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“Among the Most Exploited”: Fair Labor Standards Act and Laundry Workers

Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) on June 25, 1938, the last major piece of New Deal legislation. The act outlawed child labor and guaranteed a minimum wage of 40 cents an hour and a maximum work week of 40 hours, benefiting more than 22 million workers. Although the law helped establish a precedent for the Federal regulation of work conditions, conservative forces in Congress effectively exempted many workers, such as waiters, cooks, janitors, farm workers, and domestics, from its coverage. In October 1949, President Harry S. Truman signed into law the Fair Labor Standards Amendments of 1949, raising the minimum wage to 75 cents hour and extending coverage, but still leaving many workers unprotected. In the following statement to the 1949 Senate subcommittee on FLSA amendments, members of the laundry workers’ union detailed the working conditions of laundry workers, argued that fair wages would not bankrupt commercial laundries, and called upon Congress to extend protection to laundry workers. The questioner, Senator Claude Pepper (D-Florida), a key advocate for the 1938 legislation, chaired the 1949 hearings and pushed the amendments through Senate and conference committees.

Statement of Dolly Lowther, Laundry Workers' Division of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Unit, CIO, Representing the Greater New York Area.

Miss LOWTHER. I am a former mangle worker, as they called it in my day, and a flatwork operator, as they call it now. . . .

I will submit to the committee a statement that has been prepared by the Research Division of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers by Dr. Vera Miller. . . .

(The statement of Dr. Miller submitted by Miss Lowther is as follows:)

Statement on S. 653 Submitted to the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare by Dr. Vera Miller, Research Associate, Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (CIO), Laundry Division, April 13, 1949

Laundry workers have been among the most exploited of all groups of workers. Unprotected by the Fair Labor Standards Act, they have been afforded little protection by existing State legislation. Only 26 States and the District of Columbia have minimum-wage laws. Of these, only 23 have orders covering laundry workers. Even where State wage orders have been issued, however, they have been inadequate to meet the cost of maintenance at a level of health and decency. The highest State wage order for laundry workers has set an hourly minimum of 65 cents in California, and there still exist laundry orders permitting wages as low as 20 cents an hour in Kentucky and 23 cents an hour in Illinois and Minnesota.

Most of the Nation’s quarter-of-a-million laundry workers are unorganized. Their lack of organization and the inadequacy of State minimum-wage legislation has resulted in a perpetuation of extremely substandard wages among laundry workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics made a survey of the earnings of power laundry workers in 33 cities in July 1948, and found that the average wages of flatwork finishers, the largest single occupational group, ranged from 37 cents to 91 cents an hour. In four cities, flatwork finishers' average hourly earnings were less than 40 cents an hour, and in more than half of the 33 cities less than 65 cents an hour. The need for minimum-wage protection is self-evident from an examination of these figures.

The picture is somewhat different where laundry workers have been organized. Virtually all of the laundry workers in the New York City area have been working under Amalgamated Clothing Workers agreements since 1937. Prior to their unionization, it was not unusual for these workers to work as long as 12 or 14 hours on certain days during the week and a total of as many as 70 hours a week. Their take-home pay was frequently as low as $6, $8, or $10 a week. There was no State minimum wage in effect in New York in 1937 when the first Amalgamated contract was signed providing for a 35-cent-an-hour minimum. Since then the contract minimum wages in the New York City area have more than doubled and are now 73 cents in the family and wholesale laundries and 75 cents in the linen supply and flatwork laundries. Average hourly earnings, 36 cents in 1937, are now 92 cents. It is obvious from the findings of the Bureau of Labor Statistics that the conditions of laundry workers in areas where there is no substantial union organization are much less favorable.

The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America believes that power laundry workers should not be excluded from the protection of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Many laundries are engaged in a type of nonretail service which affects interstate commerce, and all are substantial users of oil, soap, items of linen supply, and other products of interstate commerce, and therefore affect interstate commerce. We do not believe that the proposed amendment of section 13a, as specified in S. 653, goes far enough in providing protection for laundry workers. We endorse it, however, as a step in the right direction. . . .

Senator PEPPER. I am a little puzzled by the showing that some of the laundry operators made to me from my State recently. One man was apparently so conscientious and sincere in his protest against the applicability of this law to laundries, even with the $500,000 standard, that he brought his original books with him and had them here. He thought he should bring his original books, and he wanted to show us he simply just could not stay in business and pay the minimum wage.

This was in Jacksonville, Fla. That is one of the largest cities of our State. This fellow is a veteran, and he has all he possesses in this laundry. He was very earnest in protesting against driving him out of business by making him pay a wage he could not pay.

His argument was, and he was supported by several others, that if you raised the rates so much—that is, if you raised the rates of laundry service to the point where you could pay this 75-cent-an-hour minimum wage—the people would simply send fewer garments to the laundry, and they would just do more home work, or they would devise some other way to keep from sending their clothes to the laundry.

I am just giving his side of the case now. I am not saying what my own views are. I just wanted to submit that to you to see if you had any observations on it.

Miss LOWTHER. I think you will find the record in New York will show those were the arguments advanced also in New York in 1937.

We found—and that is why the recent report in New York State is important—that through efficient operation and through the stabilization of the industry by increased wage rates these employers not only stayed in business—those who were able to give the services required by the public—but they also made more money; that the wage had the effect of stabilization in the industry. . . .

Senator DOUGLAS. May I ask a question about the weekly peak load in laundries. Immemorial custom was to do the wash on Monday and the ironing on Tuesday. Families, I suppose, still, in most parts of the country send their laundry out on Monday, and the work tapers off toward the end of the week.

Miss LOWTHER. Yes.

Senator DOUGLAS. So that on Mondays it is quite customary to work more than 8 hours, and work fewer than 8 hours on Thursdays and Fridays?

Miss LOWTHER. You will find that is a general tendency.

In New York, in the early organization, we had an organization of New York Women’s Trade Union League. What we had to do, and did, was an educational job on the public, saying to them, “Will you not send your laundry all on Monday but spread it over a period of 5 days a week so the workers will not have a load on Mondays and the employers rush them out.” But we also, by union contract, were able to have only one long day, and that was usually made on Tuesday, where we had a long day, 11 hours, and by asking the public to cooperate with us, we were able to get them to send their laundry not only on Monday, [but also on] Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, stretching it over 5 days. . . .

Source: Fair Labor Standards Act Amendments of 1949, Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, United States Senate, 81<sup>st</sup>Congress, 1<sup>st</sup> Session, on S. 58, S. 67, S. 92, S. 105, S. 190, S. 248 and S. 653, April 11–14 and 18–22, 1949. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1949.