Minimum Wage Movement

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Minimum Wage Movement

United States 1910s-1930s


Long before a federal minimum wage was established, American workers in the 1910s and 1920s stepped up a decades-old struggle for a minimum wage law. One pivotal protest in 1912, a textile workers' strike demanding "fair pay for a day's work," made Massachusetts the first state in the United States to adopt a minimum wage law. By 1923, 15 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C., had instituted similar laws. Given that women were a vulnerable segment of the workforce, and most minimum wage legislation was limited to female workers, the struggle for a minimum wage was closely linked to the movement for women's rights. A key moment in the minimum wage struggle came with the 1923 Adkins decision, which equated the establishment of the minimum wage with price-fixing. That year the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 in the case of Adkins v. Children's Hospital that the minimum wage law of the District of Columbia was unconstitutional. The first federal minimum wage was finally established as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.


  • 1910: Vassily Kandinsky pioneers non-representational painting.
  • 1912: Titanic sinks on its maiden voyage, from Southampton to New York, on 14 April. More than 1,500 people are killed.
  • 1914: On 28 June in the town of Sarajevo, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinates Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand and wife Sophie. In the weeks that follow, Austria declares war on Serbia, and Germany on Russia and France, while Great Britain responds by declaring war on Germany. By the beginning of August, the lines are drawn, with the Allies (Great Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Serbia, Montenegro, and Japan) against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey).
  • 1916: Battles of Verdun and the Somme are waged on the Western Front. The latter sees the first use of tanks, by the British.
  • 1918: The Second Battle of the Marne in July and August is the last major conflict on the Western Front. In November, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicates, bringing an end to the war.
  • 1918: Upheaval sweeps Germany, which for a few weeks in late 1918 and early 1919 seems poised on the verge of communist revolution—or at least a Russian-style communist coup d'etat. But reactionary forces have regained their strength, and the newly organized Freikorps (composed of unemployed soldiers) suppresses the revolts. Even stronger than reaction or revolution, however, is republican sentiment, which opens the way for the creation of a democratic government based at Weimar.
  • 1920: Bolsheviks eliminate the last of their opponents, bringing an end to the Russian Civil War. By then, foreign troops, representing a dozen nations that opposed the communists, have long since returned home.
  • 1922: Inspired by the Bolsheviks' example of imposing revolution by means of a coup, Benito Mussolini leads his blackshirts in an October "March on Rome" and forms a new fascist government.
  • 1924: V. I. Lenin dies, and thus begins a struggle for succession from which Josef Stalin will emerge five years later as the undisputed leader of the Communist Party, and of the Soviet Union.
  • 1926: Britain is paralyzed by the General Strike.
  • 1928: Stalin launches the first Five-Year Plan.
  • 1930: Naval disarmament treaty is signed by the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan.

Event and Its Context

Early Progression Toward Minimum Wage Laws

The idea of a living wage is as old as the wage system itself. For individuals accustomed to controlling their own labor, having to answer to a boss in exchange for wages was tantamount to slavery. According to economist Oren M. Levin-Waldman, when wage laborers in the nineteenth century talked increasingly of a "living wage," they aimed not only for independence, "but to cast aside the perception of their work as slave labor." Following emancipation, when freed black slaves were hired as farm laborers under the wage system in the American South, many argued that "it was even more dehumanizing than slavery," wrote M. Langley Biegert. Men working for low wages "saw themselves as no different from prostitutes," and the concept of a living wage helped them "rise above the shameful image of a prostitute."

By the late nineteenth century, members of the "antisweating" movement (a fight against low wages paid to the "sweated" employees resulting from surplus labor in industrial economies) were vocal against subnormal pay. Some countries at that time began to legislate mandatory floors on hourly wages, thus guaranteeing a minimum standard of living for unskilled workers. New Zealand was the first to establish such legislation in 1894. The Australian state of Victoria followed in 1896. Great Britain became the first European nation to introduce a minimum wage in 1909, joined by several continental European nations in the following years. In the United States, where the movement for a minimum wage followed an 1877 railroad strike, the struggle heated up in the 1910s.

The minimum wage around this time was becoming an important part of progressive electoral platforms. In the 1911 and 1913 elections for Los Angeles City Council, for example, socialist candidates almost won with platforms calling for a "fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It was a textile workers' strike in Massachusetts, however, that drew national attention to and put human faces on the minimum wage struggle.

Strike for Three Loaves

Lawrence, Massachusetts' multiethnic workforce of more than 40,000 laborers worked for 16 cents an hour, averaging $8.75 a week, barely enough for rent and food. On 1 January 1912 the state forced mills to cut the workweek from 56 hours to 54; owners in such cases cut wages and sped up machines so workers did the same work for less pay. On 11 January women at Everett Mill walked out when they discovered short pay; on 12 January workers at Wood Mill shouted, "Short pay! Strike! All out!" and began destroying machinery. The pay cut amounted to about 32 cents per day, the cost of three loaves of bread. By noon some 11,000 millworkers in the area had joined the strike to demand "fair pay for a day's work."

The nine-week strike drew attention nationwide. The strike committee, organized by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), demanded among other things a 15 percent pay raise. Under the watch of state police and militia, strikers attacked anyone who tried to cross the picket line. By mid-January there were 25,000 strikers from 11 mills. A bloody 10 February clash between strikers and police led to congressional investigations. Bad nationwide press on factory conditions forced financially strained owners to meet strikers' demands. On 12 March the American Woolen Company offered a 5 percent minimum wage raise, with greater increases for the lowest-paid laborers. When other firms met the offer, workers voted on a date for returning to work, giving them time to negotiate pay raises at the remaining factories.

IWW leader Bill Haywood was in Lawrence to celebrate amidst the "shrill roar" of cheering workers. "Back and forth that spontaneous cry swept, not a concerted cheer at all, but the inarticulate cry of a crowd feeling deep emotion," reported the Boston Globe on 15 March. The Lawrence strike was credited with benefiting more than 250,000 workers and bringing greater attention to the minimum wage issue.

A Women's Movement

While male workers had long called for a living wage, the American minimum wage movement of the early twentieth century was inextricably linked to the struggle for women's rights. In the 1890s affluent women, appalled by the working conditions facing female department store workers, founded the National Consumers' League (NCL), a pioneer advocate of the minimum wage. Led by women but supported by both men and women of progressive, social democratic, and liberal tendencies, the turn-of-the-century NCL pioneered the idea of "ethical consumption," using consumer pressure to improve labor standards. The organization drafted a "white list" of department stores that treated their employees fairly and granted a minimum wage of $6 weekly for experienced saleswomen and $2 weekly for cash girls. The NCL spread its attention to manufacturing and other sectors, with special attention focused on the garment industry. By 1916 the NCL had some 15,000 members in 43 states.

According to Landon R. Y. Storrs in his book Civilizing Capitalism, the NCL was committed to improving the lot of all workers, but it was child labor and the abhorrent working conditions of women that most outraged them. Women usually earned "a fraction" of male wages, had less leisure time than men due to unpaid domestic duties, and were expected to be subservient to men. In general, noted Storrs, "dire need, combined with lack of union support and employer expectations of submissiveness, undercut wage-earning women's ability to protest these injustices."

The NCL soon came to realize the limits of voluntary compliance by employers and pushed for binding labor legislation nationwide. One vocal advocate for a minimum wage lobbying within the NCL was Molly Dewson (often called "Minimum Wage" Dewson), an early advocate of women's rights. Dewson joined the minimum wage movement in 1911 and, as executive secretary of the Minimum Wage Investigative Committee, attained national recognition for a report that led to the nation's first-ever minimum wage law. Under the leadership of the socialist and feminist Florence Kelley, the NCL drafted the law, which Massachusetts enacted in 1912. The NCL continued to push for minimum wage laws in other states.

Massachusetts Sets Precedent

The first minimum wage law in U.S. history was passed in 1912 in Massachusetts. This legislation contained numerous exceptions and applied only to women and children employed in specific industries. Some criticized it as effectively unenforceable, with public opinion being the only leverage workers had to force employers into compliance. That year, eight more states instituted similar laws. By 1923 the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and 15 states had enacted minimum wage laws. Despite talk of minimum wage laws as a component of the union struggle (a goal of labor unions was for men to earn wages high enough to support a family), some labor unions of the time opposed wage legislation for men. Union leaders feared that government enforcement of a minimum wage might lessen interest in union membership and thus jeopardize nationwide organizing campaigns among male workers. The American Federation of Labor, for example, favored a minimum wage for women but not for men.

Emile Hutchinson, in her 1919 study on the wages earned by industrial women, argued in favor of minimum wage legislation. "If an industry can maintain itself only by paying its workers less than a living wage," she said, "it is socially an unprofitable enterprise."

Equal Rights

In 1920 ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave women the right to vote. The amendment nonetheless contained no statement guaranteeing women "equal protection of the laws." This spurred a decades-long struggle for an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), spearheaded by the National Woman's Party in 1921. Leading the opposition to the ERA was the NCL, which argued that the ERA would invalidate the guaranteed minimum wage and other labor laws protecting women.

The Nineteenth Amendment, despite constituting a significant advance in women's rights, was seen by some as a reason to invalidate minimum wage legislation favoring women. If women were now equal, the argument went, they should have the same rights as men to contract their services at the wages they saw fit. In the eyes of Clara Mortenson Beyer, secretary of the District of Columbia's Minimum Wage Board, this notion of freedom was "ludicrous" with "overworked, undernourished" women workers near the bottom of the industrial scale and largely unorganized. Rather than talk of freedom to choose jobs or freely bargain for hours and wages, "it would be more to the point to talk of the freedom of employers to exploit their workers," she wrote. More than half of all wage-earning women in the United States were not earning enough to live on. Until the day came that women needed fewer special protections than men, Beyer argued, it would be "little short of criminal to deny them the opportunity for reasonable leisure and a living wage, which legislation alone can obtain for them."

Supreme Court Antilabor Precedents

Ever since the first labor legislation was enacted, "employers have valiantly defended before the courts the freedom of contract and property rights of their workers. And, upon occasion, the judges take them seriously," wrote Beyer in 1923.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a wide body of labor legislation meant to protect workers. This time period also saw challenges to these laws, with varied results. Starting with the Slaughter-House cases in 1873, the United States Supreme Court generally took a laissez-faire approach to labor issues, arguing that workers and employers enjoyed freedom to negotiate their own contract terms and that the government should not intervene. The so-called Lochner Era (in which American courts tended to declare regulatory legislation unconstitutional and in violation of liberty of contract and due process established under the Fourteenth Amendment) would last until the late 1930s with the triumph of the New Deal.

Despite this general trend, there were some contradictory rulings during this period. In the case of Holden v. Hardy, the Supreme Court ruled in 1898 that a state could limit freedom of contract to restore equal bargaining power and to protect a worker's health. The Court's 1905 ruling in Lochner v. New York, however, used the arguments of freedom of contract and personal liberty to strike down a maximum-hours law for bakers. In 1908 the justices ruled in the case of Muller v. Oregon that a maximum-hours law for female laundry workers was acceptable given the "delicate physiology of women." According to Julie Novkov, author of Constituting Workers, Protecting Women, the case of Adkins v. Children's Hospital ushered in a fourth and final phase (1923-1937) of the Lochner era that she called "gendered rebalancing." Discussions of protective labor legislation over this period centered on female-specific laws and particular minimum wage laws.

Adkins v. Children's Hospital

While the aim of minimum wage legislation was to protect workers, workers themselves did not always support application of the legislation. Such was the case in the nation's capital, where the Minimum Wage Board ordered a local children's hospital to raise the wages of a group of women employees to the legal minimum. The U.S. Congress had on 19 September 1918 authorized the wage board to establish appropriate wages for women and children working in the District of Columbia. In the case of Adkins v. Children's Hospital, a District of Columbia hospital and some of its female workers had agreed upon wage rates and compensation "satisfactory to such employees, but which in some instances were less than the minimum wage fixed by an order of the board." When the hospital fired the women, a suit was brought before the Supreme Court to restrain the board from attempting to enforce the order. The suit argued that the district's order was unconstitutional and violated the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.

On behalf of the appellants, Harvard law professor Felix Frankfurter tried unsuccessfully to defend the constitutionality of the minimum wage for women. Both the appellants and states supporting the minimum wage presented briefs claiming that minimum wage laws increased women's wages (which were often lower than the cost of living) and that minimum wage protection for women generally did not mean displacement by male workers.

Supreme Court Decision

In 1923 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the District of Columbia's minimum wage law, which mandated a minimum wage for women working in hotels, restaurants, and hospitals. The minimum wage law, said the majority 5-3 opinion, constituted price-fixing and infringed unreasonably upon an individual's liberty to decide the price at which they would sell their labor. Moreover, the Court deemed that since the Nineteenth Amendment had given equality to women, they no longer needed labor legislation. Since there was no minimum wage for males, and they had the right to sell their labor at any price, women should also have "equal rights to work" for low wages without government intervention.

In the majority opinion, Justice George Sutherland (who nonetheless recognized "the physical differences" potentially warranting legislation of special work conditions for women) stated the following: "We cannot accept the doctrine that women of mature age … require … restrictions upon their liberty of contract which could not lawfully be imposed in the case of men under similar circumstances."

Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Edward T. Sanford, and William Howard Taft argued in their dissenting opinion that Congress had the authority to undo recognizable evils. "Pretty much all law consists in forbidding men to do some things that they want to do, and contract is no more exempt from law than other acts," wrote Holmes. Moreover, Holmes questioned the principle on which the Court could allow the establishment of maximum hours for female workers (as it did in Muller v. Oregon) yet deny the power to fix a minimum wage for their work. Holmes wrote that he would need "more than the Nineteenth Amendment to convince me that there are no differences between men and women, or that legislation cannot take those differences into account."

Critics called the Adkins decision the peak of a long period of antilabor protection sentiment on the nation's highest court.

Later Rulings

The Supreme Court later altered its position on the minimum wage. Despite striking down a minimum wage for female laundry workers in the 1936 case of Morehead v. New York, the justices ruled in 1937, in West Coast Hotel Company v. Parrish, that some government intervention in labor contracts was not unconstitutional, effectively overturning Adkins v. Children's Hospital. With the Great Depression and the New Deal as a backdrop, views on the minimum wage came into greater favor; in June 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act established the first federal minimum wage of 25 cents an hour.

Key Players

Beyer, Clara Mortenson (1892-1990): Beyer was the first secretary of the Minimum Wage Board of the District of Columbia, serving from 1919 to 1921. A specialist in labor issues, she served on the War Labor Policies Board in 1917.

Dewson, Mary Williams "Molly" (1874-1962): Dewson, a social worker, probation officer, and suffragist, joined the minimum wage movement in 1911. As executive secretary of the Minimum Wage Investigative Committee, she over-saw the report leading to the nation's first minimum wage law in 1912. She lobbied for a national minimum wage bill within the National Consumers' League and the Democratic Party.

Frankfurter, Felix (1882-1965): Frankfurter argued before theU.S. Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the District of Columbia's minimum wage rules for women. A professor at Harvard Law School (1914-1939), he was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1939 and served until 1962.

Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Jr. (1841-1935): A Massachusetts jurist and professor at the Harvard Law School, Holmes was a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1902 to 1932, the oldest jurist ever to serve on the Court. He wrote the dissenting opinion in the case of Adkins v. Children's Hospital. On the Court he was known as the "Great Dissenter."

Kelley, Florence (1859-1932): Kelley was a socialist and feminist who headed the National Consumer's League from 1899 to 1932. She was an active proponent of minimum wage laws for women, but she opposed an Equal Rights Amendment on grounds it would invalidate protective legislation. Her coalition-building activities helped create federal labor agencies protecting women and children. Among her several books was The Supreme Court and Minimum Wage Legislation.

Sutherland, George (1862-1942): The English-born Sutherland immigrated to the United States in 1863. A lawyer, he served in both the Utah and the U.S. House of Representatives. As justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1922 to 1938, he wrote the majority opinion in the case of Adkins v. Children's Hospital. He was a consistent opponent of New Deal legislation.

See also: Equal Rights Amendment and Protective Legislation; Fair Labor Standards Act; Industrial Workers of the World; Lochner v. New York; Muller v. Oregon.



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—Brett Allan King