Essay by: Abner C. Nomen
No examination of US labor history would leave-out the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which was signed into law in 1938 at the height of the Great Depression. When President Roosevelt signed the FLSA into law, he said,
“Except perhaps for the Social Security Act, it is the most far-reaching, far-sighted program for the benefit of workers ever adopted here or in any other country. Without question it starts us toward a better standard of living and Increases purchasing power to buy the products of farm and factory.” (1)
Many of us tend to overlook what Roosevelt did with his New Deal legislation, of which the FLSA is part: he saved capitalism, or the profit system as some call it (2).
It’s hard to imagine, but when Roosevelt took office in 1933, banks were literally closed in 36 out 48 states; unemployment was at 25% and the gross domestic product had fallen to nearly 50% of the year prior (3). But what’s also hard to imagine is that quite a number of folks had had enough of the capitalists – the industrialists who exploited laborers with impunity. These folks comprised what we today would call the “lefty” movement, and among other things, they inspired laborers to join unions and strike against the capitalists (4). By drawing-up and gaining passage of legislation such as the FLSA, the Roosevelt administration kept at bay those who would have done away with the entire capitalist system.
The FLSA codified a number of things into Federal regulations, many of which we simply take for granted today; these include: an eight our per day, forty hour per week labor hour standard; restrictions on child labor; a minimum wage and a requirement covered industries pay one and one-half times the hourly rate for workers who put-in more than forty hours in one week (5). While it took more than one year to gain passage of the legislation, the FLSA left a number of issues unresolved, and only applied to 20% of US industry (6).
Why does this matter to us today?
The struggles of more than eighty years ago, those that led to the passage of FLSA, remain with us today, albeit in a different and often hard to detect forms. Because this system has evolved around the same predicate – the atomized, individual person – and has fostered growth of the public-private corporate state, workers are left largely on their own. A case in point is the plight of Amazon warehouse workers (7).
The Supreme Court decided a case called, Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc v. Busk in 2014, ruling the time employees spend waiting to be screened for security purposes, even if it takes up to twenty-five minutes per day, is not compensable work (8). Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. is used by Amazon to staff warehouse operations with workers.
Twenty-five minute per day, over a one-year period amounts to roughly 100 hours per employee. How many missed birthdays and family events could be lost to that 100 hours? (9).
Consider this: When Jeff Bezos was divorced from his wife, he gave-up one-half of his worth of roughly $130B, and by the time we were three months into the pandemic, he’d earned every bit of that back and more. One what ground does Bezos stand in denying Amazon workers a lousy twenty-five minutes of pay per day while they wait on a security screening designed to protect merchandise from theft? It’s the same ground on which industrialists stood in the 1930’s, and it ain’t no ground at all.
- Ritzman, Matthew E. “A State of Confusion: How the FLSA Is Failing to Ensure a Fair Day’s Pay and How to Address It.” The University of Toledo, 2018, www.utoledo.edu/law/studentlife/lawreview/volumes/v50n1.html.
- Flanigan, James. “FDR Met Social Needs and Saved Profit System.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 25 Oct. 1999, www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1999-oct-25-ss-26179-story.html.
- Grossman, J. (n.d.). Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938: Maximum Struggle for a Minimum Wage. Retrieved September 21, 2020, from https://www.dol.gov/general/aboutdol/history/flsa1938
- Chen, M. (2015, June 29). Supreme Court Case Shows How Amazon Legally Cheats Workers. Retrieved September 21, 2020, from https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/supreme-court-case-shows-how-amazon-legally-cheats-workers/
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