The History of the Minimum Wage

In 1906, an American Catholic, Father John Ryan, would publish “A Living Wage.” Its arguments are now familiar. “That baneful heritage of the eighteenth century, the doctrine that a minimum of state regulation of industry means a maximum of industrial freedom for the individual, no longer counts any considerable number of adherents,” he wrote. “Negatively, liberty is absence of restraint; positively, it is the power to act and to enjoy…. As an abstract proposition, the State has both the right and the duty to compel all employers to pay a Living Wage…. its task is not merely to provide men with the opportunities that are absolutely essential to right living, but also to furnish as far as practicable the conditions of wider and fuller life.”

Most Americans of that era thought differently.

In 1912, Massachusetts enacted America’s first minimum wage law, but it only applied to women and children. Unlike men, they were deemed weak, and in need of protection from employers. As an empirical matter, their wages were much lower and their working conditions more dismal.

In The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf got stuck in a historical k-hole looking at the sexist fight that brought the minimum wage to the U.S., which started off as a way to protect women and children, even though men resisted it because they believed unions could get them more money by bargaining with states.

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5 Comments / Post A Comment

WhyHelloThere (#1,398)

That’s a weird article, because I don’t think it mentions Lochner v. New York, the 1905 Supreme Court case that overturned a state law limiting the working hours of (mostly male) bakers. The Court held that the law was unconstitutional because a free adult man had the right to make whatever labor contract he wanted, including one that required him to work more than ten hours a day. After that, it was clear that the Supreme Court wouldn’t allow any protective labor legislation that applied to adult men men. After Lochner, labor advocates turned to paternalistic laws that protected women and children, because that was the only avenue that was open to them. They hoped that women and men’s work was sufficiently intertwined that men would get some benefit from laws that protected women. For many female labor leaders, this was a strategic decision, not a concession that women needed special protection.

Telling this story without mention Lochner is kind of bizarre.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@WhyHelloThere Agree, it seems like the article kind of starts in mid-stream. Also weird to describe this caselaw as “sexist,” not exactly the right word. Paternalistic would be a word, but the cases were based on the fact that women didn’t have the same legal rights as men at that time. Married women had basically no rights at all independent of their husbands. It wasn’t like the court just spontaneously said “women are inferior!!!” and based the reasoning on that. (I didn’t read all of the article because it was reminding me of a college essay and you can’t just cram all that history into one shallow quick article, arrrghhhh Atlantic, you frustrate me once again.)

WhyHelloThere (#1,398)

@WaityKatie I think I could probably write a shallow, quick article that would accurately sketch out how gender played out in the early 20th century minimum wage debate. (I once TAed an American women’s history class taught by a labor historian. I’m pretty good on that intersection.) But it would be boring, and I don’t think it would be especially relevant to the current minimum wage debate. Friedersdorf’s article seems to be kind of a silly gotcha game: “see, this thing you like used to be supported by people who believed things you’d think were bad! Gotcha!” If that’s not your agenda, I’m not sure why you should care about what people thought about this stuff a hundred years ago.

WhyHelloThere (#1,398)

Also, Gompers didn’t speak for the entire labor movement, and there were many people, both within and outside of organized labor, who wanted a minimum wage for men. This was a key division in the American labor movement in the early 20th century: Gompers and his followers felt all protective labor legislation was paternalistic, and his opponents felt that it was impossible for unions to effectively protect all workers and that state intervention was necessary. They just didn’t propose legislation on things like the minimum wage, because after Lochner it was clearly futile.

deepomega (#22)

Do pensions next!

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