How the Fight for Minimum Wage Began

In the 1930s, most union workers, who were white and male, opposed raising the minimum wage.

Leyla Doss | Monday, April 19, 2021


(Photo/Zerbor for Shutterstock)

HOST RENEE RODEN: The recent passage of the $1.9 trillion dollar stimulus package was widely celebrated by Democrats. But one key Democratic policy was not included: a $15 an hour federal minimum wage. Workers across the country are pushing for change. But the fight for the minimum wage started long ago, and close to home. As Leyla Doss reports New York City paved the way.

LEYLA DOSS, BYLINE: It was the start of the 20th century. Employers could pay their workers as much or as little as they wanted. So women, children and people of color usually got paid a lot less than men. Finally, they’d had enough, so they were the first to demand a minimum wage. Men were already likely to be paid better. So at the time most weren’t interested in a minimum wage.

ALICE KESSLER-HARRIS: Women were even more underpaid then than they are now. That is, the wage gap between men and women was something less than 60%.

DOSS: That’s Professor Alice Kessler-Harris, a gender labor historian at Columbia University. She says men also had unions to negotiate for them. And other workers, like women, were not allowed. But then World War One hit. And women stepped in to fill the gap.

ARCHIVAL SOUND: In the United States today, the world of business is no longer a man’s world. In New York City alone, one million women march to work each morning.

DOSS: And, they tried to join male-dominated unions.

HARRIS: Mostly men did not want women in unions, because they feared that women would pull down the wage and that they wouldn’t be reliable strikers and so on.

DOSS: So they organized their own. Like the International Ladies Garment Union. And by 1918 they’d passed a federal minimum wage but only for women. But they were still paid much less than men. So women took to the streets – many of them.

HARRIS: Laundry workers for example, in the 30s and 40s led by a combination of communist and black women workers. They went on strike in the 1930s, and were quite successful in New York.

DOSS: Most union workers – who were white and male – saw the minimum wage as a way to control them. So at first, most unions opposed raising the minimum wage. They were afraid the government would step in and cap their wages. But then, the Great Depression hit.

ARCHIVAL SOUND: Prosperity is just around the corner, say the hopeful headlines. But around the corner wind the lengthening breadlines and a whole new class of citizens appears in American society: the new poor.

DOSS: Jobs were scarce and pay was low. So the unions came on board. Professor Josh Freeman, a labor historian at CUNY, says this was the beginning of a golden age for the labor movement in the U.S.

JOSHUA FREEMAN: Today, people would be startled by the idea that there were hammers and sickles being carried down Fifth Avenue, the great rallying spot for all these marches and demonstrations.

DOSS: This time, women and male supporters of the Communist Party lined the streets of New York.

FREEMAN: We had Woolworth workers sitting down occupying their stores until they were recognised. We had strikes in the department stores. So there was a lot of labour militancy, and a lot of pro worker sentiment.

DOSS: IN 1938 President Roosevelt passed the Fair Labor Standards Act and put a federal minimum wage on the books. Freeman says the labor movement reached its peak in the ’60s, but that protests of the ’30s paved the way. Since then, Congress has raised the minimum wage 22 times.

Today’s federal minimum wage is $7.20. In New York, it’s $15 -– after hundreds of workers once again led a strike a decade ago. But activists say it’s still not enough. They’ll continue to strike.

Leyla Doss, Columbia Radio News.

This story first aired on Uptown Radio.


This story is the work of a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Other news organizations are welcome to publish this story as long as they adhere to these guidelines.