Summary of Event
The idea of a minimum wage was gaining increasing support throughout the industrialized world by the late nineteenth century. Among English-speaking nations, New Zealand and Australia led the way; both passed minimum wage legislation in the 1890’s. In 1910, Great Britain followed the example of its offshoots and adopted a law patterned after the Australian legislation.
The United States lagged far behind these nations in promoting a minimum wage. In fact, both the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) opposed minimum wage laws, albeit for completely different reasons. The NAM argued that all such legislation was a violation of the free market and would hurt the economy, whereas the AFL, led by Samuel Gompers, expressed fear that government intervention to set wages would lead working people into a situation of growing state control.
Not all businesses or AFL unions opposed minimum wages. Some progressively minded businesspeople realized that their employees needed wages that would support a minimum standard of living if the workers were to be productive. They supported minimum wage proposals in the hope that the laws would force their more brutal competitors to raise wage levels.
The union movement was likewise split. In California and New York, AFL-organized labor opposed minimum wage legislation as unwarranted government paternalism that would only weaken unions and hurt working people. In Washington State, on the other hand, the leaders of organized labor worked with advocates of minimum wage laws to get the reform passed. Splits took place even within single states, as in New York, where the Brooklyn Central Labor Union pushed for the minimum wage in spite of AFL opposition.
Despite the lack of unified labor support and the opposition of much of the business world, the Women’s Trade Union League began to make minimum wage legislation a key demand, along with the eight-hour workday, beginning in 1909. In Massachusetts, a campaign for a minimum wage for female workers was organized in 1910 by the local branches of labor and social reform organizations as well as the Women’s Trade Union League. Violet Pike expressed the lot of the working women of that time tersely in her New World Lessons for Old World Peoples (1912):
I go to work at eight o’clock. I work until six o’clock. I have only one-half hour for lunch. I work overtime in the busy season. I do not get extra pay for overtime work. I earn eight dollars a week in the busy season. I earn three or four dollars a week in the slow season. I have no work at all for three months. I pay for my needles and thread. I pay for my electric power. My trade is a bad trade.
Numerous government studies, including those conducted by the New York State Factory Investigating Commission, proved that the vast majority of women were not working for “pin money.” Women worked for the same reason that men worked: to support their households. Of course, many young women married in hopes of escaping the factory. The evidence suggests that a large number of these women soon returned to industrial labor, as their husbands’ wages alone were insufficient to support their families.
Not only were female workers subjected to wretched working conditions and even lower pay than their male counterparts, they also were less often able to fight successfully against management. Unionization levels for the eight million female workers in the United States remained fairly constant and low from 1900 to 1910, with gains being made only in certain textile factories, where less than 5 percent of female workers were unionized.
Although the lot of the male worker was not significantly better, many labor activists and reformers believed that more public sympathy could be gained if a campaign began with a focus on the “fairer sex.” In addition, the opposition of the AFL, which was the major labor affiliation of male union members, made a campaign for a universal minimum wage law more difficult. Although the enactment of a minimum wage law was not seen as a cure-all, many thought it would be a good way to establish the principle that workers had the right to a living wage.
In order to rally public support for their position, proponents of a minimum wage pressured the Massachusetts state legislature to establish a commission to investigate women’s wages in relation to the cost of living. In the spring of 1911, a newly created commission studied wages in laundries, candy factories, and retail stores. After collecting extensive evidence, the commission concluded that many workers in these industries could not meet even their most basic human needs on the low wages paid by their employers. As a result, four out of five commission members recommended that the Massachusetts legislature pass a minimum wage law. The fifth commission member agreed with the others in broad outline; he simply differed with them concerning specific provisions in the report.
The legislation drafted was based largely on existing minimum wage laws in the industrial world, particularly in New Zealand and Australia. The proposed Massachusetts statute varied from the law passed in 1896 in the Australian state of Victoria in that the Massachusetts law applied only to women and minors. Critics thus noted that the human rights of male workers were completely ignored by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, whereas the Australian and New Zealand laws and the English Trade Boards Act of 1909 applied to workers of both sexes.
In spite of the moderate nature of the proposed reform, representatives of the Massachusetts manufacturers, particularly those in the textile industry, opposed the bill vigorously. Their argument was that the increased labor costs the law would impose would make Massachusetts uncompetitive with other regions and nations. The labor rights gained would thus be an illusion, given that they would soon be replaced by unemployment.
The employers’ logic was quickly rejected by most workers, who easily contrasted their poverty with the profits of those for whom they labored. It appeared a bitter struggle was going to take place, but that was avoided when the lone dissenting member of the original investigating commission came forth with a compromise proposal. He suggested changing the proposed minimum wage law from one that established legal wage rates based solely on human needs to one that considered the financial situations of industries. In the words of the compromise legislation, “the financial condition of the occupation and the probable effect thereon of any increase in the minimum wages paid” had to be taken into account.
Of even greater immediate significance, the proposed compromise changed the original mandatory enforcement to a scheme whereby a commission would investigate employers for failing to pay minimum wages but could “punish” offending firms only by publishing their names in the newspapers. As the miserable living conditions of workers were largely already known, critics charged that this was of little value. In addition, critics noted that much of Massachusetts’s production was shipped outside the state, and thus consumers were unaware of the specific wage levels of particular manufacturers.
Because labor candidates had made an excellent showing in the most recent state elections in Massachusetts, members of the legislature were eager to take some action to show the voters that they were “prolabor.” Still, they did not wish to offend the business community. The new nonmandatory minimum wage law suggestion was thus immediately supported by large numbers of state legislators.
This blunted reform legislation was acceptable to, or at least tolerated by, the manufacturers, as it was expected to have little practical effect on their businesses. On the other side, the reformers who had campaigned for minimum wage legislation believed that it was better to accept this compromise and at least establish the principle of a minimum wage in law than to have no law at all. As a result, the first minimum wage statute in the United States was signed into law by Governor Eugene N. Foss of Massachusetts on June 4, 1912.
Although the Massachusetts law remained largely unchanged, and ineffective, until 1933, it set a new principle that was to have a great impact on American society. In the year it was passed, the Massachusetts minimum wage law was influential in persuading Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Party to add minimum wages for women and children as a plank in their 1912 presidential campaign platform.
In 1913, the year following the enactment of the Massachusetts law, eight other states throughout the country passed minimum wage laws. Did these new laws actually help the workers they were designed to benefit? The answer to this question is not an easy one. The evidence suggests that the effectiveness of the laws varied widely from state to state. In many states, the minimum wage was set so low that the laws had no practical impact. Only in those states where the minimum was set high and strictly enforced, such as California, did there appear to be any clear benefit for the workers. Ironically, in Massachusetts, with its nonmandatory legislation, more than half the women in some industries still received less than the officially established minimum wage.
One reason many labor organizations, including the American Federation of Labor, opposed the minimum wage laws was the fear that they might become maximum wage laws. Further, these organizations believed that the principle of promoting the notion of a “living wage” was not valuable enough to offset the danger that the government increasingly would step in and regulate industrial relations to the benefit of employers and to the detriment of labor. All the same, many advocates for labor saw the passage of the first minimum wage law in Massachusetts as the beginning of a new attitude in the United States. No longer were people content to allow wages to be determined completely by market forces. The concept of a minimum standard of living to which workers were entitled started to gain acceptance.
The nineteenth century notion of property rights as sacred and above all other considerations in society was challenged by the idea of a living wage as a human right. In addition, the concept of government legislation to protect the rights of workers was further enhanced when the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upheld the minimum wage law in 1918. Several later labor reforms that recognized the human rights of employees were influenced by the principles put forth in Massachusetts in 1912, including the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established a federal minimum wage, overtime pay, and child labor standards.