By Eelisa Jones
Earlier this year, leading 2015 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump told the Washington Times that a lowered U.S. minimum wages would allow the United States the ability to maintain its strength in the global market.
Trump cited China as an exemplar for countries seeking to gain economic prowess in the global market by means of maintaining low wages.
Trump is one among many conservative individuals who believe that the minimum wage is, first and foremost, an economic tool by which to guarantee desired economic outcomes.
Two common themes have surfaced within the general argument for maintaining versus increasing the minimum wage. The first theme contains the claim that minimum wage laws increase poverty and unemployment.
The second theme maintains the notion that minimum wage laws prevent business growth on the local, state, national, and international levels.
Individuals who support minimum wage laws often argue that they establish a legal means by which to protect the interests of wage workers.
From this perspective, minimum wage laws are a way to guarantee that a significant portion of modern society maintains the ability to afford life-preserving necessities within their society in addition to reinforcing the social and psychological health of those who choose to convert their energy into wages.
This article discusses the global, national, and Wisconsin specific history of minimum wage laws.
Given the present nature of the public discourse surrounding minimum and living wages, the history and development of these laws have become key to arguments about how national, state, and county governments choose to move forward on the issue of labor compensation
Western Origins of Minimum Wage Laws
Today’s concept of a minimum wage emerged from medieval England’s 1389 amendment to its Statute of Labourers.
The post-Black Plague amendment fixed the minimum compensation for labor to food prices.
This legal maneuver created the precedent for what is now known as a “living wage,” a level of compensation guaranteed to afford the basic necessities of human life.
Five hundred years after the living wage’s establishment, the English government repealed the statute, under pressure from early 19th century laissez-faire capitalists.
By the end of the 19th century after decades of labor unrest, New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom established the first Western national minimum wage laws.
The U.S. adopted its first federal minimum wage measures in 1938 with the Fair Labor Standard Act. However, over a dozen states (including Wisconsin) had independently adopted minimum wage measures prior to 1938.
A Brief History of Minimum Wage Laws in Wisconsin
In 1911, Wisconsin legislature created a 3-member Industrial Commission to examine and improve economy-related laws and their effects on Wisconsin’s communities.
Industrial Commissioner John Commons, a state university economics professor, spearheaded the introduction of an economic philosophy which held that labor legislation could use capitalist economic structures to protect the interests of both workers and employers.
In 1913, Wisconsin passed its first minimum wage law for women and minors. The law required employers to compensate the labor of both parties with a “living wage.”
In 1919, Wisconsin issued its first minimum wage orders for minors and all adults. In response to the Great Depression, Wisconsin lowered its minimum wage to favor employer interests.
After remaining stagnant for over two decades, Wisconsin increased its minimum wage seven times from 1956 to 2009.
In 2014, Wisconsin administration dissolved the state Wage Labor Board –what last remained of the original Industrial Commission – under the guidance of Governor Scott Walker.
The dissolution took place amidst a lawsuit against the state for failing to maintain a “living wage” for its residents. Walker later stripped all “living wage” language from state law, hindering future attempts to fix the state’s minimum wage to costs of living.
Presently, the task of matching minimum wage to the costs of living rests in the hands of Wisconsin’s people, their local government, and their labor representatives.