Labor Day Milestone: Fair Labor Wasn't A Standard Until 1938

Fri Aug 22, 2014 04:24:59AM

An example of modern day working conditions - Ford Kansas City Assembly Plant in Missouri.By: Ford Motor Co
It's standard in today's American workplace to work 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week. But did you ever wonder where they came up with those numbers in the first place? The short answer, labor unions lobbied Congress for decades until The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt. So, I just want to take a few moments to outline just how that went down, in light of the fact that Labor Day is just around the corner.

You may think that 40 hours a week is too much for the average American to need to work in today's world. And I would have to agree with you. Our productivity rates have never been higher as a country, and are increasing exponentially so. And, on the whole, the American workforce puts in more hours per week than many other industrialized nations in the world. Surely we could all get by working, say 10 hours less per week, right? I mean, don't you have those days, those stretches in your typical workday where you think to yourself, "I am just bidding my time, watching the clock." Shouldn't we get paid by the work we actually accomplish throughout the day, instead of psychically being 'on the clock' for X amount of time?

Well, regardless of how you feel about that, for Americans decades and decades ago, they would have literally paraded in the streets with jubilant celebration at the notion of just having to work only 8 hours a day. Or only 40 hours a week. Let alone have some standard of benefits like time a half for overtime work. Or child labor restrictions. Or a minimum wage. Even further from reality were vacation time, employer provided health care or pension plans, 401Ks and the like. None of these existed until 1938. And some of those mentioned took even longer still.

As for the brief history of Labor Day, it started on September 5th,1882 in Union Square, New York City as a day for workers to kick back and take a much needed day off. September 5th was chosen as it was exactly in between July 4th and Thanksgiving, and was thought of as a good way to break up the long absence of something to celebrate. Back then, it wasn't a national holiday. It was just something that the workers' unions of the time organized. Thousands flocked to the Union Square for picnicking, relaxation and even a parade. But, beyond just a day to relax, the unions also used this time to rally workers together and talk about unionizing further (becoming officially recognized by their employers) and to demand better working conditions. Among those demands were calls to end child labor and cries for fair pay.

In this time in America, without getting too deep into the economic landscape of the time in regards to labor (read Upton Sinclair's 'The Jungle' for an up close and personal, dramatized look into that world), working conditions were much worse than they are today. Many people on average worked 12-16 hours a day, 6 days a week. And there weren't any restrictions on children in the workplace. So, to have young children (as young as 9 or 10) working long hours in factories around dangerous machinery was very common. Of course, as outlined before, there was no minimum wage. And with the influx of immigrants into the United States after the American Civil war and before the 1938 FLSA became law, employers could completely take advantage of the workers' need to survive, and pay them pennies on the dollar for the value of their efforts. There was just too many needing employment. And when supply and demand is shifted in an employer's favor that heavily, without regulations, unfairness always happens.

This was very apparent to the workers' unions of the time, dating all the way back until the mid to late 1800's. And so, they gradually began fighting back more and more and more against the big tycoons and big business owners that ran most all the available job markets in the U.S. Protests happened all the time. Police got involved and were usually on the side of big business. To read about the chaos of all this back then, its a wonder a massive war didn't break out. There were in fact several mini-wars to be honest. People died. Protesters were killed. People on both sides became more and more violent as nothing of value was being done about the injustices of the American workforce, even though it was crystal clear to everyone in the country that a select few were profiting enormously off of their efforts. (sound familiar?)

In 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed into law, making Labor Day a federal holiday in America. It was an attempt to quail the workers and to try and throw them a bone. Quiet them down. And while the American workforce continued to celebrate the holiday and take pride in Labor Day, they still cried out for real change. At the same time, Canada was going through much of the same struggles, and saw Labor Day become a national holiday the same year.

Finally, after years and years of struggle, rioting, lobbying and push back on both sides, in 1932 a Democratic Senator from Alabama by the name of Hugo Black came up with the first draft of what later became The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. His original version pushed for 30 hour a week standards and was meet with vehement disagreement. But 6 years later, the FLSA of 1938 was finally passed into law. And for the first time ever, the American workforce had legal mandates, statues that protected them and made their lives safer, easier and more fair. The standard of 8 hour work days, 40 work weeks, time and a half for overtime worked (in certain cases), a minimum wage, and child labor restrictions were all created.

World War 1 put quite a hold on these statues taking real world effect, as the world was turned upside down for years before, during and after that bloody affair. Same can be said for times around and during WWII as well. But slowly over time the mandates truly helped workers all across the United States. And Labor Day became celebrated even more intensely as the day to commemorate workers gaining better conditions by uniting against injustice and standing for what they believe is only fair.

Since 1938, dozens of amendments and new laws have shaped our current workplace regulations. I invite you to read up on the history since that time, its really quite interesting.
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