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This Day in Labor History: June 25, 1938

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On June 25, 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act. This groundbreaking piece of legislation, while flawed as almost all progressive legislation must be to pass Congress, set the standards of labor that defined post-war America, including minimum wages, overtime pay, and the banning of most child labor.

Sweeping laws to regulate wages and hours had been bandied around for some time, including a bill sponsored by Hugo Black in 1933 to reduce the workweek to 30 hours. Black continued to push for some kind of comprehensive labor regulation bill, although against significant Congressional opposition from conservatives. Roosevelt campaigned on wage and hour legislation in 1936. In 1937, a new fight was undertaken for such a bill and it took nearly a year of contentious negotiations to make it happen. On May 24, 1937, FDR had the bill introduced through friendly congressmen. The original bill included a Fair Labor Standards Board to mediate labor issues, and a 40 cent an hour minimum wage for a 40 hour week, as well as the prohibition of “oppressive child labor” for goods shipped between states. FDR told Congress, “A self-supporting and self-respecting democracy can plead no justification for the existence of child labor, no economic reason for chiseling worker’s wages or stretching workers’ hours.” The administration tried to stress that this was actually a pro-business measure. Commissioner of Labor Statistic Isador Lubin told Congress that the businesses surviving the Depression were not the most efficient, but the ones who most ruthlessly exploited labor into longer hours and lower wages. Only by halting this cutthroat exploitation could a more rational and well-regulated economy result.

Organized labor was split on the FLSA. Many labor leaders believed in it wholeheartedly, including Sidney Hillman and David Dubinsky. Interestingly, both AFL head William Green and CIO leader John L. Lewis supported it only for the lowest wage workers, fearing a minimum wage would become a maximum wage for better paid labor. This reflected the long-standing mistrust of government by labor, lessons hard-learned over the past half-century, but ones that could get in the way of understanding the potential of the New Deal. Of course, today’s reliance upon the state by the labor movement would confirm much of what Lewis and especially Green believed, but that’s a subject for another post.

But all this happened while FDR was also engaged in his court-packing scheme. The embarrassing failure of that idea threatened the FLSA’s passage. It was quickly moved through the Senate but the House stalled, leading to it taking over a year to make it through Congress. It was only after Claude Pepper beat off an anti-New Deal challenger in the Florida primary that enough southern Congressmen would vote for the bill for it to pass, even in somewhat weakened form. The bill FDR finally signed over covered about 25 percent of the labor force at that time. It banned the worst forms of child labor, set the labor week at 44 hours, and created the federal minimum wage, set at 25 cents an hour.

Of course, corporate leaders howled about the impact of this 25 cent minimum wage. It was a big enough threat that Roosevelt addressed it in a Fireside Chat, telling Americans, “Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day, …tell you…that a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry.”

The impact of this law cannot be overstated. The minimum wage had been a major project of labor reformers for decades. During the Progressive Era, reformers had made some progress, but the Supreme Court ruled a minimum wage for women unconstitutional in Adkins v. Children’s Hospital in 1923, killing the movement’s momentum. The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 set an important precedent for federal regulation over wages and hours, but the Supreme Court overruled this in 1935, leading to the National Labor Relations Act and FDR’s attack upon the Supreme Court as an antiquated institution destroying progress.

It’s worth noting how important the child labor provisions were. Child labor had been the bane of the country for a century. Children were often expected to work through most of American history; they had always worked on farms or in the apprenticeships that defined pre-industrial labor. But in the factory systems, children were employed explicitly to undermine wages and increase profits. Organized labor and reformers had fought to end child labor for decades, with industries such as apparel and timber leading the opposition to it. This largely, although not entirely, ended with the FLSA, to the benefit of every American.

There were unfortunate exceptions to the Fair Labor Standards Act. Most notably, agriculture received an exemption, part of its long-term exploitative labor methods. This was something of a compromise as southerners complained about having to pay northern wages in an area of the country long used to cheap labor; in fact, those disparities had long been used by northern and western industrialists against a minimum wage in their states since they said they couldn’t compete with southern employers as it was. Other groups still largely excluded include circus employees, babysitters, journalists, and personal companions.

The agricultural exemption is the most damaging. Farmworkers remain among the most exploited labor in the United States today. The federal government still has no child age limit on farm work and only 33 states have stepped in to create one. Most of the states that exempt farm work from child labor laws are in the South, but among the other states is Rhode Island. Those state laws are limited, as state regulation often is. Washington for instance allows children as young as 12 to pick berries, cucumbers, spinach, and other groups when school is not in session. Workers under the age of 16 are prohibited from hazardous jobs on farms, but who is checking that? Not enough inspectors, that’s for sure. Farmworkers under the age of 20 only receive $4.25 an hour for the first 90 days of their work. In short, there are still huge gaps in FLSA coverage and in today’s political climate, they are more likely to grow, not shrink.

The Fair Labor Standards Act was significantly expanded over the years. Each increase in the minimum wage is an amendment to the FLSA. In 1949, Harry Truman expanded its reach to airline and cannery workers. JFK expanded it to retail and service employees. The 1963 Equal Pay Act expanded its reach to require equal pay for equal work for women and men.

The Fair Labor Standards Act was the last major piece of New Deal legislation. FDR was facing a backlash from the court-packing incident and the alliance of southern Democrats and Republicans determined to limit the power of the liberal state. After the 1938 elections, FDR’s ability to create groundbreaking programs declined significantly and then World War II came to dominate American political life.

This is the 110th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • DrDick

    Thanks for this. It is always important to remember how long and hard workers have fought to get even minimal protections and the fierce resistance of capital to the imposition of even minimal standards of decent treatment and pay for workers. “Enlightened” management and ownership are and always have been a vanishingly rare breed.

    • Chris

      Second this, too. I like reading this series of posts for precisely that reason – labor history has been so successfully buried in the public memory that I’m happy to find anything at all about it.

      • But, it seems to be pretty robust as as locus of international scholarship. I went to a conference on forced labor in colonial Africa this year and there were scholars from Ghana, Senegal, the US, Canada, India, Brazil, Germany, Nigeria, and South Africa there. Some of the people there like Frederick Cooper and Babacar Fall are quite well known internationally for their work on labor history in Africa.

        http://jpohl.blogspot.com/2014/01/back-from-ho.html

        • Barry Freed

          Are those countries which still have strong labor movements? Germany does, I think Brazil and possibly Canada do as well. Don’t know anything about the other countries you’ve named.

          • Well it was a history conference. But, unions have been active recently in strike activity in South Africa (mining), Ghana (public sector including university faculty), and Nigeria (university faculty). I don’t know about those places represented at the conference outside of English speaking Africa.

  • Chris

    The Fair Labor Standards Act was the last major piece of New Deal legislation. FDR was facing a backlash from the court-packing incident and the alliance of southern Democrats and Republicans determined to limit the power of the liberal state. After the 1938 elections, FDR’s ability to create groundbreaking programs declined significantly and then World War II came to dominate American political life.

    Yeah, that’s what I was about to comment on before I saw the end – I thought the court packing scheme had pretty much ended New Deal legislation, with nothing getting through between 1937 and 1941. Apparently, the FSLA was the exception.

    Also too, was any of this undone by Taft-Hartley?

    • I don’t think so, since this was about setting federal labor standards instead of union rights.

      • The only thing that’s close is the Portal-to-Portal Act of 1947, which restricted the scope of FLSA in terms of commuting time and made it harder to get justice for wage claims in the courts.

  • cpinva

    when you consider the fact that the 1%/conservatives pretty much own congress, and keep the state legislatures on retainer, it’s always amazing whenever any progressive measures make it into law. that Roosevelt and Johnson, both operating under the same type of constraints, were able to push through as much as they did, is just short of miraculous.

  • cpinva

    wayyyyyyyyyyyyy OT, but UVA is one game short of winning the CWS. they tied the series against Vanderbilt yesterday, with a 7-2 win. should they be successful, this would be the first ever NCAA baseball championship, for the small school down Charlottesville way.

  • Anonymous

    Hugo Black was a member of the KKK it’s important to know where these laws came from.

    • Murc

      Okay. Yes. Everything in that sentence was true, but it is also incredibly banal. It’s like saying “Hugo Black was born in 1886.” That’s… true, but also not hugely germane to the discussion.

      I guess I don’t get what your point is.

      Unless you were trying to make some expanded point re: the intersection of New Deal legislation and the howling racist wing of the Democratic Party working their asses off to make sure non-whites wouldn’t get to take advantage of said legislation. But I think you maybe need more than a sentence to do that.

      • Chris

        The place Southern Democrats and other white power freaks had in the New Deal is a weird and interesting one.

        For Southern Democrats in particular, my understanding is that pre-1933 they pretty much might as well have been Republicans – economic royalism, union busting, measures that kept the South dirt poor even by the standards of the Gilded Age. But after 1933, you had actual populists like Huey Long starting to push for radical redistribution. Okay, Huey Long never became the norm and by 1937, the Southern Democrats had soured on the New Deal and joined the majority of Republicans in a Conservative Coalition. But the South also kept benefiting from New Deal measures for decades after that (in some ways all the way to today). The region may never have quite caught up with the rest of the country, but it developed economically after the 1930s in a way that I can’t imagine the old, pre-1933 elites ever allowing – with a lot of Southern Democrats riding the wave for all it was worth.

        • Davis X. Machina

          The absolutely massive run-up in military bases — warm weather, cheap land, security — and industrial production for WW2 may have a little to do with it.

          Ingalls Shipyard, e.g., remains the largest employer in Mississippi and they wouldn’t have gotten there building service vessels for the Gulf oil industry.

        • Murc

          For Southern Democrats in particular, my understanding is that pre-1933 they pretty much might as well have been Republicans – economic royalism, union busting, measures that kept the South dirt poor even by the standards of the Gilded Age.

          To an extent. There were a lot of Southern Democrats who, while they weren’t radical redistributionists, were totally on-board with a robust and interventionist state making the economy work for the lower classes… as long as they were white. These guys were all about bragging loudly about the amount of pork they were bringing home and if the chance came they were thrilled to have roads and bridges and dams and all manner of other awesome things built in their districts, or indeed, nationwide… as long as their use could be restricted, as much as was practical, to whites.

          It is also true, of course, that a lot of them wanted to keep poor whites down as much as they wanted to keep all blacks down. But it was a bit more complex than pure economic royalism.

      • Davis X. Machina

        If you squint right, a portrait of Hugo Black looks just like King Charles’ head.

        Or a stack of pancakes. It’s hard to tell.

      • sharculese

        Yeah. That’s the thing. Even when they get a legit chance to talk about racist Democrats they fuck it up. Because they’re morons.

    • Baby Needs-A-Nym

      I believe the correct formulation is “Hugo Black was a lifetime Grand Wizard of the KKK which proves that people who oppose child labor are the real racists.”

      • Malaclypse

        I used to be a liberal, but then I found out that party alignment changed over the past century, and now I’m outraged about Lochner.

      • Brian

        Black joined the KKK primarily for political reasons. In his later life he was considered something of a backer of civil rights, although that reputation may be somewhat exaggerated. In fact, there’s an old joke that when he was young, he put on white robes and scared black people, but when he got older, he put on black robes and scared white people.

    • Robert Byrd! Squawk! Squawk!

    • DrDick

      The ideas come from the Socialist Party, which had been advocating for these and related reforms since the late 19th century.

      • Davis X. Machina

        Brad DeLong is always saying that the Democratic party of 2004-8-10-12-14 should run on the Erfurt program of 1891.

    • Anonymous

      Loomis doesn’t want people to know that Black was Klansman. Why was the Klan supporting these laws. Why did FDR put a Klansman on the Supreme Court?

      • sharculese

        I don’t think Erik Loomis particularly cares one way or another whether Hugo Black was in the Klan.

        Why was the Klan supporting these laws. Why did FDR put a Klansman on the Supreme Court?

        While your use of ‘the Klan’ is cutesy and ever-so-dumb, I’m going to be generous and suggest as starting point you could check some of the posts on the complicated relationship between New Dealers and Southern Democrats that people responded to you with. That might help clear up some of your confusion regarding basic American history.

  • Origami Isopod, Commisar [sic] of Ideology for the Bolsheviks

    OT: Archaelogists in the UK and Ireland dig in for better rates of pay.

    Archaeologists have formed a trade union grouping amid concerns that some highly qualified people are working for pay rates not much above the minimum wage — or in some cases, for free.

    Contract archaeologists, who mostly work in the private sector, have joined trade union Unite in an attempt to convince archaeological consultancies to sign up to a standardised pay agreement that would protect wage levels.

    • Davis X. Machina

      Is there a minimum psychic wage?

  • Thom

    After the 1938 elections, FDR’s ability to create groundbreaking programs declined significantly and then World War II came to dominate American political life.

    So nothing happened for three years, until the US entered the war? Or do you mean that WWII dominated American politics from 1939 onward?

    • That FDR couldn’t get major domestic legislation passed and his attention increasingly turned to the international arena.

      • IM

        He-didn’t-even-try!

  • LeeEsq

    Mistrust of government and disinclination to get involved with politics has always been one of the faults of the American labor movement. Even really moderate leaders like Gompers didn’t want that much government involvement in labor issues and wanted workers to achieve thier goals themselves through conflict and negotiation with employers and corporations. The more radical labor leaders distrusted electoral politics so much that they rendered themselves effectively apolitical.

    European labor movements were much more willing to engage in elecoral politics than their American counterparts. Granted European governments were kinder to minor parties even in the early part of the 20th century than the American political system. It was still a bad idea to completely distrust electoral politics. At a certain point cynicism hurts more than it helps.

    • solidcitizen

      The distrust of electoral politics derives from the knowledge of who controls the politicians. Or that the entire political structure of the United States is designed to uphold a capitalist system that is predicated on the exploitation of labor. Then there is the fear that the interests of labor will always be subsumed to other political interests, such as winning elections. This seems obvious to me.

      The debate in labor tends to revolve around whether the NRLA was, ultimately, a good thing, or did it sow the seeds of labor’s destruction. When the state has to sanctify your right to exist, the state has the right to cease your existence, a la Wisconsin. Because, in so many cases, unions existed because of state protection, unions did a piss-poor job of making our unions internally strong so that when the state removes it’s protection, our unions collapse.

      Not sure that “more” electoral politics would have resolved these problems.

      • LeeEsq

        In a democratic system of government, any sort of real change usually involves electoral politics and legislation in some way. You can’t have a welfare state without passing welfare legislation. The countries where the labor movement was most succesful were the countries where they participated fully in electoral politics not where they rendered themselves politically impotent by not participating in the system.

  • joe from Lowell

    Fairly OT: I was reading a biography of Benjamin Butler, the Civil War general/politician/lawyer from Lowell.

    He was the prime mover behind the effort to pass a 10 hour workday law in Massachusetts. He helped put together a Free Soil/Barnburner Democrat coalition that turned out the Whigs using that issue. But the Massachusetts legislature didn’t pass the bill. Eventually, they passed a compromise bill that mandated an 11 hour 15 minute workday.

    Which is a very Massachusetts legislature thing to do. And fifteen minutes!

    Anyway, Erik, you should read about Benjamin Butler. When a sign was posted on the gate of one of Lowell’s mills saying that anyone who voted for the Butler ticket would be dismissed, he told an assembled crowd that if anyone was fired, they would return Lowell to what it was thirty years ago – a region of forests and fields, and he would start by putting the torch to his own house. “I don’t think they’ll call out the militia on us,” Col. Butler said, “Because you are the militia, and I am your commander.”

    The local paper ran a letter from the mill company denying any knowledge of the sign and assuring the public that they never intended to dismiss anybody.

    Wow. I feel like I should write something about Ghana now.

    • cpinva

      I think new Orleans still holds a bit of a grudge against (then brevet) gen. Benjamin “Beast” Butler. as the head of the occupying union forces, he treated new Orleans as occupied enemy territory, and had little use for the local aristocracy.

      • Baby Needs-A-Nym

        He is also the origin of the phrase “waving the bloody shirt.”

        • Bloix

          Well, he’s the origin of it if you mean that Southerners telling a false story about him makes him the origin.

      • So-in-so

        White aristocratic New Orleans may, I suspect other parts of the city less so.

        Did he not bring black militia to fight for the Union?

      • Rob in CT

        Ben Butler saved the lives of thousands of New Orleans residents by finally getting disease (particularly yellow fever) under control.

        He was also a corrupt jerk, and a really incompetent field commander.

        He was an interesting guy.

        • Davis X. Machina

          And he looked just like William Conrad, Cannon-era.

      • Chris

        as the head of the occupying union forces, he treated new Orleans as occupied enemy territory

        It was.

  • Joseph Slater

    Re the overtime provisions, I would just add the following (stuff I’m sure Erik knows). First, it was interesting to see the evolution of rationales for hours laws. Up through the 1920s, decades proponents of hours laws stressed giving workers more/som e free time (8 hours for work, 8 hours for sleep, 8 hours for what we will). Then during the Depression, it was seen as a way to spread employment: if an employer had 60 hours of work a week to do at X task, it would be cheaper to hire two people to work 30 hours each than one to work 60. At the same time, the idea of a hard hours cap (as was the law struck down in Lochner) was rejected, and replaced with the idea of overtime rates.

    Also, the FLSA (at least mostly) is one of the two main U.S. employment laws that only covers employees below a certain level in the corporate hierarchy (the NLRA is the other one). So, janitors are entitled to overtime, but “executives,” “administrators,” and “professionals” (among others) are exempted from overtime requirements. And whether certain employees are exempt are not remains one of the most-litigated issues in all U.S. employment law.

    • Thanks–I didn’t talk all that much about overtime in the post and I should have.

      • Bloix

        A friend of my son’s just graduated from college and took a job that pays $32,000/yr. But she’s been told that she will earn about $42,000 with the mandatory overtime. Which means she will work about 48 hours a week for an average wage of about $16.70/hr. Somehow I don’t think the FLSA is working out for her.

  • Anonymous

    This is another great post.

    A footnote to this is the interesting debate that goes on whether disabled/handicapped people should be covered by FLSA.

    National Federation of the Blind is doing great work to push reforms to the current legal regime covering disabled workers.

    • Yeah, that’s a good point. A lot of companies have hired disabled workers in order to get around FLSA regulations. That’s a complex issue since it’s good for a lot of these people to work.

  • jkay

    Thanks for listening, Erik, though I think you’re only going along because there might’ve been dead horses in Buchanan’s Barn. The Gilded Age might’ve started in Andy Jackson’s Presidency – what didn’t he do wrong?

    It could work because of political times. It was the Progressive Era. In the South it tipped at the turn of the century, shown by Bryan’s nomination.

    I’m still drunk from Juneteenth here, so I don’t know what I’m talking about.

    You mean “Spoons” Butler?

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