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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On This Day: The Bonus Marchers

During WWI, approximately 4.2 million young Americans served as part of the US Army. About half of those were drafted. As a soldier, young men could expect to be paid about $1.00 per day of service, while friends at home working were making 10 times that. As the war drew to a close, WWI veterans thought they deserved more pay and lobbied for an additional service bonus, something they received in 1924 when Congress passed a bill that promised veterans a cash bonus that would be paid out in 1945. Perhaps this promise would have satisfied the veterans had it not been for the Great Depression.  

As the depression pushed on and people were unable to provide necessities for their families, WWI veterans pushed Congress for an early payout on their bonuses. Early in 1932, Representative Wright Patman introduced a bill to Congress that would do just that. Encouraged by the bill and inspired by their First Amendment rights, WWI veterans from all over the country traveled to Washington D.C. to petition Congress to pass the bill. Within a few weeks, over 20,000 veterans had set up camp along the Anacostia River. They called themselves the Bonus Marchers.  

In June 1932, the bonus bill was passed in the House and then struck down in the Senate. The government expected that the Bonus Marchers would return home. But they stayed. The Washington police were sent in to evict the marchers from their camp along the river. Unfortunately, the altercation ended in violence and two Bonus Marchers were shot.  

On July 28, 1932, President Herbert Hoover sent in the US Army, led by Army chief of staff Douglas MacArthur, to break up the camp. The army marched in and began burning the camp to the ground. Bonus Marchers fled as the army attacked with tear gas. As one might imagine, the images and newsreel of this eviction did not play well with American voters. President Hoover and MacArthur looked like the villains in the Bonus Marchers’ story. A few months later, Hoover lost the presidential election to Franklin D. Roosevelt.  

4 years later, in 1936, the bonus bill finally passed, and the WWI veterans finally received their promised bonuses. In 1944, the GI Bill was passed, which helps veterans receive monetary and other benefits after their service.

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May History Hits: The Opening of the Golden Gate Bridge

The 1937 opening of the Golden Gate Bridge was a week-long affair dubbed the “Golden Gate Fiesta. “ The event started with a pedestrian only opening on May 27th and then opened to automobiles on May 28th after US President, Franklin D. Roosevelt pressed a telegraph key.

According to the Library of Congress, during the May 27th “Pedestrian Day” over 200,000 people paid a princely sum of 25 cents each to walk the bridge. Black and white films of the day show the excitement and energy.

The Blue Lake Advocate, a Northern California newspaper, reported on an in person visit to the nearly completed bridge by Eleanor Roosevelt earlier that month on May 6, 1937. The paper called her, “M Franklin D. Roosevelt, First Lady of the Land,” and said that she wanted to make a personal inspection of the bridge.  She was escorted on this pilgrimage by San Francisco Mayor Angelo Rossi; James Reed, general manager of the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District; Mrs. Arthur M. Brown Jr., chairman of the women’s division of the Fiesta; and Charles Duncan of the chief engineer’s office. 

It’s interesting that the fiesta had a “women’s division.”

The First Lady’s party could not fully traverse the bridge because of construction, but when she got out to take in the view, Roosevelt was quoted as saying, “It’s one of the greatest sights I have ever seen.” 

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Golden Gate Bridge was constructed over a four year span after a $35 million construction bond was approved in1930, and has become an iconic symbol of San Francisco. The 4,200 square foot suspension bridge depends on steel cables to endure the earthquakes that impact the region.

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April History Hits: When FDR Seized Montgomery Ward

In fairness to Franklin D. Roosevelt, he didn’t want to do it.  But, Sewell Avery, the CEO of Montgomery Ward, was refusing to work with labor unions, and the US was a country at war.

Montgomery Ward & Co.S Building, Chicago Source: Wikimedia Commons

At the time, Chicago-based Montgomery Ward was equivalent to Amazon today. According to Matthew Waxman, a law professor at Columbia University, “By 1943, Montgomery Ward served 30 million customers not only through mail-order deliveries but also via 600 stores and 78,000 employees in 47 states. Two-fifths of U.S. mail-order business went through Montgomery Ward, as did one-fifth of all manufactured products purchased by American farmers.”

Avery had capitulated to Roosevelt once in 1942, but by the beginning months of 1944, he was not having it.  Roosevelt’s fear was that a labor strike would interfere with the war effort, and according to the War Labor Disputes Act of 1943, the National War Labor Board could get in the middle of anything that might lead to a “substantial interference with the war effort.”

According to Waxman, Montgomery Ward’s attorneys maintained that Roosevelt was overstepping in the matter.  On April 25, 1944, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9438, where he proclaimed “that there are existing and threatened interruptions of the operations of the plants and facilities of Montgomery Ward and Company, located in Chicago, Illinois, as a result of labor disturbances arising from the failure of Montgomery Ward and Company to comply with directive orders of the National War Labor Board.”

Roosevelt ordered his then Secretary of Commerce, Jesse H. Jones, who hailed from my hometown of Houston, Texas, to seize control of Montgomery Ward’s headquarters, retail store, mail order house and warehouse in Chicago and to operate them for the “successful prosecution of the war.”

When a federal dispatch consisting of US Marshalls, deputies and soldiers visited Avery at the headquarters they were not only met with verbal resistance, but Avery refused to leave his office chair leading to the amusing photo that headlined throughout the country at time showing him being literally carried out of his office.  

Sewell Avery being forced from his office
Source: Iconic Photos

Waxman, who made the extraordinary effort to read and summarize for us the very best part of Attorney General Francis Biddle’s memories on the incident who noted that Secretary of War Henry Stimson had pleaded unsuccessfully with Roosevelt that “[E]very man was needed in the war effort; it is a great army, Mr. President, it must not be sent to act as clerks to sell women’s panties over the counter of a store.”

As a woman, I take exception to the fact that Stimson found our under-clothing the furthest possible thing from a successful prosecution of the war, but I get his point, rude as it may be.

Avery fired back in several ways including a statement released to the Associated Press on May 10, 1944 and reprinted in the New York Times where he called the seizure illegal and demanded that the matter be resolved in court.  “Ward’s has been deprived of its property by force and bayonets,” he wrote.

According to Waxman, due to public disapproval, the government released Montgomery Ward back to Avery two weeks later, but then seized the company again, and this time they seized control in nine cities including Chicago after a labor strike broke out at the end of 1944.  Litigation ensued and it looked like the government would win, but the end of the war brought an end to the matter.

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When FDR and Churchill Created the United Nations

People have varying opinions about the United Nations (UN), which is a 75-year-old intergovernmental peacekeeping organization. But whatever your opinion, there is no doubt that the UN has played a major role in shaping world history since its inception on New Year’s Day, January 1942.

Source: Wikipedia The Poster, created by United States Office of War Information and made by the United States Government Printing Office.

Before the United Nations, there was the League of Nations, which was initiated at the close of World War I during the Paris Peace Conference. The Covenant under which the League of Nations was organized only involved the five major superpowers at the time, namely, France, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US, a fact that is pointed to as a reason the organization failed.  Also, there is the not so small issue that regardless of covenants or organizational structure, the League of Nations failed to prevent World War II.

The United Nations, whose name was coined by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was formed during the course of World War II, not after, and consisted of a group of countries intent on putting down the Axis powers and reinstating world peace.

Roosevelt and British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, led the charge to form the United Nations and were initially joined by the head of the USSR and China in signing the initial brief declaration document on January 1, 1942. The next day, 22 other countries joined the party including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Costa Rica, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Poland, Union of South Africa and Yugoslavia.  

Later this group was joined by Mexico, Philippines, Ethiopia, Iraq, Brazil, Bolivia, Iran, Colombia, Liberia, France, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Paraguay, Venezuela, Uruguay, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Lebanon. (Source: The UN)

The initial declaration talked about the “common struggle against savage and brutal forces seeking to subjugate the world.”  These were powerful words during a frightening time.

Three years later in June of 1945, the details of how the United Nations would work and exist were hammered out at the San Francisco Conference by the initial signers of the declaration (a/k/a the group listed above). 

By the time the San Francisco Conference was held, Roosevelt had died and Harry S. Truman was now President. Truman spoke to the delegates ahead of the conference with eloquent wisdom that really captures the focus on the UN at that time. He said: “If we do not want to die together in war, we must learn to live together in peace.” (Source: UN Foundation)

Another famous quote about the United Nations that is often wrongly attributed to Churchill read, “The UN was not created to take humanity to heaven, but to save it from hell.” If you are thinking about buying a kitchen magnet on Amazon with Churchill as the author, don’t.  That comment was actually made later during the 1950s by the second secretary-general of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld.

What Churchill did famously say, which many people attribute to the UN was, “It is better to jaw-jaw than to war-war.”

If you have the opportunity to buy THAT refrigerator magnet, do it, but just know that Churchill didn’t actually say it about the United Nations.  He said it in June 1954, while speaking to Congress about the threat of the spread of communism, as reported by the New York Times.

But the UN has used that line, often, even in their job recruitment materials.  And they should, it’s classic Churchill, and perfect.

Through the years, the UN has expanded to include agency organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) and further extended its initial charter beyond peacekeeping to other issues such as human rights.

World leaders have remained largely supportive of the UN, but there have also been a few critics.  US President Donald J. Trump voiced his opinion in a 2017 speech arguing that the United States “bears an unfair cost burden, but to be fair if it could actually accomplish all of its stated goals — especially the goal of peace — this investment would easily be well worth it.” (Source:

Despite these comments, the United States, even during the Trump presidency, has remained the largest supporter of the UN and has not followed through with any significant funding cuts.  Trump has, however, been incredibly critical of the WHO’s handling of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic.