The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 was the result of more than 100 years of efforts to establish a minimum wage and overtime pay, protect children in the workplace and limit the number of hours worked in a week. These efforts were necessary to free workers from the “odious, cruel, unjust, and tyrannical system which compels them to exhaust their physical and mental powers by excessive toil, until they have no desire to eat and sleep, and in many cases they have no power to do either from extreme debility," according to "The Faith of Our Fathers."
The campaign for better working conditions and pay began in the United States in the 1830s. A typical work day was 11 to 16 hours long. Work-related injuries and death were so common that they inspired books such as “The Jungle” (1906) by Upton Sinclair and Jack London's “The Iron Heel” (1907). Men, women and children worked side by side.
Early Labor Laws
The federal government and some states passed laws to shorten the work week and establish a minimum wage. However, these laws were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. For example, in 1918 the court ruled in Hammer v. Dagenhart that a federal child labor law was unconstitutional and in 1923, the court held that a District of Columbia law establishing a minimum wage for women was also unconstitutional.
Throughout the early 1900s people left farms for factory jobs, increasing the demand for jobs in the cities. The situation was compounded by the influx of immigrants from other countries also seeking work. Workers were paid by the piece or a low hourly wage. In addition, the economy went through repeated cycles of prosperity and recession. It wasn't until after World War I that the economy grew steadily. Unemployment rates remained at 3.3 percent from 1923 to 1929. But the work days were long, the conditions dangerous and there was no overtime pay.
The Great Depression
With the stock market crash of 1929, unemployment jumped to 8.9 percent by 1930 and peaked at 24.9 percent in 1934. In 1937, Senator Hugo Black of Alabama and Representative William Connery of Massachusetts submitted bills in Congress to “put a ceiling over hours and a floor under wages” by establishing an eventual maximum 40-hour work week; setting an hourly minimum wage of 40 cents by 1945; restricting child labor; and “eliminating labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standards of living necessary for health, efficiency and well-being of workers.” The bill also required overtime pay of one and one-half times a workers’ hourly rate for every hour over 40 hours they worked in a week. Proponents of the bill, including organized labor, argued that by shortening the work days and requiring overtime pay would create more jobs for millions of workers because businesses would rather pay a minimum wage to more workers than more expensive overtime pay to fewer workers. Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 and when President Roosevelt signed the bill, he called it “the most far reaching, far sighted program to benefit workers ever adopted.”
- The Faith of Our Fathers, Mark, I. & Schwaab, E. I. 1952
- International Workers of the World: A Brief History of May Day, 2003
- Monthly Labor Review; Troubled passage: the labor movement and FLSA, Samual, H.D. 2000
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