On June 4, 1912, Massachusetts established the nation’s first minimum wage. This was a result of long-time worker outrage over the conditions of their lives and the strikes that resulted. It also led to a pioneering law that would become the law of the land a quarter-century later.
In 1911, the Massachusetts legislation came under pressure from Progressives working on workplace reform and for women’s issues especially to investigate the conditions of work in the state. This was not the first time such pressure had taken place. As early as 1845, the Lowell Mill Girls’ agitation had forced an investigation of the state’s mills, even if it didn’t lead to any meaningful reforms. And while there were several industries that exploited women’s labor, none did so more than the textile industry; in fact, none does so more today.
Conditions in textile mills were especially bad and really had not improved since the Mill Girls era. The state had seen repeated commissions and unenforced or poorly enforced laws to deal with it, such as an 1874 law that restricted the hours of work for women. But conditions did not improve. Many of the state’s 350,000 working women labored in the mills. Most earned between $5 and $7 a week for 50 hours of labor. These were sub-poverty wages. The estimated cost of living for a woman living on her own was $10 a week and for those living with others or with a husband or parents was $8. Florence Kelley had introduced the idea of a minimum wage for women in 1910 and Massachusetts reformers were the first to take action at the state level.
For many women, prostitution made more economic sense and more than a few made the rational decision to work in that field, for work is what prostitution and nothing more, we just choose to moralize around it. But because of that moral outrage surrounding prostitution, reformers were able to point to the wages of the mills and make a convincing case that they were destroying the morals of a generation of women. H. LaRue Brown, one of the Progressives arguing for the minimum wage, wrote, “We pay in the most valuable asset society can have…the physical ruin of those girls who should be fit to be mothers of efficient American citizens.” So the state legislature established the Massachusetts Commission on Minimum Wage Boards. Its report argued correctly that “Whenever the wages of such a woman are less than the cost of living and the reasonable provision of maintaining a worker in health, the industry employing her is in receipt of the working energy of a human being at less than cost, and to that extent is parasitic. The balance must be made up in some way. It is generally paid by the industry employing the father. It is sometimes paid in part by inefficiency of the worker herself, and by her children, and perhaps in part ultimately by charity and the state.”
The commission decided that the appropriate minimum wage for “a woman of average ability, initiative and intelligence” was $10.60 a week in January 1912. Political momentum for passage came from the legendary Lawrence strike in the winter of 1912. That action, the IWW’s great if short-lived victory, and the violence by which the city’s elite resisted it, galvanized national attention on the conditions of women working in the textile mills. With the workers winning a 15 percent wage increase, the time had come to see the legislation through. Progressives, already a relatively powerful force in Massachusetts politics, used this to create a more permanent fix.
But once the minimum wage was established, the state stopped short of providing a meaningful enforcement mechanism, a problem for many Progressive reforms. The ideology of voluntarism and concern about state coercion, not to mention employer pressure, meant more than effective governance and actually ensuring that workers would live a dignified life. Employers who paid sub-minimum wage would have their names published in local newspapers. Well, OK, but what does that really do? Shaming the bad employer was a classic Progressive move, but had limited utility. The program also took into account the economic condition of an industry, giving employers plenty of opportunity to lobby against it applying to them.
To be fair though, Massachusetts was inventing this on the fly. Not only did they worry about a legal challenge, but they didn’t know if it would even work. As is the case with every other social and economic reform in American history, the minimum wage would be filled with compromises and half-measures from the beginning. Australia, New Zealand, and Britain had passed minor levels of wage legislation in the previous few years and the Massachusetts reformers knew this, but overall, exactly how to create an effective minimum wage was largely unknown. So this was still a big step forward. On the other hand, most of the relevant companies didn’t bother paying the wage because they just didn’t care about this fact being publicized. Plus, rather than make a list of those not paying the wage, the state published a list of the companies that were paying it. That was a play from the Consumers’ League playbook of spurring middle-class consumer power to reward good employers, but a white list just wasn’t going to get most employers to cooperate.
By 1923, fourteen states and the District of Columbia had a minimum wage with various enforcement mechanisms, but in 1923, the Supreme Court ruled the DC law unconstitutional in Adkins v. Children’s Hospital, which effectively killed the state level minimum wage law movement through the nation for the next decade. In fact, Massachusetts was the only state wage law not invalidated by Adkins, and that because of the voluntary provision, which the other states had advanced past. Finally, the federal government stepped up in the New Deal with the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, establishing a federal minimum wage of 25 cents an hour, although even that excepted many professions traditionally associated with African-Americans in order to secure necessary southern votes.
The minimum wage is of course still heavily debated today, with nearly all conservative politicians opposing an increase in the wage while people with an ounce of humanity see the desperate need to raise it. Many conservatives and libertarians, as if there is a difference, would like it reduced or eliminated entirely. After all, what is the definition of freedom if not the living and working conditions of early 20th century America?
I borrowed a bit from Willis Nordlund, The Quest for a Living Wage: The History of the Federal Minimum Wage Program, in the writing of this post.
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