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“Hard, Dirty Work Should Be Paid For”: A Laundry Worker Argues for a Minimum Wage

The Fair Labor Standards Act, signed into law on June 25, 1938, as the last major piece of New Deal legislation, outlawed child labor and guaranteed covered workers a minimum wage of 40 cents an hour and a maximum 40-hour work week. Although more than 22 million workers benefited, conservative forces in Congress saw to it that the Act exempted many others—including agricultural workers, public employees, and domestic workers—from its provisions. The landmark law, nevertheless, helped establish a precedent for the Federal regulation of work conditions. In the following testimony to a Senate subcommittee, Ruth Green, a worker in an interstate company serving business laundry needs, argued that despite efforts by her union to raise wages, a federal law mandating a minimum wage of at least 75 cents an hour was needed to insure adequate wages during hard times. In addition, she maintained that competition from non-unionized laundries made it difficult for the union to obtain “decent contracts.” On October 26, 1949, President Harry S. Truman signed into law the Fair Labor Standards Amendments of 1949, which established the new minimum at 75 cents an hour. Some groups, however, remained excluded from the Act"s protection.


Mrs. GREEN. Senator Pepper and members of the committee:

My name is Ruth Green. I am at present working in a laundry in Richmond, Va. I have worked in this same laundry 13 years, starting at a wage of $8 a week. During all this time, I, a widow, had one daughter to support and have raised a cousin, a girl now 17 years of age and in school.

Wages were raised at the rate of $1 or sometimes $2 a year. We organized into a union 3 years ago—now my wages are $24 a week; after deductions for old age, I have a check of $23.76, for 40 hours work at 60 cents an hour.

Fortunately my daughter has finished school and is now teaching. She lives with me and pays half of our bills. Our house rent is $31.20 a month. We heat, cook, and have hot water through the use of gas, which costs us from about $3 in the summer to almost $30 a month in the coldest of weather. Our food costs around $11 and $12 a week, and I spend $2.50 weekly on insurance, as I find it is the only way I can save for funeral expenses.

The greatest number of workers in our plant, which is an interstate linen-supply service, makes 55 cents an hour. There are between 40 and 50 girls at that rate; we have one head seamstress who makes 93 cents an hour, and one washman who makes 80 cents an hour. Thirteen other men make 75 cents an hour; the rest of the women make from 55 cents to 73 cents an hour. About eight of the women work on piece rate. They are pressers, and if they can get sufficient work two or three of them can sometimes make as much as $30 a week.

Many of the women in our laundry are not working for themselves alone; they have others to support or to help support. One girl at the plant, who makes 65 cents an hour, has four children to support. Her oldest boy, now 14, has quit school, because she could not give him the clothes and supplies he needs. Another woman, who has a little house at the edge of town which her father left her, has tried for the 19 or 20 years she has worked at the plant to get enough ahead to have water and lights put in her house. She still has to walk three blocks for water.

Our laundry is done for business firms; so, we do not have short workweeks as workers do in laundries doing home laundry, where families begin to do their own washing when lower wages or unemployment hits.

Laundry work is hard work; it is unhealthy work. We work in heat and steam. Often, in bitter cold weather, the piece workers have to keep their windows open because of the steam and hot air from the pressing machines. This causes all of us to be in the draft. None of our laundries under contract carry insurance for inside workers. If workers become ill, they must bear the total expense.

Hard, dirty work should be paid for. Laundry workers need a minimum wage of at least 75 cents an hour. We know this amendment will not cover all the little laundries that are paying pitiful wages. We wish it could, but chain laundries and interstate laundries need a floor under their wages or we will be pushed to still lower rates when times are not good.

I am a union member and our union has helped us but in the South most of the laundries are not organized. This makes it hard for us to get decent contracts and it means other laundry workers are much worse off than we are. My union, local 302, Laundry Workers' International Union of Richmond, Va., begs this Senate committee to approve this 75-cent minimum wage and we hope you will cover all laundries that can be brought under a national law.

Source: Congress, House, Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, Fair Labor Standards Act Amendments of 1949, 81st Congress, 1st Session, April 1949 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1949).