Celebrating Wins for the Working Class

Much as single days celebrating mothers and fathers seem to fall short of fully acknowledging everything they do for their families, a lone Monday off in honor of America’s hard workers is far from all the reward they deserve. Of course, that shortfall is unfortunately what keeps employment law attorneys busy the other 364 days of the year. Instead of focusing on all that needs fixing to help ensure workers’ rights, however, today is a good day to reflect on some of the biggest labor wins of the past century.

By any objective standard, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 should be near the top of victories for the working class. After decades of failed efforts to right wrongs that included excessive child labor, six-day work weeks of 10 or more hours a day, and unlivable wages, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress engaged in years of back-and-forth negotiations to finally arrive at a bill that banned oppressive child labor, capped the work week at 44 hours, and set a minimum wage of 25 cents an hour–about $3.32 in 2014 dollars. (A detailed and compelling history of the FLSA can be found on the U.S. Department of Labor’s website.) While the FLSA couldn’t begin to solve all the ills faced by the labor force, and it didn’t achieve the 40-hour week or 40-cents-an-hour minimum wage that many had pushed, it cemented a huge win for workers’ rights.

Almost 80 years later, conditions for workers have generally improved. Still, access to fair, livable wages continues to dominate much of the conversation about what the labor force needs, with President Obama and labor unions using today to further their efforts to increase the federal minimum hourly wage from $7.25 to $10.10. So far, opponents have stalled any national movement on the issue, but several states and municipalities have already enacted higher minimum wages, with Seattle going so far as to raise it to $15 per hour.

While mandating higher wages ultimately benefits workers, it may not always endear them to their employers.  The notion of a “minimum wage” implies that if an employer could get away with paying less, they probably would. As an incredulous applicant being offered minimum wage in an old skit on The Kids in the Hall rhetorically (and sarcastically) asked, “Do I want to work for as little money as legally possible?” Employers who want the best from their employees recognize that there is a strong element of getting what you paid for, so they take it upon themselves to improve conditions. The most noted pioneer in this area may be Henry Ford, who proved that businesses can benefit from offering employees much more than what’s required. In 1914, he increased his factory workers’ daily pay to $5–nearly double the industry average–while shortening the workday from nine to eight hours, boosting both productivity and loyalty. As he put it, he wanted his workers to be able to afford the very cars they were making. Some years later, his son would follow in his father’s footsteps by reducing the work week from the standard six days a week to five, and the rest of corporate America soon followed.

Despite the evolution of the five-day work week and the implementation of federal hour and wage standards, there was still a glaring discrepancy in workplace equality for half of the potential workforce. While far from perfect, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 sought to end the disparity between wages for men and women doing the same job. Of course the gender gap in pay still exists 50 years later, but it is thankfully narrowing, and the law at least gives women a firm legal basis to seek recourse when employers run afoul of its rules.

Similarly, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 was signed into law to help keep women from being punished by their employers for the basics of biology. Again, the Act hasn’t eliminated the problem, but it forces employers to consider the consequences of violating a pregnant employee’s rights. (This, sadly, is happening so often these days that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission just issued a new pregnancy discrimination guidance.) Workers scored another victory in 1993 with the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which protects jobs when employees must, among other things, tend to their own health, help a family member with a serious health condition, or care for a newborn child. These days, the legislative changes for workers’ benefits may be less dramatic in scale, but they are still important rights. The Federal Whistleblowers Act has been expanded, protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation is increasing, and even technology is being safeguarded, with dozens of states enacting laws banning employers from demanding access to their employees’ personal social media accounts.

Even with things constantly improving for workers, however, we know that there will always be employers who don’t respect their rights. If you are the victim of labor violations in Georgia or Tennessee and need an experienced Atlanta employment law attorney, contact us today at 404-873-8048. Parks, Chesin & Walbert represents plaintiffs in employment matters, including employment discrimination, wage and hour, FMLA, and more.  With offices in Atlanta and Nashville, we offer a client-centered philosophy and strive to accomplish our clients’ goals as if they are our own.

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