The Birth Of The Minimum Wage In America | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
Filed Under:

The Birth Of The Minimum Wage In America

Play associated audio

In 1895, legislators in New York state decided to improve working conditions in what at the time could be a deadly profession: baking bread.

"Bakeries are actually extremely dangerous places to work," says Eric Rauchway, a historian at the University of California, Davis. "Because flour is such a fine particulate, if it gets to hang in the air it can catch fire and the whole room can go up in a sheet of flame."

New York passed a law called the Bakeshop Act. It didn't set a minimum wage — the minimum wage didn't exist yet in the U.S. — but it limited working hours and required that bakeries be kept clean.

The Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional. Bakers and their employers had the right to make any agreements they wanted about work hours, the court found. The Bakeshop Act, according to the court, interfered with individuals' right to enter into a contract.

The ruling suggested there was no way the Supreme Court of the time would allow anything like a minimum wage.

Several decades later, Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. To fight the Depression, he wanted to put money in people's pockets. "If all employers will work together to shorten hours and raise wages, we can put people back to work," he said.

Roosevelt wanted businesses to do this voluntarily. To that end, the administration created the National Industrial Recovery Act, which Congress passed in 1933.

Businesses that agreed to shorten hours and raise wages could hang special signs in their windows that showed a blue eagle logo and the words "doing our part."

Perhaps more powerful than the sign were the perks that went along with agreeing to offer higher wages: Participating businesses were allowed to form cartels and set prices. (At the time, the country was suffering from deflation, with prices and wages plunging.)

But the blue eagle was no match for nine men in robes: The Supreme Court unanimously struck down the law.

After Roosevelt was re-elected by a landslide in 1936, he tried to pack the court — to pass a law that would let him appoint additional justices. That effort failed.

But one of the court justices switched sides, and in 1937 the court upheld the right of Washington state to have a minimum wage.

The next year, FDR pushed through Congress the Fair Labor Standards Act, which contained a kind of minimal minimum wage.

The act, "applying to products in interstate, ends child labor, sets a floor below wages and a ceiling over the hours of labor," Roosevelt said at the time.

Rauchway says it was more of a political victory than an intellectual one. And the nation is still divided over it today.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

Maggie Gyllenhaal Is 'The Honorable Woman': A Series Both Ruthless And Rewarding

The eight-part drama that begins Thursday stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a British baroness with an Israeli passport. She's a fearless actor in a show full of kidnappings, seductions and betrayals.
NPR

Should We Return The Nutrients In Our Pee Back To The Farm?

A group of environmentalists in Vermont aren't at all squeamish about "pee-cycling." A local hay farmer is using their pee as fertilizer as they run tests to find out how safe it is for growing food.
NPR

With Prosecutors Circling, Ethics Questions Get Serious For N.Y. Governor

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is facing reports that his administration interfered with the work of an anti-corruption commission that he created — and then abruptly disbanded.
NPR

Can Pinterest Compete With Google's Search?

Pinterest has created a database of things that matter to humans. And with a programming team that's largely been hired away from Google, the company has begun offering what it calls "guided search."

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.