Monday, November 4, 2013

Minimum Wage Laws: Massachusetts in the Forefront in the United States

The issue of the minimum wage is very much in the news today, with both sides on the question of whether it should be raised giving a strong voice to their concerns.

The earliest such laws were not in the United States, but in Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain. In 1896, in Victoria, Australia, the “Factories Act” was amended and a “wage board” was created.  This board set basic wages for six industries and by 1904, it covered 150 different industries.

In 1894, New Zealand enacted the first actual minimum wage laws. In 1907, the British government reported on its investigation of the laws in Australia and New Zealand and in 1909, Winston Churchill, then President of the Board of Trade, introduced the “Trade Boards Act.” This act allowed for boards to set minimum wage standards.

In the United States, Massachusetts was the first state to enact minimum wage legislation. The initial acts concerned women and children only and were in reference to labor in the industries where the majority of workers were of course, female.  Page 17 of a “Report of the Commission on Minimum Wage Boards (House Bill 1697 of 1912)” speaks to the view of “Women in the workplace” at that time:

A Minimum Wage Commission was established in 1911 and started to publish “Bulletins” in January of 1914. The first bulletins of the Commission were reports on “Wages of Women in the Brush Factories in Massachusetts,”  “Wages of Women in the Corset Factories of Massachusetts,” and “Wages of Women in the Laundries of Massachusetts,” among others.  The emphasis on factory workers in these industries reflects the times and the employment of women.

During the 1920’s and 1930’s, there were many attempts to enact a federal law.  It was not until 1938, during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that such a law was enacted and stood up to challenges.   That law is called FLSA, the Fair Labor Standards Act.  Although the law only covered one fifth of the workforce at the time, it set an hourly wage of twenty five cents and banned oppressive child labor.
There have, of course, been many changes to the laws over the years.  On September 25th of this year, Governor Jerry Brown of California, for example, signed a law setting the minimum wage there at $10.00 per hour.  In Massachusetts, the rate is currently $8.00.

The State Library, located in the Massachusetts State House, is the perfect place to research the laws of the Commonwealth.   As one researches the state’s history, one will find time and again that Massachusetts has been first in the nation to study and tackle important legislation concerning not just wage equality, but many other issues.

Please visit us in the Massachusetts State House, Room 341.  Our website will give you information about our services and our holdings.

Pamela W. Schofield
Legislative Reference Librarian
State Library of Massachusetts