Franklin D. Roosevelt

Message to Congress on Establishing Minimum Wages and Maximum Hours.

May 24, 1937

To the Congress:

The time has arrived for us to take further action to extend the frontiers of social progress. Such further action initiated by the legislative branch of the government, administered by the executive, and sustained by the judicial, is within the common sense framework and purpose of our Constitution and receives beyond doubt the approval of our electorate.

The overwhelming majority of our population earns its daily bread either in agriculture or in industry. One-third of our population, the overwhelming majority of which is in agriculture or industry, is ill-nourished, ill-clad and ill-housed.

The overwhelming majority of this Nation has little patience with that small minority which vociferates today that prosperity has returned, that wages are good, that crop prices are high and that government should take a holiday.

The truth of the matter, of course, is that the exponents of the theory of private initiative as the cure for deep-seated national ills want in most cases to improve the lot of mankind. But, well intentioned as they may be, they fail for four evident reasons-first, they see the problem from the point of view of their own business; second, they see the problem from the point of view of their own locality or region; third, they cannot act unanimously because they have no machinery for agreeing among themselves; and, finally, they have no power to bind the inevitable minority of chiselers within their own ranks.

Though we may go far in admitting the innate decency of this small minority, the whole story of our Nation proves that social progress has too often been fought by them. In actual practice it has been effectively advanced only by the passage of laws by state legislatures or the National Congress.

Today, you and I are pledged to take further steps to reduce the lag in the purchasing power of industrial workers and to strengthen and stabilize the markets for the farmers' products. The two go hand in hand. Each depends for its effectiveness upon the other. Both working simultaneously will open new outlets for productive capital. Our Nation so richly endowed with natural resources and with a capable and industrious population should be able to devise ways and means of insuring to all our able-bodied working men and women a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. A self-supporting and self-respecting democracy can plead no justification for the existence of child labor, no economic reason for chiseling workers' wages or stretching workers' hours.

Enlightened business is learning that competition ought not to cause bad social consequences which inevitably react upon the profits of business itself. All but the hopelessly reactionary will agree that to conserve our primary resources of man power, government must have some control over maximum hours, minimum wages, the evil of child labor and the exploitation of unorganized labor.

Nearly twenty years ago in his dissenting opinion in Hammer v. Dagenhart, Mr. Justice Holmes expressed his views as to the power of the Congress to prohibit the shipment in interstate or foreign commerce of the product of the labor of children in factories below what Congress then deemed to be civilized social standards. Surely the experience of the last twenty years has only served to reinforce the wisdom and the rightness of his views. And, surely if he was right about the power of the Congress over the work of children in factories, it is equally right that the Congress has the power over decent wages and hours in those same factories. He said:

I had thought that the propriety of the exercise of a power admitted to exist in some cases was for the consideration of Congress alone and that this Court always had disavowed the right to intrude its judgment upon questions of policy or morals. It is not for this Court to pronounce when prohibition is necessary to regulation if it ever may be necessary—to say that it is permissible as against strong drink but not as against the product of ruined lives.

The act does not meddle with anything belonging to the States. They may regulate their internal affairs, and their domestic commerce as they like. But when they seek to send their products across the state line they are no longer within their rights. If there were no Constitution and no Congress their power to cross the line would depend upon their neighbors. Under the Constitution such commerce belongs not to the States but to Congress to regulate. It may carry out its views of public policy whatever indirect effect they may have upon the activities of the States. Instead of being encountered by a prohibitive tariff at her boundaries the State encounters the public policy of the United States which it is for Congress to express. The public policy of the United States is shaped with a view to the benefit of the Nation as a whole. . . . The national welfare as understood by Congress may require a different attitude within its sphere from that of some self-seeking State. It seems to me entirely constitutional for Congress to enforce its understanding by all the means at its Command.

Mr. Justice Brandeis, Mr. Justice Clarke, and Mr. Justice McKenna agreed. A majority of the Supreme Court, however, decided 5-4 against Mr. Justice Holmes and laid down a rule of constitutional law which has ever since driven into impractical distinctions and subterfuges all attempts to assert the fundamental power of the national government over interstate commerce.

But although Mr. Justice Holmes spoke for a minority of the Supreme Court he spoke for a majority of the American people.

One of the primary purposes of the formation of our federal union was to do away with the trade barriers between the states. To the Congress and not to the states was given the power to regulate commerce among the several states. Congress cannot interfere in local affairs but when goods pass through the channels of commerce from one state to another they become subject to the power of the Congress, and the Congress may exercise that power to recognize and protect the—fundamental interests of free labor.

And so to protect the fundamental interests of free labor and a free people we propose that only goods which have been produced under conditions which meet the minimum standards of free labor shall be admitted to interstate commerce. Goods produced under conditions which do not meet rudimentary standards of decency should be regarded as contraband and ought not to be allowed to pollute the channels of interstate trade.

These rudimentary standards will of necessity at the start fall far short of the ideal. Even in the treatment of national problems there are geographical and industrial diversities which practical statesmanship cannot wholly ignore. Backward labor conditions and relatively progressive labor conditions cannot be completely assimilated and made uniform at one fell swoop without creating economic dislocations.

Practical exigencies suggest the wisdom of distinguishing labor conditions which are clearly oppressive from those which are not as fair or as reasonable as they should be under circumstances prevailing in particular industries. Most fair labor standards as a practical matter require some differentiation between different industries and localities. But there are a few rudimentary standards of which we may properly ask general and widespread observance. Failure to observe them must be regarded as socially and economically oppressive and unwarranted under almost any circumstance.

Allowing for a few exceptional trades and permitting longer hours on the payment of time and a half for overtime, it should not be difficult to define a general maximum working week. Allowing for appropriate qualifications and general classifications by administrative action, it should also be possible to put some floor below which the wage ought not to fall. There should be no difficulty in ruling out the products of the labor of children from any fair market. And there should also be little dispute when it comes to ruling out of the interstate markets products of employers who deny to their workers the right of self-organization and collective bargaining, whether through the fear of labor spies, the bait of company unions, or the use of strikebreakers. The abuses disclosed by the investigations of the Senate must be promptly curbed.

With the establishment of these rudimentary standards as a base we must seek to build up, through appropriate administrative machinery, minimum wage standards of fairness and reasonableness, industry by industry, having due regard to local and geographical diversities and to the effect of unfair labor conditions upon competition in interstate trade and upon the maintenance of industrial peace.

Although a goodly portion of the goods of American industry move in interstate commerce and will be covered by the legislation which we recommend, there are many purely local pursuits and services which no federal legislation can effectively cover. No state is justified in sitting idly by and expecting the federal government to meet state responsibility for those labor conditions with which the state may effectively deal without fear of unneighborly competition from sister states. The proposed federal legislation should be a stimulus and not a hindrance to state action.

As we move resolutely to extend the frontiers of social progress, we must be guided by practical reason and not by barren formulae. We must ever bear in mind that our objective is to improve and not to impair the standard of living of those who are now undernourished, poorly clad and ill-housed.

We know that over-work and under-pay do not increase the national income when a large portion of our workers remain unemployed. Reasonable and flexible use of the long established right of government to set and to change working hours can, I hope, decrease unemployment in those groups in which unemployment today principally exists.

Our problem is to work out in practice those labor standards which will permit the maximum but prudent employment of our human resources to bring within the reach of the average man and woman a maximum of goods and of services conducive to the fulfillment of the promise of American life.

Legislation can, I hope, be passed at this session of the Congress further to help those who toil in factory and on farm. We have promised it. We cannot stand still.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Message to Congress on Establishing Minimum Wages and Maximum Hours. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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