President Franklin D. Roosevelt characterized the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA), as the most far-reaching, far-sighted program for the benefit of workers ever adopted in this or any other country. A law drafted by Senator Hugo Black of Alabama and signed into law in June 1938, the FLSA was designed to put a ceiling over hours and a floor under wages by establishing an eventual maximum 40 weekly work hours, a minimum wage of 40 cents an hour by 1945, and prohibiting most child labor. The act`s objective was summarized as the elimination of labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standards of living necessary for health, efficiency and well being of workers.
Before the dawn of the FLSA, John L. Lewis, president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), ordered a series of strikes directed at securing the closed shop, establishing the CIO`s exclusive right to represent workers in collective bargaining, and to defend his newly favored sit-down strike tactic.* While such employers as United States Steel Company complied with Lewis`s demands in March 1937, General Motors and Republican Steel contested the new sit-down`s legality, calling for the Michigan courts to rescue their properties by ordering injunctions against sit-down protesters. Those actions caused a further rise in tension between workers and factory owners, until Governor Frank Murphy`s intervention successfully prevented widespread violence in the automotive industries.
Later that same year, a bitter strike broke out in South Chicago, where 10 people were killed while police were defending the property of Goodyear Tire. Public opinion turned against Lewis and the newly formed CIO because of the recent labor violence caused by the new sit-down strike tactic. As a way to solve some of the issues facing industrial workers, such as in the steel and coal industries, the FLSA was born. But prior to its final ratification, three different versions were batted around Congress.
Nearly 700,000 workers were affected by the wage increase initially and some 13 million more were ultimately affected by the hours provision. Those affected by the act were mostly white males (39 percent), compared with only 14 percent of women. Labor unions made efforts to exclude blacks and women from unionized industrial jobs, due to the the latter`s scarcity, and high unemployment during the Depression. However, organized blacks with industrial jobs ultimately benefited from the wage increase and hours provision, although the majority of blacks found their employment in the unskilled and semi-skilled categories, where few or no labor unions had been established. Therefore, the FLSA did not affect several million blacks who worked in the agricultural and domestic sectors.
The strongest opposition came from the U.S. Supreme Court, which in case after case, had struck down laws establishing a minimum wage, number of hours worked, and child labor provisions. Among the most noteworthy cases, the court struck down a federal child-labor law in 1918 in the case of Hammer v. Dagenhart. Also, in the case of Adkins v. Children`s Hospital the court narrowly struck down the District of Columbia law that established minimum wages for women. Strong opposition to the act also came from Southern congressional members whose constituents thought they would be put out of business by a 25 cents-an-hour minimum wage requirement.
As part of the New Deal programs, President Franklin Roosevelt had made promises to effectuate changes in the treatment of workers and was consistently hampered in his efforts by the Supreme Court. During his first administration, Roosevelt nominated as Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, an ardent advocate of labor reform and strong activist against the exploitation of child laborers. Roosevelt also introduced such legislation as the National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA), which absorbed 4,000,000 unemployed people into industrial jobs before it was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court; and the National Employment System Act (1933), which established the U.S. Employment Service.
Although the constitutionality of the act was unanimously supported initially by the Supreme Court, the FLSA has been altered and amended on at least 43 subsequent occasions. Those alterations and amendments have provided and clarified benefits to workers in various employment sectors. Most notably, those amendments include:
The transfer of functions of the Children`s Bureau and of the Chief of the Children`s Bureau to the Secretary of Labor in 1946;
The Equal Pay Act of 1963, which prohibits the discrimination of employees on the basis of gender for their rate of pay;
Fair Labor Standards Amendment of 1966, which prohibits the discrimination of employees on the basis of their age for their rate of pay; and
the Minimum Wage Increase Act of 1996, which raised the minimum wage paid to $5.15 per hour.
*In a sit-down strike, workers take possession of a premise and then refuse to leave until demands are met.