Celebrating 75 Years of Fair Labor Rules, And Waging The Next Fight

For most workers, today is a day worth celebrating. It marks the 75th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act, signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt, which set the minimum wage, requires time-and-a-half overtime pay, forbid minors from oppressive child labor and made the maximum work week 44 hours long.

The Fair Labor Standards Act is described as one of the most important laws of the New Deal by none other than Roosevelt himself. It outlined the way that America treated her workers, and made efforts to prevent the mistreatment of them by employers. This law created a floor for which no American could fall beneath, helping to build the middle class and protect it from industrialists that might take advantage of those in need of work.

Though a relatively low wage floor, at only 25 cents an hour, this was the beginning of the minimum wage in America, which meant that it would certainly be a point of contention with the executives that got rich off the backs of those that received little pay for their work. Today we have a similar fight in Congress, with many Republicans saying that raising the minimum wage would actually hurt workers, rather than help them, and would hurt the economy as a whole. These tired and false arguments were leveled at the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 as well.

“[The Fair Labor Standards Act] will destroy small industry….[these ideas are] the product of those whose thinking is rooted in an alien philosophy and who are bent upon the destruction of our whole constitutional system and the setting up of a red-labor communistic despotism upon the ruins of our Christian civilization,” said Edward Cox, the Democratic representative from Georgia in 1938.

Compare that to Speaker of the House John Boehner’s retort to President Obama’s minimum wage proposal in this year’s State of the Union address: “When you raise the price of employment, guess what happens? You get less of it. At a time when Americans are still asking the question, ‘where are the jobs?’ why would we want to make it harder for small employers to hire people?”

Clearly, it has been difficult to move the needle for those opposed to minimum wage, who claim that it is a job-killing, instead of poverty-reducing, proposal.

Fortunately, there are still members of Congress who are looking out for the millions of Americans who survive on the minimum wage. California Rep. George Miller and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin introduced the Fair Minimum Wage Act, which would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, and then index the minimum wage to the rising cost-of-living expenses. Just this Saturday, the Congressional Progressive Caucus launched its “Rise Up America” tour, promising to hit on the issues of low wages, inequality, and the concentration of wealth at the top of the ladder.

This summer, members of the House of Representatives will join forces with minimum wage workers from across the country to address the issues of how it is difficult for Americans to stay afloat because the minimum wage does not keep pace with the cost of living. In Vice President Joe Biden’s address to commemorate the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act this afternoon, he said, “No man or woman who works full-time at the minimum wage should go home and look at their kids and say they have to apply for help.”

When the minimum wage was implemented, even at a quarter an hour, the protests raged. President Roosevelt’s response was, “”Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day, …tell you…that a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry.” I would like to reiterate his point, only to change the numbers.

Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $26,575 a day (yes, they made on average $9.7 million in 2012), tell you that a wage of $290 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry. It is a shame that America has the largest, most robust economy in the history of the world, but yet we cannot pay our workers what they deserve. In 1938 this measure was needed to make sure that American workers were receiving a fair pay for fair work, yet today Americans working for minimum wage make less than they did 45 years ago. This is a day that working Americans can celebrate, but only so much, as there is still work left unfinished. We must raise the floor for those earning minimum wage, which will in turn raise the floor for everyone.

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