A struggle for fair labor standards

On June 25, 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA), which banned oppressive child labor, set the minimum hourly wage at 25 cents and set the maximum workweek at 44 hours for industries whose combined employment represented about 20 percent of the labor force, according to the Department of Labor's (DOL's) website. The establishment of FLSA, which was revolutionary legislation at the time, followed years of legislative struggle.

The Supreme Court often was an obstacle to wage-hour and child labor laws. For example, the 1918 case of Hammer v. Dagenhart deemed a federal child labor law unconstitutional, and the 1923 case of Adkins v. Children's Hospital voided the Washington, D.C., law that set minimum wages for women.

As part of the New Deal program, Roosevelt's advisers developed a National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA) in 1933. The legislation allowed Roosevelt to declare a President's Reemployment Agreement to "raise wages, create employment, and thus restore business." Employers signed more than 2.3 million agreements covering 16.3 million employees, agreeing to a 35- to 40-hour workweek, $12 to $15-per-week minimum wage and not to employ individuals younger than 16.

At the same time, industries were establishing more complete codes. For example, the first of such codes, the Cotton Textile Code, established a 40-hour workweek, $13 weekly minimum wage in the North and $12 in the South, and abolished child labor.

The Supreme Court invalidated the NRA in the 1935 case of Schechter Corp. v. United States by questioning an NRA code to improve the despicable conditions under which chickens were slaughtered and sold to retail kosher butchers, deeming the NRA was unconstitutional. It therefore eliminated the trade practices and progressive labor provisions set by NRA.

Roosevelt ran in the 1936 presidential race promising to find a constitutional way to protect workers. He won the election and immediately worked on the issue, targeting the Supreme Court's constant opposition. In February 1937, he proposed adding six extra judges, which proved effective; in a Washington state case regarding minimum wage, Justice Owen Roberts switched sides, voting with the liberal minority to uphold Washington's minimum wage law.

The switch is considered a turning point in U.S. history, marking a new legal attitude toward labor standards and encouraging fair labor advocates to keep working to develop a bill that might be upheld by the Supreme Court.

In 1933, Roosevelt asked Frances Perkins, who fought for pro-labor legislation, to become secretary of labor. She worked on two bills regarding wage-hour laws and child labor, one of which passed Congress in 1936. After learning the federal government encouraged employers to exploit labor, Roosevelt and Perkins developed the Public Contracts Act of 1936 (Walsh-Healey Act), which requires most government contractors to adopt an eight-hour day and 40-hour workweek; employ only those older than 16 years if they were boys and 18 years if they were girls; and pay a prevailing minimum wage determined by the secretary of labor. Still, the bill was diluted before it passed, limited to government supply contracts and weakened by amendments.

The second bill was a general fair labor standards act (Black-Connery bill). An early form of the bill affected only wages and hours, and Roosevelt added a child-labor provision. A survey by DOL's Children's Bureau of a cross-section of 449 children in several states showed nearly one-fourth were working 60 hours or longer per week and only one-third were working 40 hours or less per week; the median wage was slightly more than $4 per week. The bill was sent to Congress in May 1937 and included a 40-cent-per-hour minimum wage, 40-hour maximum workweek and minimum working age of 16, except in certain industries outside of mining and manufacturing. It also proposed a five-member labor standards board to authorize higher wages and shorter hours.

The bill was weakened but passed the Senate July 31, 1937. However, it was delayed in the House, and Congress adjourned without taking action. Roosevelt called a special session, pushing for the bill's passage. But before Christmas 1937, the House voted to send the bill back to the Labor Committee.

On Jan. 3, 1938, Roosevelt addressed Congress, saying he was seeking "legislation to end starvation wages and intolerable hours." DOL lawyers were tasked with reworking the Black-Connery bill and were able to cut it from 40 pages to 10 pages. Roosevelt approved the revision in late January 1938, and the bill passed to Congress. A compromise (the Ramspeck compromise) was proposed, retaining the 40-cent minimum wage and 40-hour workweek but employing a less powerful five-member wage board.

The House Labor Committee voted down the Ramspeck compromise but approved a bare-bones bill providing a 40-cent minimum wage, administrator and advising commission, and procedures for investigating certain cases. However, the House Rules Committee prevented discussion of the bill.

After protests in the South regarding labor standards, provisions of the act were altered to reduce minimum wage to 25 cents per hour during the act's first year, as well as require wage administrators to consider lower costs of living and higher freight rates in the South before recommending wages above the minimum.

The bill passed the House May 24, 1938, and the Senate-House Conference Committee made more changes. During the legislative battle over fair labor standards, members of Congress had proposed 72 amendments, weakening the bill by narrowing coverage, lowering standards and weakening administration, among other things.

The final proposal passed the House June 13, 1938, passing the Senate soon after that. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act June 25, 1938; it became effective Oct. 24, 1938.

This Web exclusive information is a supplement to "It's not fair!".