Speech on the Fair Labor Standards Act

Speech on the Fair Labor Standards Act

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Although President Roosevelt first proposed the Fair Labor Standards Act in May 1937, it was subject to several delays. The “court-packing” fight occupied much of the legislature’s time through the summer, and conservative Democrats managed to keep the bill from reaching the floor of the House for several months thereafter. Southerners such as Democratic Representative Wade Kitchens of Arkansas – whose speech in opposition to the bill follows – found it particularly offensive. As they pointed out, fewer than three percent of industrial workers outside the South earned below the proposed minimum wage, while in the South nearly 20 percent did. The new law, they argued, was nothing but a means of destroying southern industry. Indeed, many of the bill’s most enthusiastic sponsors were northern businessmen who feared competition from lower-paying southern firms.

Ultimately the bill passed in mid-June, 1938, but not without substantial revision, as one legislator after another sought immunity for the industries in his district. As a result, the final version contained so many exemptions and loopholes that one supporter suggested that the Secretary of Labor report within ninety days “whether anyone is subject to the bill.”

The Fair Labor Standards Act is widely regarded as the New Deal’s final gasp. As Roosevelt affixed his signature to it, he was heard to sigh, “That’s that.” Although he may not have realized at the time, he had just signed the last major piece of New Deal legislation.

Source: Congressional Record, 75th Cong., 3rd sess., vol. 83, pt. 6 (May 16, 1938), pp. 6911-6913.

. . . [T]he proposed bill has the most far-reaching implications of injustice and discrimination to southern labor and industry. In fact, it is directed against southern, western, and mid-western labor and industry. We have very little interstate industry in Arkansas. We are just beginning to obtain some industry for our labor. Our great trouble is a lack of industry and jobs. There can be no jobs nor wages without industry. . . .

. . . This bill, in my opinion, will create, centralize, and sectionalize industry in the New England States, and further protect and foster monopolies. I hear Members on the floor of the House, and in the cloakrooms say that all small businesses, if unable to pay what they call a “living wage,” should be destroyed. But, they lose sight of the fact that what is a living wage in one section is not in another. What is a living wage? This bill purports to define it, but I disagree with the definition. It falls far too short. They prefer that he receives no wage at all unless he receives the same wages as paid by a large million-dollar factory. By their votes and their efforts, they are against all southern, western, and mid-western labor and industry, and favor monopolies and million-dollar corporations. They are against the farmers and the consumers likewise, because any aid to the large industrial corporations . . . and to their labor, will be at the expense of farmers and other laborers and consumers. . . .

Pay rolls are met with money from bank deposits. They cannot be met without money. These pay rolls are met from demand deposits in our banks. The State of New York has about $750 demand deposits for each man, woman, and child in the state. In our State, and many other Southern, Western, and mid-Western States, we have around $50 in demand deposits per capita. In other words, in New York State there is available for labor 15 times as much money per capita as there is in Arkansas. In the State of New Jersey there is seven times as much money available for labor in demand deposits as in Arkansas. In Connecticut, where the population is 250,000 less than in Arkansas, the demand deposits are two and a half times that of Arkansas.

No Southern State has attained anywhere near as high per capita demand deposits as these New England industrial States. American wages must, of necessity, vary widely from State to State because of this great difference in available money for pay rolls. Wages are governed by the amount of money available, and by the conditions existing at the particular plant. These discriminations and inequalities cannot be put upon the same basis, and a uniform wage, if attempted, will be impractical. . . .

I submit, if we are going to fix a minimum wage for some laborers, then fix minimum wage or price for the farmer and his products. Why not help him and his family, because his sweatshop requires as much hard work, perspiration, and longer hours than any other sweatshop in this country? If the farmer be given a fair price, the industrial laborer will prosper. If Congress, under this law, can fix minimum wage, it can fix maximum wage, and the price on all things in interstate commerce or having to do with interstate commerce. If Congress can fix minimum or maximum wage under this bill, then it can fix minimum or maximum salaries for all business in the United States. I submit that when all this great business is turned over to some bureau or secretary in Washington to manage, to define what is and what is not interstate commerce, then we have destroyed individual rights, collective rights, State rights, Constitutional rights, and substituted the dictates of man for law and the Constitution. . . .

It is my opinion that the title of this bill should read: “A bill for an act in the interest of and to help create more monopolies, aid the financiers and controllers of large industry, . . . regiment labor and industry, take away from labor the right to contract individually or collectively, cripple, if not destroy, present southern labor and industry, prevent further industry located in the South, West, or Midwest, deprive citizens in four-fifths of the country of jobs, further deprive the children of southern, western, and Midwestern parents of educational advantages, fair share of industrial taxes and wealth, occupational opportunities, and for other discriminatory purposes.”