Today is the 80th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the law that gave us the minimum wage, overtime pay, and the ban on child labor.
The effect of this law on the lives of working people has been historic. As Laura Huizar of the National Employment Law Project writes:
“Prior to the FLSA’s adoption in 1938, countless children, some as young as 5, worked day and night and many risked their lives in dangerous mines, factories, and mills. By 1810, ‘about 2 million school-age children were working 50- to 70- hour weeks.’”
Of course, working conditions and wages were just as back-breaking for adults, who could be forced to work around the clock, every day of the week, without limit.
There were a couple of factors that made the FLSA possible—all of which were powered by people. Crucially, the Supreme Court reversed itself and legalized the minimum wage. Before then, there was this ridiculous idea that workers had a constitutional right to be exploited to the point of injury and death. There was a powerful and well organized labor movement with a champion in the White House—and we’re not talking about FDR.
Frances Perkins was the first woman appointed to the cabinet and the longest serving labor secretary in U.S. history. She was brilliant at working with labor leaders and workers to force the president—who gets all the credit today—to do the right thing. Thanks to that Supreme Court decision and a lot of blood and sweat, the FLSA became law.
As we honor the anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act and how far we’ve come, we also have to take a hard look at how much further we have to go. The fact is we’re still struggling for a decent wage. As Huizar also points out, “the current federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 for almost ten years, and almost half (43.7%) of U.S. workers earn under $15 an hour.”
The lessons of the FLSA are clear: No matter how bad it seems (and we’re talking about five-year olds working in factories bad), we can win if we organize and fight to get heard. It was a strong labor movement that made FDR and Congress act. They did it in a single year because working people demanded better.
In just a few days, we’ve got another huge opportunity to get heard. Voting is one small thing you can do now that will make Washington sit up and listen. Commit to vote today and let’s make our own bit of history.