Minimum Wage for Working Women
February 15, 1915 — Public Hearing, Factory Investigating Commission, New York State Senate Chambers, Albany NY
At the present time I am lecturer for the Joint Board of Sanitary Control and have been connected with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union for six years.
As a worker in the factories for years and as an organizer of working women for five or six years, as one who has come in contact with the working women in the factories during strikes, in organizations and out of organizations, I favor a minimum wage for working women and minors. I am indeed sorry to have heard some people who represent trade unions or who are trade unionists opposing a minimum wage for women in the State of New York. As a trade unionist I want to say this, that if I thought for one moment that a minimum wage would hurt organization or retard the progress of trade unionism. I certainly would not be here at this moment, for I believe too much in organization to solve the problem as a whole to speak for any thing that would retard organization, but I have given enough thought, enough time to the question of minimum wage, and I have come to the conclusion that it will not hurt the progress of organization but on the contrary it may help organization to a very great extent.
As to the necessity for a minimum wage for working women in the State of New York, I only want to say that if I had the time to go into details to describe the lives of the working women, I would gladly do so, but I honestly believe there is hardly a man or a woman of intelligence who needs a detailed description of the lives of a great majority of working women. Any woman or man who goes before a commission and states that it may not be practicable for one or the other or that women to-day after all are getting along on five or six dollars a week — personally I believe there is something wrong with either of them, because it is an impossibility for any human being of intelligence to say that a minimum wage Is not a necessity or that it will injure the cause of trade unionism. I have traveled and have been through about sixteen states in the Union; always in connection with trade unionism, always in contact with working women, and I know the lives of those girls, not only from observation but as one of them. I have worked in factories for many years; I have seen the girls live in their dingy rooms; I know how much they can afford for lunch and I know how they are clothed in winter, and I know the pleasures and enjoyments they have in summers, and so on and so forth. I can give even a detailed report as to what kind of lunches they eat. I know hundreds of thousands of girls to-day whose lunch does not amount to more than seven cents, and if the Commission will permit me I can state what they are eating for the seven cents. I doubt if it is necessary because you can use your own imagination. So as to the necessity of a minimum wage there is no longer any doubt in the minds of intelligent people be they socialists, social workers or merely fair minded people.
They all agree that a minimum wage is an absolute necessity for women and minors. The only question that arises in the minds of intelligent people is as to what that minimum wage should consist of, and that is the question that has occupied my mind for the past few months. I am opposed to an $8 minimum wage, I am opposed to a $9 minimum wage. I claim that the working woman in the city of New York, and I speak from experience, please remember that, cannot get along on less than two or two and one-half dollars a day. That would mean twelve or fifteen dollars a week. I suppose some will be terribly shocked with this, and the papers may take it up, but I stand for not less than $2 a day as a minimum wage and I will tell you why. When we consider an $8 minimum wage we think of a girl having food and shelter, a suit of clothes, pair of shoes, etc. So far so good. But a working woman is a human being, with a heart, with desires, with aspirations, with ideas and ideals, and when we think of food and shelter we merely think of the actual necessities to cover her body and to feed her. But what about the other things? Have we thought of providing her with books, with money for amusements, and when I speak of amusements I do not speak of the five cent picture shows, I speak of amusements that a girl should go to — a good drama or refined vaudeville — few think about that. Have you thought about a girl providing herself with a good room that had plenty of air, proper ventilation, in a somewhat decent neighborhood. Do you think of all these things when we speak of a minimum wage? Do you want a girl to have a nice comfortable room? If you want her to have any luxuries and just a little bit more comfort you have got to think of a two dollar a day or two and a half dollar a day minimum. An $8 minimum will favor her very little and when we discuss the lives of girls let us be a little more liberal; let us not think of a piece of bread; let us not think of a sandwich; let us not think of a breakfast that should cost 12 cents instead of five cents or seven cents; let us think of the working woman as a human being who has her desires to which she is entitled, and when you stop to think we cannot think of an $8 weekly wage. This is one point.
The second point is that a weekly wage in itself is not sufficient. What about those weeks or those months when the girls are not employed? This is a question that should be thought about. Suppose a minimum wage law is passed and suppose a girl with get $9 or $10 a week when she works, but how about the time when she does not work? Should we not consider a yearly minimum wage on the average? I am not prepared to state as to how it can be worked out, but I am sure it can be. Of course the argument will immediately be made as to how an employer can afford to pay when a girl is not working. Well, something could be done by the State. Unemployment insurance has been suggested to-day by Dr. Rubinow. I heartily favor that. Some thing can be done if society will take an interest in its members. The trouble has been that society has neglected its members.
Now comes the objection to a minimum wage from both sides, and I want the Commission to understand that the woman who spoke this morning saying “we,” meaning organized labor, was not fair because organized labor is divided on the question. Organized labor as an official body has not taken any action in reference to a minimum wage and any woman who speaks as representing organized labor as opposed to a minimum wage does not do the right thing. I am for organized labor and yet I believe in a minimum wage. Hundreds of persons belonging to local and international unions are for a minimum wage because they know from bitter experience that it is a mighty difficult thing to organize those who are at the present moment below the living level. We know it takes years and years to drill into a girl the absolute necessity for organization, the value of organization, and I am not pessimistic. I know that working girls are awakening to the necessity for organization, but how about those trades where no attempt has as yet been made to organize them? In the meantime the girls are absolutely starved.
I have a paper here which shows how a girl lives on $4 a week. She has to give up eating meat for at least two or three weeks if she wants to buy a pair of shoes. Now, what right have I, even as a trade unionist, to say to this girl, you wait and some day you will be conscious of your own power, some day you are going to be organized and some day you are going to gain higher wages through your own efforts. What right have I to say to those girls, even though a trade unionist, wait? Can they wait? From personal experience I say they cannot, and the sooner the minimum wage is fixed the better for everybody concerned.
A great deal has been said about inefficiency. Let me say this, and emphasize it — I do not believe that anybody will be thrown out of employment because of a minimum wage. I will tell you why. No employer and no merchant employers more than they actually need. I do not think a merchant is a charitable person nor that a store is a charitable institution. I do not believe a factory is a charitable institution, and they do not keep people unless they need them. Now, if they keep people because they need them to produce the work a minimum wage will not make them discharge certain people. They will still have to have the same number of employees, and this argument that it will throw people out of employment I cannot absolutely understand, I cannot follow it.
Now, this morning something has been said about organized working women being opposed to the wage commission at Washington. May I say for the benefit of those who heard the speaker this morning, and for the members of the Commission, that in the State of Washington the Commission has full power to fix the wage, and this was one of the reasons why the organized working women opposed it. At this time we are considering wage boards. That takes away the full power of this commission and places it in the hands of the employees as well as the employers. This is practically the difference and to bring the same argument without stating the cause of the opposition is wrong.
The opposition from Mr. Brown I expect. I expect the other side to oppose it. I know it would decrease their profits and I do really insist that even if the Minimum Wage Law is enacted we still will have a lot of opposition form the employers. That is natural. I am, however, somewhat disappointed in hearing people who stand for labor pose this question. I have been long enough with the labor movement and with the working women to know that it will not hurt organization nor will it hurt the women.
Source: Fourth Report of the New York State Factory Investigating Commission, Vol. 5 (Albany: J.B. Lyons Printer) 1915), pp. 2868-2872.