Excerpt from "Annual Message to the Congress, January 3, 1938"
Reprinted from The Public Papers and Addresses
of Franklin D. Roosevelt: 1938 Volume
Published in 1941
"We are seeking only legislation to end starvation wages and intolerable hours.…"
Franklin D. Roosevelt
In his annual message to Congress in January of each year President Franklin Roosevelt lobbied (tried to influence law-makers) for important issues and pieces of legislation that would come before Congress during the next twelve months. In his speech on January 3, 1938, Roosevelt explained how the very low wages of factory jobs restricted the buying power of a large segment of the U.S. population. If their purchasing power could be raised, Roosevelt continued, they could buy their share of manufactured goods. With this line of reasoning, Roosevelt was making a case for passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Roosevelt analyzed the reasons for some groups' opposition to the act. He then stressed his view that businesses and "industries which bring permanent wealth will come more readily to those communities which insist on good pay and reasonable hours." Roosevelt believed that workers in such communities would be more content and efficient. And if their purchasing power increased, they could buy more goods, including farm goods. Therefore, farmers would also gain more purchasing power. This effect, Roosevelt said, would ripple through to "those who transport and distribute the products of farm and factory, and those of the professions who serve all groups," from store keepers to dentists and medical doctors who had also seen their income plunge as people put off visits as long as they could.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "Annual Message to the Congress, January 3, 1938":
- No legally required minimum wage had ever existed in the United States.
- Pay special attention to Roosevelt's case for a minimum wage law.
- Many Americans believed that the federal government had no business regulating wages or the number of working hours.
Excerpt from "Annual Message to the Congress, January 3, 1938"
Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, Members of the Senate and of the House of Representatives: .…
To raise the purchasing power of the farmer is … not enough. It will not stay raised if we do not also raise the purchasing power of that third of the Nation which receives its income from industrial employment. Millions of industrial workers receive pay so low that they have little buying power. Aside from the undoubted fact that they thereby suffer great human hardship, they are unable to buy adequate food and shelter, to maintain health or to buy their share of manufactured goods.
We have not only seen minimum wage and maximum hour provisions prove their worth economically and socially under government auspices in 1933, 1934 and 1935, but the people of this country, by an overwhelming vote, are in favor of having the Congress—this Congress—put a floor below which industrial wages shall not fall, and a ceiling beyond which the hours of industrial labor shall not rise.
Here again let us analyze the opposition. A part of it is sincere in believing that an effort thus to raise the purchasing power of lowest paid industrial workers is not the business of the Federal Government. Others give "lip service" to a general objective, but do not like any specific measure that is proposed. In both cases it is worth our while to wonder whether some of these opponents are not at heart opposed to any program for raising the wages of the under-paid or reducing the hours of the overworked.
Another group opposes legislation of this type on the ground that cheap labor will help their locality to acquire industries and outside capital, or to retain industries which today are surviving only because of existing low wages and long hours [the communities need to keep wages low to attract and keep industries].…
What happened next…
On June 25, 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), also known as the Wages and Hours Law. The act applied to employees of businesses that operated in more than one state. The law mandated a minimum wage of 25 cents an hour and a workweek consisting of a maximum of 44 hours. By 1940 the act provided that the workweek be no longer than 40 hours. Any work over 40 hours would require "time and a half" pay. For example, if a minimum-wage worker labored 42 hours in a week, he would be paid 25 cents an hour for the first 40 hours and 38 cents an hour (roughly one and one-half times the minimum wage) for the 2 overtime hours.
The FLSA also addressed child labor. Except in certain agricultural areas, the FLSA banned employment of children younger than fourteen years of age. Fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds could not work in factories or during school hours. Individuals under eighteen years of age were banned from working in dangerous occupations such as mining.
The FLSA was amended many times during the rest of the twentieth century; the Equal Pay Act (equal pay for men and women doing equal work) was added in 1963, and a yearly increase amendment passed in 1977. The FLSA continues to serve as a foundation of labor standards at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Did you know…
- The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) replaced parts of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1936.
- Even after passage of the FLSA, it was still difficult to regulate some child labor, especially in agriculture.
- Frances Perkins, secretary of labor, had a lifelong interest in the issues that the FLSA addressed, and she played a key role in its passage.
Consider the following…
- If a family needs a child's income to live, should the family rather than the government be allowed to decide if, when, and for how long the child works?
- Do you think jobs were lost because some employers could not afford to pay workers the minimum wage? Does this same issue arise in the twenty-first century?
For More Information
Bradley, Michael R. On the Job: Safeguarding Workers' Rights. Vero Beach, FL: Rourke Corporation, 1992.
Roosevelt, Franklin D. The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt: 1938 Volume. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1941.
Schwartz, Alvin. The Unions: What They Are, How They Came to Be, How They Affect Each of Us. New York, NY: Viking Press, 1972.