Seventy-five years ago, we were fortunate to have leaders who showed great courage and resilience, because opposition to the Fair Labor Standards Act was vocal and intense. A version of the bill, according to one critic, would lead the country to a “tyrannical industrial dictatorship.” Some employers insisted they would have to fire all of their workers.
But President Franklin Roosevelt and Labor Secretary Frances Perkins were determined to pass legislation that, in Roosevelt’s words, would “end starvation wages and intolerable hours.” And they delivered − providing generations of Americans with a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.
Of course, protecting workers and setting a wage floor did not – as some claimed it would − cause the economy to self-destruct or the republic to crumble. Instead, it has contributed to strong consumer demand and broad-based prosperity. And it has had little to no negative effect on employment.
However, while the minimum wage has been raised many times − with bipartisan support − it is not keeping up with the rising cost of living. Too many people are falling behind as the rungs on the ladder of opportunity grow farther and farther apart.
Today at the Labor Department, we hosted academics, advocates and experts for a day-long conference to discuss both the progress we’ve made thanks to the FLSA, and the work that still remains.
On Wednesday, I met with a different set of experts – a group of low-wage workers who are organizing, taking action and making a powerful case for higher wages. They spoke with passion and conviction about what it’s like to live on less than $8 an hour. One woman told me that she can’t afford her medication and is forced to live with her adult children. A young man talked about having his gas and electricity cut off for two months. He received an eviction notice, and his mother took out a loan that they don’t know if she can pay back. Another wants to go to college but he’s working double shifts and he’s still a $1,000 behind in rent. Another said to me: “It’s a sad day in America when you can feed your kids but you can’t eat yourself.”
A sad day indeed. It’s wrong that so many hardworking people − people working full-time, or even multiple jobs − need public assistance just to survive. In fact, a recent study from the University of California-Berkeley reached this mind-blowing conclusion: the nation’s fast food workers are relying on safety net programs to the tune of a combined $7 billion a year.
Many of the employers I’ve talked to know that you can succeed in business while still paying workers a fair wage. They reject the false choice that says you can do the right thing by your shareholders or do the right thing by your employees, but not both. Costco, one of the nation’s most successful retailers, sells great products at reasonable prices while paying employees upwards of $15 an hour plus benefits.
Going back a century, even Henry Ford understood this. In 1914, he doubled the wages of workers on his Dearborn, Mich., assembly line. As he said, “Countrywide high wages spell countrywide prosperity.”
President Obama has emphatically called for a minimum wage increase, and across the nation there is an unmistakable, gathering momentum in favor. New Jersey and New York will soon join 19 other states and the District of Columbia with a minimum wage higher than the current federal level of only $7.25 per hour. And the most important and authoritative voice of all – the American people – have weighed in with three-quarters supporting an increase.
For this administration, raising the minimum wage is just one part of what the president has called the “unfinished business” of America. We need to see the FLSA and the minimum wage as part of a larger struggle to cut poverty and to address the challenge of income inequality. When our children and grandchildren are assessing our legacy 50 years from now, I don’t want them to say that we’ve fallen short on the urgent matter of keeping America’s fundamental promise of opportunity and upward mobility.
To those who say the resistance is too great or the lift is too heavy, I say: we can do this − and we will. But as we learned from FDR and Frances Perkins, we must be persistent.