Taking a cue from movements on the ground and several states, President Obama has taken up the cause of increasing the minimum wage. We ought to think about why – especially during Women’s History Month — those most experienced with living on a minimum wage are the women taking your order across a fast-food counter, changing your hotel linens or caring for your children. Women’s history tells us something else about this issue: The long struggle for wage justice has always included women fighting, especially through unions, to change the balance of power.
To be sure, an increase is a welcome step in the fight for fairer compensation. But the recent state-level increases in the minimum wage still do not restore it to the level it reached in the late 1960s. Because its value has not kept pace with inflation while the cost of everything from groceries to housing to medical care has increased, the purchasing power of the minimum wage has eroded. And unlike 50 years ago, today’s minimum wage workers are no longer teenagers. Their average age is 35; more than a third are over 40 and only 12 percent are below age 20.
Most importantly, the new laws and adjustments barely address the return of the very inequities that originally gave rise to the idea of a minimum wage a century ago. So yes, Americans now are sorely in need of a raise in the minimum wage. But that alone is not going to address the core problems of economic insecurity, inequality and economic and political disfranchisement that mark our era.
Its proponents always recognized that a wage reflected a power relationship and a measure of social worth. Lacking bargaining power, women perpetually found themselves working but poor. Today women comprise over 55 percent of minimum-wage workers; 71 percent of restaurant servers are women, tipped workers who fall outside minimum wage coverage.
A close look at the story of working women is central to understanding both the success and the limits of a state-mandated minimum wage.
Proposals for a legislated minimum wage first gained prominence at the turn of the 20th century, championed by the National Consumers’ League (NCL). Founded in 1891 to organize middle-class support on behalf of those immigrant working girls who labored in the garment sweatshops, department stores, and other low-wage industries, the NCL was led by the intrepid Florence Kelley.
Most in organized labor at that time opposed minimum wage laws, believing they would set the bar too low for union men. Samuel Gompers, then head of the American Federation of Labor, thought a “man’s wage” should be negotiated as a family wage — enabling him to support a dependent wife whose unpaid domestic labor was, in a sense, his property.
Kelley and other social feminists understood this domestic ideal was far from reality for most working-class and immigrant families. They recognized that the paternalistic ideology of a “family wage” meant that women were paid a pittance — “pin money” — on the false assumption that they were already supported by a husband or father.
It would take a generation to change minds. Social workers sought to counter these arguments in the early 20th century by using the new methods of social investigation and survey to determine a living wage for women. They found that from Boston to Pittsburgh to Chicago, women paid $7 or $9 a week earned an amount that at least might “keep a woman from dying of cold or hunger.” Surveys often drew up budgets of only the barest necessities — recording such extreme thrift as eating no breakfast and coffee and a roll for lunch.
The Consumers’ League turned to what it called “protective legislation” for the unorganized sectors: A minimum wage would provide protection against complete destitution (a woman’s “health and morals”) and take away employers’ incentive to hire women to work 12-hour days. The NCL helped enact state minimum wage legislation in 15 states. But the U.S. Supreme Court blocked this strategy in 1923, reasoning that after women won the right to vote, they no longer needed this protection; they were now equal to men.
Still, the National Consumers’ League had a broader vision. It sought not only to ensure women could live above bare subsistence and, if necessary, support children in the absence of a man, but also to redistribute economic power to marginal workers. The NCL and Women’s Trade Union League believed female workers needed both trade unions and minimum wage legislation.
That vision was finally realized during the New Deal, with the passage of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which established the national minimum wage, the 40-hour work week, and overtime compensation. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which legalized unionism and collective bargaining, also helped.
It was not a total victory, however. The FLSA actually excluded the lowest paid workers: those who labored in retail, nonprofit and commercial services, hospitals, agriculture, and domestic service — the very occupations where women and African Americans were concentrated. And while the union movement took root in manufacturing sectors, collective bargaining rights eluded many of the places where women labored.
From the 1940s to 1960s, women in the labor movement– organizers, researchers and stewards — pushed to make sure collective bargaining contracts addressed the particularly low wages of women workers. Economic strategy had to be combined with political strategy to win a “provider’s wage.” Labor feminists lobbied to expand the FLSA to those left out and organized to pass state minimum wage laws to complement the federal one. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, they made great strides.
By the mid-1970s, extensions of the minimum wage finally brought employees of hotels, hospitals, retail services and domestic housecleaning within coverage and with real increases. It seemed that women, African-American, and Latino workers were finally gaining the security, dignity, and respect accorded to wage work in American life.
Since then, three phenomena have occurred: The value of the minimum wage has been deliberately stymied, the ability to join a union and collective bargaining have been under perpetual assault, and millions of workers have been stripped of the status of “employee” and thus crowded out of the protections of the FLSA. Currently, almost a third of the American workforce lacks the status of employee necessary for FLSA coverage.
Once viewed with so much promise as a major advance toward economic equality and security, the minimum wage today has become a punitive wage that stigmatizes the work and the worker. Economists want us to see the wage as a plot on a graph, determined by natural forces of “supply” meeting “demand.” But ever since wage work first appeared, those engaged in it (if not resisting it outright) have always sought to qualify it in social terms — seeking a fair wage, a family wage, a just wage, or a living wage.
The term “living wage,” which came into common usage in the U.S. in the 1870s, signified not only that a wage should meet a worker’s or a family’s needs for bodily upkeep, self-improvement and leisure but also that it should represent that work as having social value. It turns out, with this recent round of minimum wage increases and walk-outs in fast food and retail, Americans do see “the wage” as contested terrain over what is fair and just.
That’s why the “Fight For $15” campaign among fast food workers is not just about raising the minimum wage. It’s about changing the social relationships and balance of power embodied in the wage. Through opening this struggle, low-wage workers compel us to rethink again who is a “breadwinner.”
As the National Consumers’ League understood a century ago, workers still need a union. Unions, through collective power — collective power that has legal and ideological legitimacy — compel a more balanced sharing of the profits. Workers’ organizations, at their most ambitious, also give people the space and the tools to articulate a just economic vision and build political power to get us there.
Jennifer Klein, Professor of History at Yale, is co-author of “Caring for America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State.”