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From the Serial Set: The History of the Minimum Wage

The following is a guest post by Elina Lee, a library technician (metadata) in the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress.

In honor of Labor Day, we decided to explore the early history of the federal minimum wage as shown through the United States Congressional Serial Set. According to Serial Set Vol. No. 6857 (H. Doc. No. 1676, 63rd Cong., 3rd Sess., at 5 (1915), reprinted in Serial Set Vol. No. 6857), the world’s first minimum wage law was enacted in New Zealand with the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act of 1894.

Image of cover of Minimum-Wage Legislation report.

Doc. No. 1676, 63rd Cong., 3rd Sess., at 1 (1915), reprinted in Serial Set Vol. No. 6857. Photo by Elina Lee.

At that time, New Zealand shipping workers staged a massive strike protesting poor working conditions and low wages. In response, the government created the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act and implemented a minimum wage system on August 31, 1894. The Act settled trade disputes involving strikes, hours of labor, and rates of wages or conditions of work. (Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, No. 229 (1917), in Labor Laws of the United States Series: No. 12, at 35 (1918).)

The second minimum wage law enacted was the Factories and Shops Act in Victoria, Australia on July 28, 1896. The law established wage boards, comprised of equal numbers of representatives of employers and employees, managed by an impartial chairman, who had a deciding vote. These wage boards were set up for each trade or industry and were required to discuss conditions and to determine by agreement the minimum wages to be paid in the various processes and occupations in their own industry. These minimum rates, when fixed and published, were binding on all employers in the industry within the area for which the board was appointed. This procedure was introduced in South Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania, and became a model for minimum wage legislation in Great Britain and the United States. (H. Doc. No. 1676, 63rd Cong., 3rd Sess., at 104 (1915), reprinted in Serial Set Vol. No. 6857.)

The third minimum wage law was enacted in South Australia on December 5, 1900, and the fourth was enacted in New South Wales, Australia on December 10, 1901. This type of legislation has also been copied by several of the Australian States such as South Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania.

The movement for a legal minimum wage in New Zealand, Australia, and Great Britain was a progressive development, and the results of this experiment were referenced in the creation of the United States minimum wage law. The dates of the first enactments are shown in Serial Set Vol. No. 6857 (H. Doc. No. 1676, 63rd Cong., 3rd Sess., at 5-6 (1915), reprinted in Serial Set Vol. No. 6857).

Graphic depicting minimum wage laws of various countries.

Source: Minimum Wage Laws of Various Countries, with Dates of First Enactment
(H. Doc. No. 1676, at 5-6 (1915), reprinted in Serial Set Vol. No. 6857) created by Elina Lee

As shown, the minimum wage system movement in the U.S. spread rapidly, resulting in the enactment of minimum wage laws in nine states in 1912 and 1913. Massachusetts passed the first minimum wage legislation in the United States on June 4, 1912, which was affected by the Lawrence textile strike (1912).

Black-and-white photograph of crowd of strikers protesting wage laws.

Bain News Service, Publisher. Crowd of strikers menacing strike-breakers, Lawrence, MA. 1912. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. www.loc.gov/item/2014690134/.

In Serial Set Vol. 6170, the Lawrence textile strike report provides the following details:

The immediate cause of the strike was a reduction in earnings, growing out of the State law which became effective January 1, 1912, and which reduced the hours of employment for women and for children under 18 years of age from 56 to 54 hours per week. In January, 1910, through an enactment of the legislature, the hours of this class of employees had been reduced from 58 to 56 hours a week, and at that time the rates of pay for both time workers and pieceworkers were readjusted so that the earnings under the 56-hour week remained the same as under the 58-hour week. (S. Doc. No. 870, 62nd Cong., 2nd Sess., at 9 (1912), reprinted in Serial Set Vol. No. 6170)

The strike in Massachusetts brought national attention to labor legislation elsewhere. Legislation in Massachusetts was followed by similar legislation in eight other states over two years. In California, Oregon, and Washington, the commissions were given authority to fix labor conditions as well as minimum wage rates, and in California and Oregon, to fix maximum hours. In Wisconsin the industrial commission under an earlier enactment fixed maximum hours and labor conditions. In all the other states except Utah the powers granted under these laws were constrained to fixing minimum wages. In Utah only the minimum wage rates were fixed in the act (H. Doc. No. 1676, 63rd Cong., 3rd Sess., at 12 (1915), reprinted in Serial Set Vol. No. 6857):

For minors under 18, not less than 75 cents a day.

For adult learners and apprentices, not less than 90 cents a day, with the learning or apprenticeship period limited to one year.

For experienced adults, not less than $1.25 per day.

The federal minimum wage was introduced in 1938 when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (Pub.L. 75-718). When the act became effective on October 24, 1938, the minimum hourly wage was $0.25/hour. The federal minimum wage in the United States was set at the current rate of $7.25 per hour on July 24, 2009 and many states and territories have their own minimum wage laws.

In addition to setting a minimum wage, other federal laws have been enacted to prohibit wage discrimination on account of sex or age, such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963 (Pub.L. 88-38), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (Pub.L. 90-202), and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 (Pub.L. 111-2).

This Labor Day, we recognize the history of these laws across the globe. The Serial Set contains valuable information about many other topics, both domestic and international. The Digital Resources Division is looking forward to discovering more about them.

3 Comments

  1. Juli Han
    September 3, 2020 at 1:03 pm

    A very informative and timely blog. It is interesting that minimum wages were initiated in New Zealand. Thank you for the useful information.

  2. Norma Kacen
    September 7, 2020 at 8:37 am

    Today, any discussion of the minimum wage is accompanied by concern about potential job loss. The long history of minimum wage legislation across countries, states, abd cities would seem to support the concept of a legislated minimum wage.

  3. Xander Harcourt
    September 11, 2020 at 8:34 am

    Great blog! I had no idea where labor laws originated. It is fascinating to see through the blog, how America used data from New Zealand and Australia to fashion its own wage laws. Ms. Lee is an amazing researcher and educator.

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