Minimum Wage Laws: “To Supply the Necessary Cost of Living and to Maintain the Worker in Health.”
For those hell-bent on perpetuating the myth that minimum wage was never intended to provide a living wage (just pocket money for suburban teens) — I got news for you.
Pull up a chair.
The state of Massachusetts enacted the nation’s first minimum wage law on June 4, 1912. The legislation initially only protected women and children since these groups were most often exploited by unscrupulous employers (relatively speaking, of course.) It made a tremendous impact on the lives of those toiling in sweatshops six days a week for peanuts.
Conditions for working women at the beginning of the 20th century were unquestionably grim. Women were paid what their bosses saw fit to pay them — period. Working 10–12 hours a day was the norm. Women couldn’t even vote in 1912, so they were entirely at the mercy of their employer’s whims. The notion that women should make anywhere near what a man did was completely laughable.
Unlike today, when it’s only semi-laughable.
And, as one can imagine, the children working in the sweatshops and elsewhere fared even worse.
However, the Massachusetts legislation didn’t include an across-the-board dollar amount for a minimum wage. Instead, the state ordered the appointment of a commission to oversee various occupations in the Commonwealth. Many factors were taken into consideration, including, but not limited to, the job itself (complexity, etc.) and the employee’s skill level.
Using this information made it possible to calculate a wage that would “supply the necessary cost of living and to maintain the worker in health” no matter what the occupation.
In other words, even the shittiest jobs paid a living wage. You know, because everyone deserves to live with dignity. Everybody. What a concept.
So, I’ll say it again — and louder — for those in the cheap seats:
“supply the necessary cost of living and to maintain the worker in health.”
Of course, this wasn’t greeted all that warmly by the business owners losing all that incredibly cheap labor. When minimum wage laws were passed in 15 other states between 1912 and 1923, many companies went to great lengths to evade them. Some businesses demanded that their workers “kick back” the difference between the minimum wage and what the company was willing to pay. Bezos would be proud.
Then in 1923, The District of Columbia’s minimum wage law was struck down by the Supreme Court. The SC ruled the law violated the Fifth Amendment by limiting a worker’s right to set a price for their own labor (idiotic “Right to Work” B.S. anyone?)
But let’s face it, a laundress walking into her foreman’s office and calmly negotiating her wage was not a very realistic scenario, which harkened back to why a minimum wage was necessary in the first place.
During the Great Depression, it was clear that a federally mandated minimum wage was necessary to rebuild the country’s economic foundation. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins (the first female Cabinet member) minced no words when she wrote of the unscrupulous sweatshop owners workers needed protection from:
“…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.”
Both Franklin Roosevelt and Republican opponent Alf Landon made minimum wage a central issue of their 1936 presidential campaigns. During FDR’s second term, the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed by Congress in 1938, which established a minimum wage of 25 cents an hour.
A federal minimum wage has remained on the books ever since. Some states have a minimum wage that exceeds the federal rate, while others expect their citizens to magically survive on $7.25/hr. Our workers finally realize they are toiling for slave wages. The “Fight for $15” is gaining ground all over the country. And not a minute too soon.
So, say it with me kids: Minimum wage was intended to guarantee a living wage, not pin money.
This is true whether it suits your narrative or not.
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