Transforming the Workplace: The Fair Labor Standards Act

On October 24, 1940, the Fair Labor Standards Act, passed two years earlier, went into effect in the United States. A sweeping reform bill that included provision for a federal minimum wage, weekly limits on working hours, and heavy restrictions on child labor, the act changed the labor market, setting the standards that we abide by now. There has been a call in the last few years for labor reform to adjust the workplace to the world we live in now. So, how did they make it happen in 1938?

A change in labor standards was an election promise by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt began his first term under the shadow of the Great Depression. He signed the National Industrial Recovery Act, hoping to raise wages and create jobs. There were provisions for a shorter work week, a $12 per week minimum wage, and child labor restrictions. Unfortunately, most parts of the bill, including restrictions on child labor, were struck down as unconstitutional by the Republican-dominated Supreme Court at the time. This sentiment trickled down through the circuit courts as well. One judge said, “the so-called Child Labor Amendment . . . will result in the filing, by the coming generations, of the reformatory institutions and prisons beyond their capacity. The failure of parents to teach and compel children to perform reasonable and proper labor while yet young is the prime cause of the wave of crime in this country.”

In 1936, Roosevelt campaigned on labor reform as the basis for his second term. He won the election 523 electoral votes to 8. He felt that this proved the country’s commitment to labor reform. To encourage change, Roosevelt suggested that he might add seats to the Supreme Court to be sure the three branches of legislature were on the same page. Shortly after, conservative Justice Owen Roberts sided with the liberal judges in a case regarding minimum wage. This opened the gate to more legislation moving through the House and Senate regarding minimum wage, child labor, and weekly hour ceilings. Frances Perkins, Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary and the first female member of the cabinet, worked tirelessly to put together labor reform packages that would accomplish what they wanted while still appealing to the Republican members of Congress. What finally convinced Republicans to move the bill through were two Senate seats in Republican strongholds that were lost to pro-labor reform candidates. At this point, many Republican congress members seemed ready to make a deal. The bill that finally made it through in 1938—the Fair Labor Standards Act—provided for a 40-cent-per-hour minimum wage, a 40-hour work week, and a restriction on hiring children under the age of 16.

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