on June 4, 1912, the state enacted the nation’s first minimum-wage law. That may not seem like a big deal these days. But for the women and minors covered by the law it was a very big deal. In sweatshops across the nation at the time, workers of all categories were deeply exploited. And while legislators could ignore—be paid to ignore—most of that exploitation, they had a harder time when the exploited were women and children forced to work 10- and 12-hour days six days a week in sweatshops where their pay was, let us say, painfully inadequate.
That pay could be reduced at any time on an employer’s whim. Or the hours increased but the weekly pay unchanged. Workers could lump or leave it. The problem with leaving being that it would land all but the luckiest of them in a job with equally measly pay and the same kind of verbal contract between unequals. The worker had to right to accept whatever the owner wished to pay. Period. Women, unable to even vote and only rarely represented by unions, were vulnerable to employers’ whims and their prejudices, one of which was the view that no matter how hard they worked women simply should not be paid as much as men. As for children in sweatshops? Even worse off. Even more vulnerable. And paid even less.
Reformers saw need of many improvements for workers, but one proposal that struck a chord was a minimum wage for women. The Progressives made that a plank in their party platform in 1912.
Economists, businesspeople big and small, and the elected stooges for owners who hired these easily exploitable workers hated the idea of a minimum wage, as many still do. And had the Massachusetts law been drafted to cover a broader range of workers, that is to say, men, it would never have made it to the governor’s desk. But it did and he signed it. Within a decade a dozen other states had followed in Massachusetts’s footsteps. And in 1933, deep in the Depression, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, the brains and heart of the New Deal, made the case for a federal minimum wage. I’ll get to that in a moment.
Section 3. It shall be the duty of the commission to inquire into the wages paid to the female employees in any occupation in the commonwealth, if the commission has reason to believe that the wages paid to a substantial number of such employees are inadequate to supply the necessary cost of living and to maintain the worker in health.
Section 4. If after such investigation the commission is of the opinion that in the occupation in question the wages paid to a substantial number of female employees are inadequate to supply the necessary cost of living and to maintain the worker in health, the commission shall establish a wage board consisting of not less than six representatives of employers in the occupation in question and of an equal number of persons to represent the female employees in said occupation, and of one or more disinterested persons appointed by the commission to represent the public, but the representatives of the public shall not exceed one half of the number of representatives of either of the other parties. [...]
Section 5. The commission may transmit to each wage board all pertinent information in its possession relative to the wages paid in the occupation in question. Each wage board shall take into consideration the needs of the employees, the financial condition of the occupation and the probable effect thereon of any increase in the minimum wages paid, and shall endeavor to determine the minimum wage, whether by time rate or piece rate, suitable for a female employee of ordinary ability in the occupation in question, or for any or all of the branches thereof, and also suitable minimum wages for learners and apprentices and for minors below the age of eighteen years. When two thirds of the members of a wage board shall agree upon minimum wage determinations, they shall report such determinations to the commission, together with the reasons therefor and the facts relating thereto, and also the names, so far as they can be ascertained by the board, of employers who pay less than the minimum wage so determined.
In Washington state not quite five years later, the battle over implementing the minimum wage was hard fought. The law had passed in 1915. But by 1917 companies were evading the minimum-wage law however they could.
Laundry work was one of the few jobs open to women at the time, and the employers made the most of it. According to the Seattle Union Record women who worked in the laundries were “girls without any family support and many widows with babies to feed and clothe.”
During the first part of 1917, the state minimum wage for laundry workers was $ 9 a week for an eight-hour workday. [...] The laundries then paid less and less until they were paying far below the minimum wage and many workers were receiving the same pay as they had five years previously. In addition to lowering wages, the laundries used several other methods to get around the minimum wage provision.
The laundry plants used a system of “splitting shifts.” This was a practice in which a laundry put the women to “work in the morning, rush them to top speed for a couple of hours, ring a gong and stop their time when the work immediately in sight was disposed of and without previous notice; after an hour or two again putting them to work and in that way compelling them to be present on the job for periods of from ten to twelve hours for pay for from four to eight hours.” This practice of having the women work faster over more hours for less money was upheld in the courts with the decision of Rose Bishop v. Model Laundry Co., in which the judge refused to hear the case.
The Laundry Owners Association maintained a united front for a while. But then the cooperatively owned Mutual Laundry announced it was going to raise the weekly wage to $ 10, $ 1 above the state minimum wage for eight hours work a day. While the Laundry Workers Union praised Mutual, it also noted that a livable wage was really $ 12 a week. Word nonetheless quickly got around. The Laundry Owners Association wouldn’t budge. Every trick was tried to keep the women workers from joining unions. Laundries fired any woman who had joined the union and refused to give it up. In June 1917, a lot of women were fired for their refusal.
When it became clear at mid-month that the owners weren’t going to come around, 900 laundry-workers took to the streets. By the time the strike was settled four weeks later with full capitulation by the Laundry Owners Association on July 11, 85 percent of the women had joined the Laundry Workers Union. Their strike got apprentices paid $ 9 a week for an eight-hour day, $ 10 for women with experience, with a limit on the number of apprentices. All the dismissed workers were reinstated as part of the deal.
Factory Investigation Commission, circa 1911.
Photo from the Frances Perkins Papers, Rare Book
and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.
Sixteen years later, in the depth of the Depression, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, wrote “Why We Need a Minimum Wage Law.” She wrote bluntly about the sweatshop owners, calling them:
“…men of inferior business caliber who probably could not survive at all if it were not for their willingness to be entirely ruthless in exploiting labor.”
But the courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, were not cooperative. They ruled against laws restricting child labor and mandating minimum wages. One of the worst decisions came in 1936 Most notorious was the 1936 case of Morehead v. New York ex rel. Tipaldo. Joseph Tipaldo ran Brooklyn laundry. He violated the state’s minimum wage law by paying women workers only $ 10 a week. The state demanded that he pony up for $ 14.88 each. He acquiesced but then made the women kick back the additional pay. Caught and charged not only with violating the minimum-wage law but also forgery and conspiracy, Tipaldo was jailed. His lawyers argued the law unconstitutional and, in 1936, the Supreme Court agreed by a 5-to-4 majority, ruling that it interfered with “liberty of contract.” Even many conservatives were appalled. Republican Rep. Hamilton Fish of New York called it a “new Dred Scott decision” condemning three million women and children to economic slavery.
With Franklin Roosevelt reelected by a huge landslide in 1936 and talking about altering the balance of the court by appointing a new justice for every one of those on the court over 70 who did not retire, Associate Justice Owen Roberts ultimately changed his mind, at least publicly. He took the other side in a second minimum-wage case, reversing the Court’s majority in 1937. It was a crucial turning point.
The decision meant the federal minimum wage being included in the multi-issue Fair Labor Standards Act would not be challenged in Court. The bill,which also included limits on child labor and set standards for overtime pay, ran to 40 pages. Eventually, it was boiled down to eight. Even in a Congress practically overflowing with Democrats, it took several tries before a draft suitable for full debate had been written. Seventy-two amendments were proposed on the floor of the House and Senate to narrow the bill’s scope. By the time it was signed in 1938, it was a good deal weaker than when it had started out, in great part due to opposition from anti-New Deal congressmen from the South. But it still contained two important provisions, a 40 cents-an-hour minimum and a 40-hour-a-week maximum. Unions wanted more money and some on the left in Congress wanted a lower number of hours, but the principle had been set. The federal government now had the authority to make such rules.
Nearly 75 years after FDR signed the minimum-wage law, we’re still fighting for it. Some argue it should be done away and replaced by guaranteed incomes, an expanded earned income tax credit or left up to collective bargaining, a more European approach. But most critics who seek to ditch it have no intention of replacing it with something better. For them, it’s just another New Deal thorn to be removed from the bottom line. Just as they’d like the minimum-wage to be zero, they want corporate taxes to be zero. Always on a search for balance these guys are.
Even when a majority of legislators, including many Republicans, support an increase in the minimum wage, right-wing maneuvers can squelch it, as just happened in New York.
Jack Temple, policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, says:
After several decades of congressional stewardship, the real value of the minimum wage peaked in 1968. Since then it has trailed the rising cost of living: The minimum wage would be over $ 10 today if it kept pace with inflation, but it is only $ 7.25 an hour—just over $ 15,000 a year for full-time work.
We are now three years out from the official end of the recession, and workers’ wages are declining rather than rebounding: From March 2011 to March 2012, real average hourly earnings fell 0.6 percent for all private-sector workers and declined by an even greater degree—a full 1.0 percent—for nonsupervisory and production workers.
One of numerous items in the worker-friendly Rebuild America Act that Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa has proposed is a phased-in minimum wage of $ 9.80 an hour, up from $ 7.25. The bill also includes a raise to $ 6.86 in the minimum wage for tipped workers (which has been at a ridiculous $ 2.13 an hour for 20 years). Each would be indexed to inflation annually.
The website RaisetheMinimumWage.com is a project of the National Employment Law Project. Working with state advocates, it seeks to rebuild “the wage floor for low-wage workers in the U.S.” with technical assistance, research, background materials, strategizing and coordination for campaigns.
One of the states partnering with RMW is Massachusetts. A bill introduced last year by state Sen. Marc Pacheco cleared committee in March. Deadline for passage this year is July 31. It would raise the minimum wage from $ 8 an hour to $ 9.50 on July 1 and to $ 10 in July 2013, indexed to inflation thereafter.
The foes of the minimum wage play rough. Here’s John Stoher at The American Prospect examining one of the promoters of the corporate agenda on the minimum wage:
One of the most active in the propaganda industry has been the Employment Policies Institute, a so-called think-tank in Washington that serves as a front for Richard Berman & Co., a lobbying firm for major corporations in the fast-food, alcohol, and tobacco industries. The Employment Policies Institute studies essentially say: Raising the minimum wage hurts minimum-wage earners. We know, we know. That sounds counter-intuitive, but trust us. We’re the experts.
Anthony Speelman, United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1500 Secretary-Treasurer, says:
“It is amazing how much money corporations will spend from their own pockets to make sure no additional money goes into their workers’ pockets. It is appalling that the voice opposing the minimum wage increase will come from those making ten, twenty even fifty times what those on minimum wage make in a year. Any business that can only survive and profit by paying their workers poverty wages should either rethink their business model or consider another line if work. Regardless, their voices of greed will be drowned out by the voices of need.”
That sounds as if he’s been reading Frances Perkins.
The minimum wage is no panacea. But raising it does not hurt minimum-wage earners, as Berman claims but surely knows is bogus. Work full-time at the current minimum and gross pay for a year will be $ 15,000. Raising that to $ 20,000 by making the minimum $ 10 an hour hurts that worker how? Contrary to popular belief, those making minimum wage aren’t all kids on their first job or working their way through school. And they don’t all work for mom and pop shops:
Many minimum-wage workers are in jobs we may not assume to be minimum-wage occupations, such as contracted workers at airports who handle our luggage, process tickets and clean airplanes. Or home health aides and office workers.
Most are not that young. Of the 40,000 in New Jersey who earn minimum wage, more than half are 25 or older. More than a third are at least 45.
A century ago, the minimum wage was just one item on a long list of labor reforms that took decades of political maneuvering, direct action and legislative compromise to achieve. Today, in an era when supposedly serious candidates for the presidency argue in favor of bringing back child labor, it is no surprise that a lot of big guns are turned on keeping the minimum wage below the buying power it had in 1968. Much of the action is at the state level, just as it was in Massachusetts and Washington and Oregon so many decades ago. The foes are just as wrong as they were then and for the same reasons.