There is quite a big stink being made over a story that first appeared in the London Mail on Sunday newspaper and is now available online. The charge leveled is an old, worn out one about sweat shops in China; the latest twist is that Apple is making a killing from IPods profiting from the abuse of Chinese laborers. Mark Graban has written on it, taking Apple to task, and a lot of folks see it the way he does way. I am a bit more skeptical.
For one thing, most of the anti-sweat shop noise is generated by folks highly motivated by an ulterior agenda. For example, if a factory opposes union organizing efforts, that, de facto, makes them a sweat shop in most circles, no matter what the wages and working conditions might be. Note that a lot of the funding for the anti-sweat shop crowd comes from American labor unions who have an obvious interest in driving foreign wages up and pressuring companies to manufacture everything here- within the reach of their organizing efforts.
Mark wrote, "American companies used to treat people this way, but conditions improved. You have to give credit to labor unions for that, as much as we love to criticize unions." I have great respect for Mark, but I think he could not be more wrong with that statement. Workers ‘rights’ in the U.S. – minimum wages, work hour restrictions, workplace safety, overtime pay, retirement benefits and protection against discrimination – were all assured by the government long ago. If the unions had been successful, all of those laws passed in the 1930’s would not have been necessary. Unions are dying on the vine precisely because workers realize that they have nothing to offer. Why pay dues when the government and the employer have it all covered?
The anti-sweat shop crowd, however, is driven by an ideology based on the principle that all employers, especially all manufacturing employers, are inherently evil and left uncontrolled they will always be abusive to employees. That is absurd. By the criteria laid down by the Worker’s Rights Consortium – the gang all of the colleges belong to in their anti-sweatshop crusade – Toyota in Georgetown is a sweatshop. They say a factory "shall recognize the union of the employees’ choice". If it doesn’t, it is branded a sweatshop and the products made in it cannot be bought or sold on American college campuses. More important, the colleges will not license their logo to appear on any goods from that plant. Global Exchange (At least give them credit for being right up front about it) states, "A sweatshop is any factory where workers’ basic human rights to form independent trade unions are violated."
The other interesting criteria for sweat shop classification is environmental compliance. Ann Coulter is a conservative writer who has skewered the liberal community for hiding behind tragic victims to make their case. Because the mothers of Iraq war dead and widows of 9-11 are such sympathetic figures, no one can criticize their liberal political views without appearing to be cruel and insnsitive. The environmentalists are following the same practice. Certainly there should be environmental standards for manufacturing, but that is a separate issue from sweatshops. Co-op America lambastes what it has classified as sweatshops, in the course of pursuing "economic action for a just planet". But everywhere you look in its organization you find that its primary concern is really the conversion of all manufacturing to its definition of a "green business". The way to get off of their sweatshop list is to comply with their extreme environmental agenda, and if you do not support their environmental agenda, then you care nothing for the poor young girls who comprise the sweatshop workers in the world
All of this seriously undermines the credibility of those who cry about sweatshops. The problem with the Apple article is that it falls into the same logical hole the caring – very wealthy, but caring – young ladies from Wellesley College fell into a few months ago. The Wellesley Association of Labor Rights Activists got together a few months back to put on their fourth annual "Sweatshop Simulation. The girls worked for 12 hours "under fluorescent lighting, loud constant factory noises, and heat". They received two bathroom breaks and a lunch break, and received "wages in cash comparable to those of an overseas sweatshop worker." The purpose was to "raise awareness about sweatshops".
The median house value in Wellesley, Massachusetts is $600K and the average household income is almost $200K. Wellesley is one of the most expensive colleges in the land – almost $50K a year. I imagine the "wages in cash comparable to those of an overseas sweatshop worker" were a bit of a shock to the Wellesley girls. For that matter, had they been paid the "wages in cash" a factory worker here in Tucson would have earned, it probably would not have covered the tab for an evening at the sushi bar at the China Sky restaurant in Wellesley. I also imagine that twelve hours of legitimate work "under fluorescent lighting, loud constant factory noises" would be a pretty rude awakening to a young woman whose daddy can spring for a Wellesley degree. On the other hand, 12 hours wages paid to the guy who mopped up the Wellesley ‘factory for a day’ at the end of the event would go pretty far in Shenzhen – the site of Apple’s crimes. Paying Chinese wages in wealthy Boston suburbs hardly teaches useful economic lessons.
The point is that before you get too worked up about sweatshops, you need to do two things: Consider the source of the information; and Try to look at it from the right perspective. I have been to the Shenzhen Economic Enterprise Zone and to the city of Shenzhen and I can help with the perspective. The author of the Apple story left out a few important points.
You can start to get a feel for things by looking at a map. A short train ride from Hong Kong – the capitalism center of the world and the site of a deep water port of gargantuan scale – through the New Territories puts you in Shenzhen. Hong Kong was part of the UK until 1997, and the Shenzhen EEZ was created in order to have a place in China set aside for industrialization that was accessible from Hong Kong. There really were two borders. The first is the one between Hong Kong and the Shenzhen EEZ, and the second is between the Shenzhen EEZ and real China. The EEZ is really an industrial no man’s land with less Communist control in order to make it more accessible for business.
There are a lot of factories in the Shenzhen EEZ – I mean a lot of factories. There are plenty of people in China to work in them, but not nearly enough in Shenzhen. Manufacturers fill the void by recruiting in the extremely poor rural villages to the west. The standard arrangement is that a young person signs up for a year to work in a factory. Included in the deal are room and board, health care, and uniforms, along with wages. The factories are walled compounds with three separate dormitories within the walls: One for the men, one for the women and one for the managers (all men). Security is tight partly to keep the young folks from getting any wild ideas and leaving to explore the surrounding area, but mostly to keep the rest of China out. The Shenzhen EEZ is a pretty wild, lawless area. You would not want your sister working in a plant in the EEZ unless you were sure there were sturdy walls and tight security to keep her in and the bad guys out.
Since there is nothing to spend money on, wages are either held by the company until the year is out and paid in a lump sum, or sent back home to mom and pop – whichever was the deal going in. Also included in the deal is a round trip bus or train ticket. The contracts are timed to expire at the beginning of the Chinese New Year holiday when the factory shuts down and everybody goes home. The employees are promised a bonus, usually a month’s pay, if they return at the end of the holiday for another year. The return rate is critical to the manufacturers for obvious reasons, and they go to great lengths to keep it high. Despite the widespread belief that the Chinese use people up and toss them out at will, the fact is that Chinese managers understand the value of a trained and experienced workforce as well as anyone. They cannot profit if they must retrain an entirely new workforce every year. The best companies – like Johnson Electric – see return rates after the holiday in the 90-95% range or better. Most companies view 75% as about as good as can be expected.
They do have company issued uniforms, and they have mandatory workouts – kind of like P.E. class – for health reasons. Sick employees are bad for business. They keep the boys and girls apart as much as they can out of a sense of cultural morality, as well as for sound business reasons. It would not go over well back in the village to have little Suzie Wong come back pregnant after her year at the factory. Of course, the boys and girls devote a great deal of effort to beating the system and finding ways to socialize.
Is it a lousy system by American standards? Of course. Are the workers underpaid by American standards? You bet. Do they work long hours by American standards at tough jobs? Certainly. How about by Chinese standards? You have your answer when they vote with their feet every year. The vast majority come back again and again of their own free will.
And how bad is it really? Let’s see … institutional food, mandatory physical workouts, fenced in for a year, no inter-gender fraternization, mandatory uniforms, lousy pay, airtight security, and a wad of cash at the end if you’ll agree to do it again … sounds like the deal my son has in the U.S. Army, only without anyone shooting at you.
Of course there are miserable, wretched, legitimate sweatshops in the world, but a typical Chinese factory isn’t one of them, and the factory in the Shenzhen EEZ making IPods isn’t either. It is just a some uninformed people, or people with a special agenda, taking shots at Steve Jobs and Apple.
A more important sweat shop story hit the news recently that carries a far more significant message for the lean manufacturing community. Right Foot Forward For Child Labourers from the BBC talks about clamping down on using child labor to sew soccer balls in Pakistan. Rizwan Dar is the Neanderthal who used to make money by abusing kids. The people studying evolution should make a lab monkey out of him – he is proof that Neanderthals have the ability to learn tricky concepts. Said this Director of Saga Sports, the world’s largest soccer ball maker, "Ultimately it paid us back." He finally figured out that when he stopped using ten year old kids, the quality of the product went up and the cost went down.
A serious business knows that lean manufacturing principles render significantly lower costs and better quality every time. We could have told the slow-to-learn Mr. Dar that employing and engaging the best people and fairly compensating them for their contribution would yield greater profits for Saga Sports. It would have saved thousands of Pakistani kids years of hardship – and made a lot of money for Mr. Dar.
Sweatshops are not a cost cutting approach to manufacturing; they are a waste of skilled resources that can never succeed in the long term and no lean manufacturer would be stupid enough to run a sweatshop or buy from one. Trained, respected employees always produce better products at better costs than ill treated ones. Whether there is a local version of OSHA or not, a 5S plant is always more cost effective and productive than a dark, dirty, oppressive place. Does Walmart buy from sweatshops like the aforementioned sites assert? Judging by the fact that most retailers have a cardboard box below the register to hold store returns, while Walmart has pallet rack behind the customer service desk, I suspect they might be guilty as charged.
Here’s the bottom line: What a reporter from London, a starry-eyed girl from Wellesley, an environmental extremist, or a union organizer has to say about sweatshops should mean nothing to a world class manufacturer. Just be sure to source from companies that are truly lean, and your non-lean competition will end up on the business scrap heap, and they will take the last of the true sweatshops with them.
“Is it a lousy system by American standards? Of course. Are the workers underpaid by American standards? You bet….How about by Chinese standards?”
Isn’t this just moral relativist bullshit?
“The vast majority come back again and again of their own free will.”
…although “free will” certainly *is* relative – at least in China.
Mark Graban says
I don’t think the main issue is the pay… it’s tough to compare wages given cost of living and exchange rates, blah blah blah. But it’s the working conditions that are the issue. We can make excuses or rationalize or we can push to try to make things better.
I’m glad I inpsired you to write another book, Bill. ;-)
I don’t understand your argument on unions at all:
“If the unions had been successful, all of those laws passed in the 1930’s would not have been necessary. Unions are dying on the vine precisely because workers realize that they have nothing to offer. Why pay dues when the government and the employer have it all covered?”
Yes, unions have little to offer today. But when you look at the late 1800’s and through the early Henry Ford era, companies treated employees very badly. The unions absolutely got laws improving labor standards pushed through. Do you think “all those laws” were passed out of the goodness of government’s heart? Unions were successful in getting those laws passed. It seems like you’re trying to say “government did that, not unions.” But unions can’t pass laws.
Don’t let your current-day anti-union bias cloud the history of what unions accomplished back in the day.
“Sweatshops are not a cost cutting approach to manufacturing; they are a waste of skilled resources that can never succeed in the long term and no lean manufacturer would be stupid enough to run a sweatshop or buy from one.”
Well good luck convincing people of that when you’re in China. If it’s so obvious that sweatshops are the economic loser, why does the concept keep hanging around in different countries? What is the universal human need to treat others badly in the workplace? I bet the people running these factories feel POWER, they have pretty absolute control over sweatshop worker lives. You can’t use just an economic self-interest argument to take that away.
Mark Graban says
Here is some history on how labor unions acted first to end U.S. child labor (with help from “Wellesley housewives”) and then the government acted:
Josef Horber says
I believe, that the “free will” of the chinese to work in that place is really free.
One of my relatives lives in a poor, post-communist Eastern-European country. With a pretty good job experience, the highest salary, she can get is around 300 USD / month.
She is one of hundreds, who work as waitresses in Italian restaurants through the summer season for round 1,800 USD / month. The working conditions in those jobs are horrible compared to western standards: 12-15 hours work, 7 (!) days a week, 2 (!) days off during the whole 4-month season, work clothes to be payed out of the employees own pocket, even if You drop a glass during serving, You have to pay it on Your own. At the end of the summer, she is completely exhausted, but this is already her 3rd summer, so she returned completely out of “free will” 2 times.
80% of Dubai´s population is poor immigrants from India, Bangladesh, etc, living in miserable conditions and earning a few bugs per month, but still many times more, then in their home contries. I feel sorry for these guys, but I don´t think, there is a single one among them being forced to go there.
I know, it is very ironical, but if Your choice is between “miserable” and “very miserable”, what would You do?
However, if Apple pretends, not to not know about those working conditions, that is a serious concern. I would bet, they conduct regulary supplier audits, so how can they state, they don´t know abut it?
If Apple´s choice is to assemble the iPod under such conditions, and they find willing workers to do it, so be it… but then they should not play the innocent and write nice-sounding policies, giving the customers and the stakeholders the impression of having a superior social responsability compared to others.
I hope, reports like this reach at least one thing: to teach those living in wealthy countries to be grateful for their high living standards. Looking at other people, who just had bad luck of being born in other parts of the world should teach us to stop whining about our own conditions.
> I know, it is very ironical, but if Your
> choice is between “miserable” and “very
> miserable”, what would You do?
that was really my point – it’s a choice, but not much of one: therefore their freedom is severely, perhaps even repressively, limited. and i don’t believe it’s OK to justify that on the basis of cultural difference: some cultures basically suck a lot more than others and should be held to account for their failings, and foreign investors have some of the best leverage in that regard.
Jon (hand-wringing liberal ipod owner)
Bill Waddell says
Just curious. “therefore their freedom is severely, perhaps even repressively, limited. and i don’t believe it’s OK to justify that on the basis of cultural difference”.
Can I assume that you disagree with the rest of the hand-wringing liberals who say that we (the U.S.) has no right to impose our values on the people of Iraq?
Or are you on board with the rest of the liberal crowd who somehow, and with a straight face – in fact often so straight they have tears in their eyes – assert that the business/investment community should be held to account for the fact that a foreign culture provides them with few job choices;
but the U.S. has no business interfering with the fact that the dictator under which the same people live has deprived them of any and all choice regarding religion, education, women’s rights, movement, etc…
I have long found it “ironical”, to use Josef’s term, that business is viewed as the source of economic repression in third world, rather than the corrupt leaders who create and enforce policies that have all but ruined the economies of their countries.
I note that you offer no solutions or suggestions – just a Wellesley like demonstration that you have a high awareness and that you care.
I didn’t bother to use it in the blog post, but feel free to use your IPod guilt free. An HP inspector keep s a very close eye on the very plant in question, and has found no evidence of ‘sweatshop’ practices. Read about her here:
The world is full of problems, Jon. Most of them are pretty complicated. Pushing simple minded solutions, like trashing Apple and suggesting that simply paying higher wages to assembly workers in China will solve them is easy. But they are not the solution to anything.
American business did not cause the wrteched standard of living in many places around the globe. As a result, they cannot be the solution. The root cause and only cure for the the low standard of living in China lies in Beijing – not on Wall Street.
“American business did not cause the wrteched standard of living in many places around the globe. As a result, they cannot be the solution.” Just because business didn’t cause a problem should not give business a free pass on helping correct the problem. They may not be the cause and they may not be the total answer but they should be apart of the solution.
Mark Graban says
So Bill, how does “lean” trump sweatshops then? You can actually convince sweatshop owners “you can make money by doing lean?”
Bill Waddell says
Child labor exists, and has throughout history, not because of people’s values and priorities, but because of poor economies. Note that the kid from Pakistan said of his pay that “The money goes straight to my dad for things like food.”
Every society would rather have their kids in school instead of a factory. Child labor occurs when it is impossible for mom and dad to make enough to feed the family.
The child labor Charles Dickens infamized took place when it cost $1.25-$1.50 a week to feed, clothe and house a family in London, and the combined wages an unskilled mon and dad could possibly earn in a week were $1.00 or less.
Simply raising wages does not solve the problem because it directly raises prices. If you further read the article on Pakistan, the kid was freed from sewing soccer balls not simply by customer fiat that no children be used, but “To guard against the loss of income, the ILO set up micro-credit schemes that many families have used to buy livestock or establish small businesses.” The root causes of low family income had to be cured in order to eliminate child labor.
The abolition of child labor in the U.S. and Europe came about precisely because of the Industrial Revolution – not because social reformers were so aghast at having children work in wretched factories. The economic boom resulting from the Industrial Revolution allowed Europe and the U.S. to enjoy what had been previously thought of us a luxury – to have kids in school until they were sixteen instead of working to support the family.
You asked, “Do you think all those laws’ were passed out of the goodness of government’s heart?” As crude as it works sometimes, the government of the U.S. does, in fact, reflect the will of the people. So, yes, the child labor reforms were passed by the good of the American people’s hearts. Noticeably missing from the time line of the child labor law history you sent was an event in 1920 that had a significant impact on the size and warmth of the “government’s heart” – women got the right to vote. And they voted in droves for the abolition of child labor, which had a whole lot more impact on things than Samuel Gompers, the AFL or the CIO.
Lean manufacturing represents a transition I believe to be on the same order of magnitude as the Industrial Revolution. Toyota is demonstrating extraordinarily superior use of capital and level of human productivity. It also demonstrates that minimizing labor costs is a very small contributor to manufacturing success. Unlike the Industrial Revolution, Lean does not require great amounts of capital and access to vast natural resources. Making soccer balls can be radically more productive through lean practices.
I believe that if every Pakistani endeavor – from soccer balls to health care to government adopted truly lean management practices, there would be a radical improvement across the board in Pakistani productivity and the resulting Pakistani economy. The amount of wealth they can create with their limited capital will be much, much greater That will kill child labor, and other sweatshop practices.
Josef Horber says
To continue with stereotypes, the “western capitalistic” business IS already solving a lot of problems. If You ask the iPod assembler in Shenzen, the construction worker in Dubai, or my sister in law in Italy, why they work in the “sweatshop”, they will answer: because I make here 5x more, then at home. Without their “shameless” employer, they would not earn that money.
But still, I am not protecting Apple… demonstrating fair-play in high-glossy brochures and paying a few dollars for the assembly is hypocritical. They know the cost of their products, and they also know very well, how much labour content is included in those costs, regardless, whether they assemble them alone or with a subcontractor.
They don´t have to raise the labour rates… but say honestly: “We are respecting the local laws of a careless government in a corrupt country. Nothing more, nothing less. We could do more, but there is no business case for that.”
But as long as they say the opposite, they should also act like that.
Mark Graban says
Josef – I don’t think the big issue is the pay. I think Apple says “we make sure suppliers treat employees humanely and to these standards” and then they dropped the ball on that.
Barry "aka the Hillbilly" says
Boy, you really picked a lively topic Bill. Perhaps I shouldn’t tread in these waters ? It just seems to me that Companies should treat people with common deciency and the respect that all humans should be aforded. This really shouldn’t change no matter where in the world the company does their thing. In many of these developing economies worker needs are very basic things that don’t cost a tremendous amount. I have been to companies that even provide 2 out of the 3 daily meals to their employees. I wonder if it is really that hard to make sure that the right things get taken care of up front and then follow up at regular intervals to make sure they stay that way. Even though I don’t have a problem with a company making a profit, I wonder if selling an i-pod for a $100 bucks or more a crack and knowing that it costs only $5 to manufacture and assemble it wouldn’t be somewhat obscene. I don’t know the true cost of manufacturing and assembling the i-pod. The point I am trying to make is that making a 1000% profit while not making sure that basic human working conditions were being met would seem obscene to me. I also wonder if there might not be a lot of Western Middlemen and Retailers who aren’t making obscene profit (100-1000%) while at the same time not really caring what the working conditions for the workers might be ? (Walmart comes to mind).
P.S> Have you been following the feud between Friedman at the NY Times and GM. Friedman is the World is Flat guy, was wondering what your take was on it?
Bill Waddell says
The NYT criticizing GM? Thats a hoot. The New York Times has virtually flat revenues, decreasing profits and stock prices sinking like a stone. Between Jayson Blair and Judith Miller, they have a worse reputation for quality than GM did on their worst day.
Criticism by the New York Times should be meaningless. Shame on GM and Bob Lutz for taking time away from the tough work they have in front of them to bother responding to any tempest in a teapot stirred up by the NYT.
According to the NYT’s own writing, exactly 12% of the American public thinks the media can be believed – only lawyers rate as a less trustworthy profession.
The bottom line … who cares what a NYT writer had to say about GM or anything else?
Barry "aka the Hillbilly" says
Hey Bill, I agree with your assesment of the NY Times. Just wondering if you had been following it. Friedman was pretty over the top. He more or less said that GM was the most dangerous US company and the sooner GM was gone or bought out by Toyota the better. He ended up comparing GM to a Crack dealer. The whole thing was related to GM providing a Gas Card for customers in California and Florida who bought certain GM products (Probably the larger SUV’s). GM responded in their Fast lane blog and then Friedman responded again in the Times.
> Can I assume that you disagree with the rest
> of the hand-wringing liberals who say that we
> (the U.S.) has no right to impose our values
> on the people of Iraq?
Yup. It used to be said that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one”. I think this fine maxim of internet entropy could be updated to include the probability of someone questioning another’s views on Operation Iraqi Freedom regardless of the original topic…but never mind. Suffice to say, I have absolutely no problem with the USA imposing (by force if necessary) values such as universal human rights, religious freedom and open democracy on other cultures – so do let me know when they actually get around to making a serious attempt. (Cheap shot, sorry).
As for your other points, I think they’ve been fairly well covered by the other posters. Western businesses *do* carry a responsibility when operating in countries under “less than ideal” regimes. Their responsilbilities are (a) to not exploit the conditions created by repression in order to increase profits and drive down costs; and (b) to shine as an example to the world that western democratic capitalism, when applied ethically, can actually contribute to the good of all.
Eric H says
“If the unions had been successful, all of those laws passed in the 1930’s would not have been necessary.”
I agree with Mark. A union as a bargaining agent with rights equal to those of the employer is one thing, but “all of those laws” mostly consisted of Davis-Bacon (1931), Norris-LaGuardia Act (1931), the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) (1933), and the National Labor Relations Act (1935). The purpose of those laws was to grant a legal monopoly to the labor unions.
Davis-Bacon is widely regarded as being a pro-union, anti-black act. It required federal contracts to pay the “prevailing wage”, information about which was supplied by (surprise) unions. They were upset at being undercut by contractors who hired black workers who were incidentally barred from unions. So, raise the minimum wage paid on the job and – voila! – no more competitive cost advantage. Even Democrat Matthew Yglesias admits that Davis-Bacon is merely homage to the Democrats’ favorite money machine.
The NLRA or Wagner Act was an attempt to salvage provisions of the overturned National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) which was in turn Roosevelt’s Brain Trust’s implementation of “corporativism”. Corporativism was an experimental idea in organization they had borrowed from the Italian government at the time in which every industry was organized as a cartel; the NIRA was overturned in 1935. Its successor, the Wagner Act, basically shifted the balance of power to the unions by blaming violence on the companies, requiring them to deal with the first union to get certified (closed shop), and declared the union certified if they could get just 30% of the workers to vote for them (very majoritarian, huh?). Union membership which had remained steady at around 3.5 million from 1922 to 1935 suddenly shot up, doubling to over 7 million in 1937, and doubling again to 14 million by 1944. The average number of stoppages per year increased from 980 between 1922 and 1932 to 1695 in 1933, then to 4740 in 1937. If the laws passed in the early 30s were so helpful, why did people suddenly start joining and striking in droves? It wasn’t the Depression; they waited almost 6 years after the start, and two years after the bottom, to start joining. The Wagner Act basically gave unions license to use strikes and violence to achieve a legal monopoly in labor supply. More workers were “organized” through recognition strikes in the 1934-1939 period than through elections.
The UAW was one of those unions that achieved recognition this way, but through an innovation: the sit-down strike. It was easy to simply take over a big plant, force recognition, and then put a stop to GM’s and Ford’s dealings with all of the independent suppliers.
Bill Waddell says
Interesting recitation of the legislation that gave unions power, but they are not the “all those regulations” to which I referred. Mark’s assertion was that worker’s rights in the United States were the product of organized labor. Specifically, he said:
“The unions absolutely got laws improving labor standards pushed through. Do you think “all those laws” were passed out of the goodness of government’s heart? Unions were successful in getting those laws passed. It seems like you’re trying to say “government did that, not unions.” But unions can’t pass laws.
Don’t let your current-day anti-union bias cloud the history of what unions accomplished back in the day.”
This was in response to my writing:
“Workers ‘rights’ in the U.S. – minimum wages, work hour restrictions, workplace safety, overtime pay, retirement benefits and protection against discrimination – were all assured by the government long ago. If the unions had been successful, all of those laws passed in the 1930’s would not have been necessary. Unions are dying on the vine precisely because workers realize that they have nothing to offer. Why pay dues when the government and the employer have it all covered?”
The “all those laws” in question were primarily one law – The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. It abolished child labor, created the minimum wage, set the 40 hour work week, and made time and a half for ovetime mandatory.
The law was pure Roosevelt New Deal, but was really a pet project of Eleanor Roosevelts. She was active in pushing to set these policies in New York while FDR was governor. She got fired up about the cause after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911 in which 146 female garment workers died. Her soulmate in the cause was FDR’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins. The two of them deserve most of the credit for FLSA. I guess you could say, since they were both sympathetic to organized labor that the unions had some tangential effect, but they were hot to improve working conditions for twenty years before FDR even became President.
The unions not only did not universally push for it, many actively opposed it. You can read a mind numbing article on union apathy and even opposition to the FLSA at
It was written by Howard Samuels, an international labor under-secretary in the Clinton administration, a lif elonf union organizer before that, and subsequently one of the founders of a liberal, anti-sweatshop lobbying group called the National Policy Association. The point is that he is no apologist for business.
He wrote, in part, “Despite the unwavering support of President Roosevelt, and the dedicated efforts of some labor leaders on behalf of the bill, some elements of the labor movement actively fought the bill, while others held the measure hostage to their specific demands. Labor opponents were not alone, of course. The business community was largely opposed to it, and Southern Democrats often were linked with Republicans in their opposition.
Despite the opposition, however, eventually the Fair Labor Standards Act did pass, and President Roosevelt commented, a few days after he signed it on June 28, 1938, that “I do think that next to the Social Security Act it is the most important Act that has been passed in the last two to three years”
Sorry guys, but the unions have always been a business, pure and simple, with precious little concern for the plight and the rights of the working man. They opposed the passage of minimum wage, work week and overtime laws for the very simple reason that I stated – it would put them out of business. If government assures those things, who needs a union?
The other law relevant to the post was the Occupational Safety and Health Act signed into law in 1970 by Nixon – hardly a pawn of organized labor.
Sorry guys – the unions are responsible for next to none of the benefits workers enjoy in the U.S. today. It came from government regulation, and mostly from the business decisions of employers who have to compete for good employees.
Bill Waddell says
Hitler? It seems as though you are the one that can only go so far into a discussion without bringing up the old Nazi, who incidentally took sweatshops to a whole new level.
My question about Iraq was simply to confirm that I was dealing with a genuine, across the board, Bush hating, big business bashing liberal. I appreciate the confirmation.
I suggest you read a couple of pieces you might find interesting:
1. My post titled, “I Thought You’d Never Ask. You can find it at:
Here is the relevant part:
“I agree with the principle of putting an end to terrorism by toppling terrorist friendly regimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. My son spent a year in the 173rd Airborne with his life on the line along the Pakistan border for that principle. I think people – all people, not just American people – have been “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.” If America is going to stand for this lofty ideal, how about if our government puts money on an equal footing with my son’s life, and the lives of every other young person fighting terrorism and promoting democracy? How about if a country is not democratic, then no American company can own a factory there, there is a serious export tax for anything made in America going there, and there is an even more serious import tax on anything made there coming into this country? And free trade is limited to democratic countries that protect people’s rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? That means China, for anyone who missed the none too subtle point.
If the altar of freedom is worth laying 2,500 or so American lives on in the interest of putting an end to state sponsored terrorism and instilling fundamental human rights, then it ought to be worth forcing the wizards of management at Texas Instruments and so many others to settle for Mexican and Taiwanese labor costs, instead of Chinese. American business has to stand for something greater than the Dow Jones Industrial Average.”
2. An article in Info World on the IPOD debacle. Tou can find it at:
Agree completely with (1).
“Liberal” not a dirty word this side of the Atlantic – here in the UK we’re more about Ann Summers than Ann Coulter, and the idea that the Prez considers himself to have been “intelligently designed” tickles us greatly. Bless!
I’d better be off, since I appear to have inadvertantly evolved into a troll. Great blog and apologies for the off-topic.
Eric H says
Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say all work conditions were brought about by union agitation alone. It’s not as if all managers were stupid, and in fact it was widespread prosperity that allowed people to start making changes from the old system, where children started work shortly after they were able to walk, to the new system where they could be sent to school.
Many of the changes were brought about by interaction between employers and employees and just plain common sense as well as in the best interests of the company. J. J. Hill was known to fire any engineer on the spot if caught going above 25 mph because of the danger (they had a device as long ago as the late 19th century that recorded train speed for the purpose). Many of Ford’s more enlightened policies came before the Progressive era. I doubt there was much non-farm child labor by 1938, and I’m not convinced a full moratorium on it has been a good thing, especially after looking into the apprenticeship programs they have in other places like Germany. The 40 hour work week is arbitrary, and the minimum wage has always been a dubious proposition. Better to let people work those out interactively than to lay down a blanket law.
Do you know how hard it is to document time when you choose to go with something besides a 5 x 8 work week? We do a 4 x 9, 1 x 8, and 4 x 9 week, but the state requires us to be consistent about defining the start/stop of the week. If we do it one way, the workforce ends up with a 36 hour week and a 44 hour week – and 4 hours of overtime pay for the second week, even though they worked regular hours. If we do it the preferred way, they end up splitting the day on Friday. And you ought to see how fast people drop their tools when the clock comes to the end of the day. The arbitrary selection of a time limit reinforces the idea that a job should be drudgery that you avoid rather than enjoy, and all of the 30s labor laws reinforced the wrong-headed ideas of class warfare, labor v. capital, that were ascendant at the time.