The Right’s Anti-Minimum Wage Arguments Have Pretty Much Stayed the Same for 80 Years

Branko Marcetic November 13, 2015

George Segal's "Breadline" sculpture, part of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., is a stark reminder of the desperation that defined the Great Depression—a time which conservatives have apparently forgotten.

Over the past year, the cam­paign to raise the min­i­mum wage has been steadi­ly accu­mu­lat­ing promi­nence, polit­i­cal allies and, most impor­tant­ly, suc­cess­es. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, it has also occa­sioned a push­back from con­ser­v­a­tive politi­cians and colum­nists who view its increase as a mis­guid­ed, self-defeat­ing folly. 

The main points of the con­ser­v­a­tive argu­ment against rais­ing the min­i­mum wage tend to be as fol­lows: Increas­ing it would lead busi­ness­es to either raise prices or fire work­ers (or both) in order to deal with a spi­ral­ing cost of labor. This means that while some work­ers would be lift­ed out of pover­ty, many would lose their jobs, plung­ing them into greater finan­cial straits, while all con­sumers would lose out from pay­ing more for goods and ser­vices. This would iron­i­cal­ly hit young, inex­pe­ri­enced and low-skill work­ers the hard­est, as they have the least bar­gain­ing pow­er and are typ­i­cal­ly the first to be fired. It is there­fore bet­ter to let the mar­ket take its course and allow busi­ness­es to grad­u­al­ly raise their wages of their own accord. 

In fact, on Tues­day, sev­er­al Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates made some of these very argu­ments, kick­ing off the lat­est GOP debate by stat­ing their oppo­si­tion to the Fight for 15 move­ment. Ben Car­son claimed that, as a black youth, he would nev­er have been hired as a lab assis­tant if some­one had to pay me a large amount of mon­ey.” Sim­i­lar­ly, Mar­co Rubio protest­ed that, if you raise the min­i­mum wage, you’re going to make peo­ple more expen­sive than a machine.” He instead pro­posed help­ing wages to rise nat­u­ral­ly” by putting for­ward pro-busi­ness pro­pos­als that would assumed­ly trick­le down to workers. 

While con­sid­er­ing these doom-and-gloom pre­dic­tions, it’s use­ful to recall the debate that took place near­ly 80 years ago, when Franklin Roo­sevelt first tried to estab­lish a nation­al min­i­mum wage in the Unit­ed States, as part of the New Deal. The Fair Labor Stan­dards Act (FLSA), which was intro­duced to Con­gress in 1937, aimed to elim­i­nate sweat­shop con­di­tions by estab­lish­ing a min­i­mum wage, a max­i­mum work week, and out­law­ing child labor. It also ini­tial­ly sug­gest­ed a five-mem­ber board that could raise wages and short­en work­ing hours on a case-by-case basis. Dur­ing June 1937, Con­gress held three hear­ings invit­ing pub­lic com­ment on the pro­posed law. 

The FLSA as pro­posed wasn’t per­fect. Like oth­er New Deal leg­is­la­tion, it exclud­ed farm work­ers as a mat­ter of polit­i­cal expe­di­en­cy, as a large share of agri­cul­tur­al labor­ers were African Amer­i­cans in the south, and Roo­sevelt need­ed the sup­port of south­ern con­gress­men to get it and future laws passed. Not only that, but as one of the law’s pro­po­nents said in the hear­ings regard­ing the fig­ure of 40 cents an hour that was being dis­cussed at the time (around $6.60 in 2015 dol­lars): it would be a calami­ty if such a wage min­i­mum as that referred to should in any way be con­strued as a liv­ing wage.” Still, though inad­e­quate, the bill’s sup­port­ers saw it as a wor­thy first step. 

The bill’s crit­ics also saw it as a first step, although for them it was decid­ed­ly in the wrong direc­tion. While some were sole­ly out­raged at the idea of an unelect­ed board of men being giv­en what they saw as dic­ta­to­r­i­al pow­er over busi­ness­es, many were against the very con­cept of a min­i­mum wage — even one as mea­ger as that pro­posed. Their objec­tions and pre­dic­tions will sound very famil­iar to any­one fol­low­ing the min­i­mum wage debate today. Here’s John E. Edger­ton, Pres­i­dent of the South­ern States Indus­tri­al Coun­cil, an orga­ni­za­tion rep­re­sent­ing south­ern businesses:

we con­fess our fail­ure to under­stand how it is pos­si­ble to improve the con­di­tions of the under­paid of the over­worked by a statute whose inevitable effect will be to increase great­ly the cost of pro­duc­tion, thus an inescapable advance in prices.

Edger­ton went on to warn that rais­ing the wage uni­form­ly would inevitably put south­ern man­u­fac­tur­ers out of busi­ness. Are work­ers bet­ter off with­out jobs?” he asked. 
J. D. Bat­tle of the Nation­al Coal Asso­ci­a­tion saw a sim­i­lar tra­jec­to­ry for busi­ness­es if the bill was passed: 

There is no break in the chain of cause and effect: increased hourly wages, increased cost per unit of prod­uct, a high­er sell­ing price, a falling off in demand, decreased pro­duc­tion, and decreased employment.

As Robert Dress­er of the Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Man­u­fac­tur­ers (NAM) — an anti-union orga­ni­za­tion of assort­ed busi­ness­es that fought var­i­ous New Deal laws — told the con­gress­men: you can­not leg­is­late a nation into prosperity.”

Just like today, 1930s con­ser­v­a­tives warned that those at the bot­tom of the lad­der would be hurt most by a min­i­mum wage. Guy L. Har­ring­ton of the Nation­al Pub­lish­ers’ Asso­ci­a­tion warned the impo­si­tion of a min­i­mum wage would throw all sub­stan­dard or mar­gin­al work­ers out of employ­ment as a bur­den to soci­ety,” while Bat­tle pre­sent­ed let­ters from two dif­fer­ent busi­ness­es claim­ing low-skill work­ers – or those who are not suf­fi­cient­ly com­pe­tent to earn their pay” – would quick­ly lose their jobs once the law was passed. A num­ber of those tes­ti­fy­ing, such Noël Sar­gent of NAM, even argued that the bill would make the next depres­sion worse than would oth­er­wise be the case.”

Today, it’s also not unusu­al to hear con­ser­v­a­tives warn­ing that a hike in the min­i­mum wage will sim­ply lead busi­ness­es to replace flesh and blood work­ers with those made from met­al and wire, like sushi-mak­ing machines or burg­er-flip­ping robots” that can do the job of unskilled work­ers for a frac­tion of the cost. This was also a claim made by those opposed to the FLSA. The man­ag­er of one Louisiana lum­ber com­pa­ny claimed that while the low cost of liv­ing in the South meant employ­ers hadn’t resort­ed to labor-sav­ing machin­ery” thus far, wage increas­es beyond a cer­tain point would force them into doing so and elim­i­nat­ing over half of [their] men.” Mean­while, the Under­wear Insti­tute warned that this and oth­er laws were push­ing up the cost of labor which would lead to increased use of machin­ery with the effect of dis­plac­ing manpower.” 

Final­ly, a num­ber of those tes­ti­fy­ing had near-apoc­a­lyp­tic visions of what the estab­lish­ment of a min­i­mum wage might mean. Har­ring­ton testified: 

What is here­in stip­u­lat­ed has been tried many times and failed. Rome 2,000 years ago, fell because the gov­ern­ment began fix­ing the prices of ser­vices and com­modi­ties …We, how­ev­er, know what has always hap­pened when gov­ern­ments have tried to super­in­tend the indus­try of pri­vate per­sons. The final result has always been dis­tress, mis­ery, and despair.

He, like many oth­ers, argued the bill was putting the Unit­ed States on the road to the com­plete cen­tral­iza­tion of Fed­er­al pow­er” and the cre­ation of unlim­it­ed form of gov­ern­ment.” L. N. Bent, the Vice Pres­i­dent of the Her­cules Pow­der Com­pa­ny sim­i­lar­ly believed gov­ern­ment con­trol of wages would lead to gov­ern­ment con­trol of prices. Express­ing his resent­ment at the encroach­ment of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment on state affairs, Bat­tle con­clud­ed: South Car­oli­na fired on Fort Sumter for far less pre­text than this bill affords.”

This wouldn’t be the last the Amer­i­can pub­lic would hear of this rhetoric. Year after year, decade after decade, these same argu­ments have been trot­ted out by min­i­mum wage oppo­nents each time a wage increase has been pro­posed. In 1961, one hotel man­ag­er lament­ed that if it the wage was increased, you will be able to buy hotels cheap.” Joseph E. Chas­tain, the own­er of Lintz depart­ment stores, com­plained in 1966 that no com­pa­ny our size can live under such cir­cum­stances. Undoubt­ed­ly we would have to liq­ui­date.” The com­pa­ny con­tin­ued to oper­ate for anoth­er 41 years. The Cham­ber of Com­merce warned on no less than four sep­a­rate occa­sions from 1975 to 1989 that min­i­mum wage ris­es would cost mil­lions of jobs. More recent­ly, in 2010, FOX News com­men­ta­tor John Stos­sel used vir­tu­al­ly the same words as Robert Dress­er did in 1937, stat­ing that, We can­not leg­is­late pros­per­i­ty.” You can draw a straight line from 1937 to today’s warn­ings of Destroy­ing jobs via wage diktats.”

Nor was the hyper­bolc rhetoric of col­lapse and dic­ta­to­r­i­al takeover lim­it­ed to the decade of the 1930s when it came to the min­i­mum wage. In 1960, Sen­a­tor Arthur Van­den­berg (R‑MI) warned that Fed­er­al wage-fix­ing” was dri­ving the Unit­ed States clos­er and ever clos­er to the cen­tral­ized author­i­tar­i­an state,” while Rep. Thomas Hage­dorn (R‑MN) cau­tioned that it strikes at a basic under­pin­ning of our demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem.” As late as 1997, Mark Wil­son of the Her­itage Foun­da­tion was sug­gest­ing that set­ting a legal­ly man­dat­ed wage floor was social­ism.”

The fact that con­ser­v­a­tives and busi­ness own­ers have been mak­ing the same claims about the min­i­mum wage for at least 80 years does not by itself auto­mat­i­cal­ly inval­i­date con­cerns about its increase. But it does sug­gest that con­ser­v­a­tive argu­ments should be tak­en with a grain of salt. Min­i­mum wage oppo­nents have tend­ed to view it as the har­bin­ger of eco­nom­ic dooms­day since its incep­tion, even when it was as mod­er­ate by today’s stan­dards as the FLSA of 1938 was. The fact that the sky hasn’t fall­en yet should tell us something. 

Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin mag­a­zine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing fel­low. He is work­ing on a forth­com­ing book about Joe Biden.
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