Friday, April 17, 2015

Nancy Woloch's "A Class by Herself"

Nancy Woloch teaches history at Barnard College, Columbia University. Her books include Women and the American Experience and Muller v. Oregon: A Brief History with Documents.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, A Class by Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers, 1890s-1990s, and reported the following:
A Class by Herself tracks the rise and fall of women-only state protective laws – such as maximum-hour laws, minimum wage laws, and night work laws – from their origins in progressive reform through the passage of New Deal labor law to the feminist attack on single-sex protective laws in the 1960s and 1970s. The book explores the institutions that promoted women-only protective laws; the context in which the laws arose; the challenges that proponents faced; the arguments they invoked; the impact of the laws in ever-changing circumstances; and their dismantling in the wake of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Protective laws set precedents that led to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and to current labor law; they also sustained a tradition of gendered law that impeded equality for much of the century.

On page 99, I discuss a critical turning point in the history of protective laws: the passage of a 1913 law in Oregon to regulate working hours. The law imposed a ten-hour limit on the workdays of all persons in manufacturing, but allowed employees to work overtime for another three hours if their employers paid them time and a half.

From page 99:
The overtime provision, a seeming afterthought, was crucial. First, this provision embodied a specific intent: to deter employers from demanding long hours. “Time and a half” was an enforcement strategy. The threat to employers was weak—they risked little—but it was present. Second, “overtime” had longtime roots in labor law, mainly in laws that applied to men. . . . Most recently, demands for overtime had arisen briefly among strikers at the Lawrence, Massachusetts textile mills in 1912 . . . and in 1913 among Oregon timber workers . . . . “Overtime” was a labor demand suddenly catapulted into a “general” law. Third, although the Oregon law seemed to be gender neutral – that is, to apply to all “persons” in manufacturing—it soon applied almost entirely to male persons. Why? In June 1913, about six months after the Oregon legislature passed the 1913 law, lawmakers established an Industrial Welfare Commission, with the power to set maximum hours for women workers at or under the maximum set by statute. The IWC at once lowered maximum hours for women in industry to nine hours a day and forty-eight hours a week, with no loopholes for overtime.
The Supreme Court upheld the 1913 Oregon law in Bunting v. Oregon (1917), a landmark decision that served as a precedent for New Deal policy and a step toward modern labor standards. The decision fulfilled reformers’ goal of extending protective law to men; it also made “overtime,” or time and a half, an enduring part of labor law. But overtime was a wild card in protective law. The meaning of the term, unstable and volatile, was always in flux. Intended as a coercive tactic, an incentive for employers to limit working hours, overtime became by the 1940s an impetus for workers to earn more income; it also functioned as an employer prerogative. Finally, overtime became a divisive issue when activist women clashed over single-sex protective laws in the 1960s and 1970s. Page 99 suggests a theme that shapes my narrative: unintended consequences.
Learn more about A Class by Herself at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue