Image courtesy of Library of CongressA former stage and film actress, Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas of California was an outspoken advocate for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation.
On this date, the Fair Labor Standards Act Amendments of 1949 (P.L. 49-393) became law. The legislation updated the landmark Federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. That measure—widely considered the last major legislative accomplishment of the New Deal—provided for a 40-hour workweek, outlawed child labor, and set a minimum wage of 25 cents per hour which increased to 40 cents over a seven-year period. Advocates for an amended version of the act, argued that raising the minimum wage would boost purchasing power and improve the economy. Opponents, backed by the farm and industry lobbies, insisted that hiking the minimum wage would force employers to trim their payrolls and devastate smaller businesses. Debate was acrid but there were moments of levity. At one point, Helen Gahagan Douglas of California entered the well of the House to discuss her amendment to protect telephone operators who might be exempted from receiving the minimum wage. “I am speaking for women,” Douglas intoned. “Unless you adopt this amendment, 10,000 women will be uncovered.” In response to her infelicitous phrasing, the House erupted in solid laughter for two minutes—after which her amendment was approved. Introduced in the House as H.R. 5856 in the 81st Congress (1949–1951), the final legislation struck a compromise. Legislators boosted the minimum wage to 75 cents per hour while narrowing the range of workers covered under the act. It directed the Secretary of Labor to enforce the wage provisions and also granted the Labor Department the authority to sue (on behalf of employees) for back wages. The House version passed 361 to 35 on August 11, 1949.