The footnote on page one outlines the breadth of the organizational network collaborating to study conditions of women's employment. Author Mary Van Kleeck (1883-1972) had associations with many of these groups having pioneered in industrial investigation and her work within the Department of Industrial Studies at the Russell Sage Foundation became a model for federal labor research.
Do you realize that
Many of them stand all day at work,
Many operate dangerous machines,
Many work in air laden with steam or dusty fibre,
Many work in dark, dirty, ill-ventilated rooms,
All work at a high pressure of speed?
The Law Forbids
Should this provision be held unconstitutional
Women may be employed all day and all night,
any hours less than 60 a week.
They begin work at eight in the morning,On the back of the report were these words: "girl is at home--tired out--has a bad cough. She used to work overtime only one or two weeks in a month, but since another publication has been undertaken, overtime is constant." She was planning to go back to work as soon as the cough was "a little better." The family were dependent upon her wages. She "couldn't afford to give up her place."
They do not stop working until ten o'clock at night.
They have a half-hour for dinner and a half-hour for supper, Thirteen hours a day--seventy-eight hours a week,
Wages--$6.00 a week.
They would "probably" be discharged if they refused to work overtime.
The story is brief in the telling but long and burdensome in the living. Seventy-eight hours are eighteen hours longer than sixty, and the sixty hours law is twenty years old. Yet in December, 1905, the Factory Department writes:
Yours of the 18th instant, calling my attention to violations of the sixty hour a week law is received. * * * It is impossible to even estimate the number of offenders, but I would place them between 5,000 and 10,000 in this city.In a paper-box factory in New York city a girl operates the cutting machine. To keep one's hands clear of the stroke of the knife requires constant watchfulness, yet no protection is provided. The guard which was invented to prevent accidents limits the output by one-half, and if this girl did not remove it she would lose her position because she would be too slow to make her machine profitable to her employer. During the rush season, which lasts several months, this girl and all the others in the factory (they number three to four hundred) work from 7:45 in the morning until 8 at night, with a half hour for lunch and no time for supper. This continues every day in the week except Saturday, when they stop at 4:30 in order that the most poorly paid girls (who earn $2.50 a week) may have time to clean the machinery. They frequently work on Sunday, making a total of more than seventy hours a week. To the question, "Would you be discharged if you refused to work overtime?" the answer was, "Yes." The danger to this girl from a working day of nearly twelve hours lasting through several months is manifest.
A violation is not proved until one has firmly established the number of hours worked every one of the six days of the week and their combined total. Each day's work may be done at any time between six in the morning and nine at night--a period defined by the law which forbids the employment of women in factories between 9 P.M. and 6 A.M. Within this fifteen hour period may be placed at any time (to the utter confusion of the business of inspection) a working day ten hours in length, or (to the further confusion of inspectors) longer than ten hours- -if the last day of the week be shortened. By this proviso the ten hours law is practically nullified. The total sixty may be made of any variety of hours scattered through the six days, placed at any time within the fifteen hour period between 6 A.M. and 9 P.M. Violations obviously cannot be proved by inspection. Enforcement is made to depend upon the complaint of workers, who in the great majority of cases know nothing of the law and whose complaint would mean loss of employment.
Last January a theatrical company ordered costumes to be made by a dress-maker in the shortest possible time. Through the week the girls who were filling the order did not leave the work-room until eight or nine at night but when Saturday morning came the costumes were still far from finished. Work began at eight o'clock; at noon the girls took their usual half hour for lunch; when evening came they were given only a few minutes for supper, hastily eaten while sewing. At midnight the mother of one of the girls went to the shop to see whether her daughter was still there. She was told to go home; that the girls must stay until the order was finished. It was not until half-past two Sunday morning that they left the work-room after a "day's" work of eighteen hours. When it was suggested to one of them that she find a position with another firm, she replied that, while she knew that other places treated you less "like a slave," the hours were like this everywhere in her trade,--that a girl never knew when she would be "laid off" one day, and forced to work day and night the next.
In the making of these actresses' costumes there were at least two violations of the law-- work was done on Sunday, and women were employed after nine o'clock at night. It is concerning such violations as this that Commissioner Sherman in his report dated January 3, 1906, said: "The provision prohibiting night work is openly violated especially in the employment of women over twenty-one, and the department has feared to test this particular prohibition because it is so closely joined with the prohibition of night work by male and female minors, that in case of an adverse decision, both prohibitions might be held to fall together." Turning to the "Summary of Prosecutions" in the same report we find these figures: Charge IV. Illegal employment of women and minors. Employing minors or women after 9 P.M.
At the time of writing the 1906 report, no case had ever been carried to the New York Court of Appeals for decision as to the constitutionality of this statute. But in the summer of 1906 two cases of all-night employment of women in binderies were brought before the Court of Special Sessions in New York city. They were appealed on the ground that the law is unconstitutional, and will probably reached in October by appellate division.
Following the appeal of these cases a report of a bindery in which similar conditions existed was sent to the Department of Labor. It came directly from one of the women employed in the factory. Here is the report:
They work overtime "all year around." They begin work at 8 o'clock in the morning.They do not stop work until 11 or 12 o'clock at night. On Saturday they work until 9:30. They have a half-hour for lunch and a half-hour for supper. They work overtime four days in the week -stopping at 5;30 two days. They would be discharged if they refused to work overtime.Accompanying the report was a note saying "In this bindery they were going to work next Friday until 4 A.M."
An inspector went to the factory and the foreman was arrested. He was convicted and sentence suspended pending the decision of the Court of Appeals as to the constitutionality of the law violated. He declared the intention of the firm to continue their system of hours, confident that the statute will be held unconstitutional. Here we have an example of the attitude of many manufacturers. It is also a foretaste of the results which would follow an adverse decision.
Technically, these cases involve only that section of labor law which forbids the employment of women after nine o'clock at night or before six o'clock in the morning; and that section only in its application to women over twenty-one years of age. Practically, however, an adverse decision would have serious consequences for women under 21,-such an age test being impossible to apply.
So much is involved in this decision that it is worth while dwelling upon the subject, pointing out some of the cases where the absence of the law would be very seriously felt.
In a laundry which forms part of a certain factory in New York city there are several machines used for ironing white coats such as worn by barbers. The machines consists of two rollers- one the ironing board the other, heated by rows of gas jets within, serving as the iron. Each of these rollers is connected with its own pedal. The girls stand on small platforms, from which they step first upon one pedal with the right foot and then upon the other pedal with the left foot- pressing heavily in order to iron smoothly. One cent is the price paid for each coat ironed. Many hundred times between morning and evening must each girl tread her pedals in order to grind out her wage for the day. To stand all day at work, according to the testimony of physicians, involves great danger to the health of women. What than must be the danger of this constant treading, in a room where the air is laden with steam? If the law regulating the hours of work for these women should be declared unconstitutional, a rush order from a barber for a fresh supply of white coats might result in forcing them to tread their pedals fourteen or fifteen hours a day, or all night long, without rendering their employer liable to prosecution.
This laundry does work for its own factory exclusively. The laundries which do "custom work" are notorious for long and irregular hours, many of them claiming that work must be finished regardless whether women lift and sort heavy wet clothes in a steam-filled atmosphere all day and a large part of the night. In view of this claim, interest attaches to the recent testimony of a laundry owner, who told a member of the Women's Trade Union League that until last spring he had "been obliged" to work his employees overtime. But after a forceful visit from the factory inspector he decided to install new machinery in his laundry at an expense of $2,000. Since then he has found it entirely feasible to finish his orders within the limit of hours allowed by the law, thus proving the possibility of securing a reasonably short workday in the most irregular of trades. It was, however, the visit of the factory inspector, backed by the sixty hours law, which brought about this result. The path of least resistance for employers is apt to be the course of longer hours for employees. Without the law, women factory workers would have no protection against the demands of an unscrupulous "boss."
Watch the Bowery at the close of any working day if you would gain some conception of the number of individuals involved in this question of regulating women's hours of work. Thousands of women hasten through the street entrances of the factories and are carried by the crowd south along the Bowery, dividing at the cross streets to pass west and east into the tenement districts wherein human lives are almost past counting. Small wonder that the procession is a long and a dense one--for there are more than 130,000 women employed in factories in New York city--somewhat more than half the number employed in all the factories in the state. A large proportion are between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one. Should we attempt to establish twenty-one as the age limit beyond which the hours of work were unregulated by law, these younger women through fierceness of competition would be compelled to disguise their age. Then we should have a provision of law so difficult to enforce that it might truthfully be said of us that, as soon as the sixteenth birthday is reached, we withdraw all protection, and make it possible for employers to keep women and young girls at work any number of hours during the day, and dismiss them at any hour at night. Evils of Non-Enforcement of Law.
The evils of a non-enforcement of this law bear very heavily upon New York city both because of the large number of women workers employed there, and because factory life is interwoven with conditions of living in a large and densely populated city. Many factories are as badly built, as dark, unsanitary and unwholesome, as the worst tenement. More is the pity that in so many cases the same individuals should live in the one and work in the other!
Last winter a young girl scarcely sixteen years old was receiving regular treatment from a tuberculosis clinic in one of the New York hospitals. She had been sent away to a sanatorium and had returned with a fair chance of recovery. Missing her from the clinic, the nurses investigated and found her working eleven to twelve hours a day in a lithographing house. Each day was striking a larger fraction away from her chance of cure. The manufacturer was receiving contributions by no means intended for him. He was using up strength for which contributors to the sanatorium had given money with a very different object in view. He was doing more than that, he was robbing the girl of the health which was her one chance in life. She kept at work because,--what need to repeat the reason? It is the story of thousands of tenement households. There are many such factory girls, upon whom physicians pronounce the verdict of death in a few months if their work be not changed immediately. The next morning they are in their usual places, for "There's no use thinkin' about what the doctor says. We'd all starve if I stopped working now."
Back of factory conditions are homes with poor nutrition, dark rooms, impure air, dense crowding. And in many factories where women work are the same conditions--overcrowding, impure air, bad light. Added to these is the strain of work. Machines are run by steam or electricity; their speed cannot be regulated by the operator; she can shut off the power and stop her machine--but only in case of necessity; for she is paid by the piece and the amount of her bread and butter and that of at least some member of her family is in direct proportion to the number of pieces which she feeds into her machine.
"A factory act," says a critic of the English law, "is not something `given away,' like coals or blankets at Christmastime. It represents, rightly understood, the reasoned effort of the best sense of the community to raise its industrial and social life to a higher plane." In raising the standard of industrial life, to whitewash factory walls and open work room windows is as much the concern of the whole community as letting in sunlight into "dark-rooms" of tenements. And the factory act providing for the first is as far removed from class legislation as the building law which applies to the second. All legislation which tends to make bad conditions unprofitable, and good conditions increasingly rich in returns is a valuable factor in raising the social level, not of industrial classes only, but of the whole community; for "there is no hope of making moral conduct general until such legal and social conditions are created that he who follows a high ideal of justice in business dealings can hope for a fair degree of business success."
To the community a worn-out worker is an economic loss. So is the man who, by wearing out the community's workers, underbids his competitors and drags down the whole standard of trade conditions. To leave them to the laissez-faire method is to follow a course well-tried with never an instance of success. We are ready for a wiser method.
These two decisions, one dated 1876 and the other 1906, are reinforced by the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States upon the Utah eight hours' law, holding that "the fact that both parties are of full age and competent to contract does not necessarily deprive the state of the power to interfere where the parties do not stand upon an equality or where the public health demands that one party to the contract shall be protected against himself." Following this opinion came the decision of the same court in 1905 upon the ten hours' law for bakers in New York. This law was held unconstitutional, but the decision just quoted was not thereby reversed. With four out of nine judges dissenting, the court held that the work of these men who bake through long hours in the underground caves of the lower East Side of New York city is not unhealthful enough or dangerous enough, to demand restriction of hours for the men so employed. The right of the state to legislate where the necessary degree of danger or unhealthfulness exists, was not challenged.
To this list will soon be added the decision of the Supreme Court of New York in the appellate division. Will it follow the disastrous and lonely decision of Illinois? Or will it hold, with Massachusetts, Nebraska, Washington and Oregon, and the Supreme Court of the United States, that freedom of contract is not violated when the state extends legal protection where (by reason of economic inequality) the contract is not free, or where public health and public morals demand legislative restriction? Attorney General Mayer(3) says:
New York, in view of her lead in the economic world, should lead the other states in this humane legislation, and her courts should at least be abreast of those of other states in guarding and protecting this class of her citizens by maintaining the constitutionality of these statutes. We insist that it is perfectly constitutional to limit and restrict the hours of labor of women in manufacturing establishments, because of the effect of such employment upon this class of our citizens, because of their greater physical weakness, and the necessary and consequent effect upon the well-being of society. Second, because the character of the employment differs distinctly from that of domestic service or in mercantile establishments, and because of the character of such employment, it is within the police power of the state to exclude from employment therein, or limit the hours of labor therein by women or children.
In these statements is contained the attorney general's answer to the two arguments frequently raised against factory legislation for women, that it draws a distinction between men and women, and that the law which applies to women employed in factories does not extend to women employed in other occupations. In both cases the distinction does not follow the law; the distinction is rather the cause of the law. Men and women are differently organized, and occupations are not like one another. Out of the different needs grow different laws. The justification for such laws lies in their necessity as health or police regulations.
An employer in a bookbinding establishment made the statement last winter that he never kept his women workers over time. He stated that years of experience had proved to him that work was not so well done when the workers were tire, and if kept over time they lost much of their skill the next day through fatigue. The statement raises a point not touched upon in the legal aspect of the case, but of great practical importance in the problem of labor conditions, namely the question whether a decrease in length of the working day involves a corresponding decrease in output. A test of this question was recently made in the construction of two sister battleships, the Connecticut at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the Louisiana at the New port News Company's yard. Says the New York Labor Bulletin (June, 1905):
In the private yard the men work ten hours a day, and in the government yard only eight hours a day. Nevertheless the government employees, with their short workday but intelligent and efficient application, were able to make as rapid progress as the workmen who labored two hours a day longer.The same Bulletin states another instance of a successfully shortened work-day. In 1893 the Salford Iron Works of Mather and Platt at Manchester, England, established the eight hour day. Owing to keen competition both in home and in foreign markets, the experiment was keenly watched by the firm and the conclusion that the labor cost did not increase in consequence of reduction in the working hours, was based on a thoroughly accurate and careful investigation. Eleven years later in a letter dated May 24, 1904, the firm wrote:
Our experience since the first year in which it (the eight hour system) was tried has fully borne out the conclusions then arrived at and we are fully satisfied that as regards the comparison between eight and nine hours per day the balance of advantage is in favor of the shorter period.It is at least conceivable that shorter hours may mean more efficient labor, less "spoiled work," and an equal output. Instances which support such a conclusion may be multiplied, and facts are not lacking which point to the possibility that legislative action based primarily on the necessity for health or police regulation may represent an industrial gain.
They are unnecessarily tired out and overworked--many hundreds of the 230,000 women and young girls in factories in New York state. They cannot individually protect themselves, and they have not yet succeeded in gathering together in large numbers for protection by collective action.
"We who live by our fingers," said one of them, "are too tire mentally and physically to understand the principle of a thing. We have to hold on to a penny till the eagle squeals. If a better condition means less wages for a week, we don't want it; we might want if we knew what it would mean for more than a week." It is not true that these factory women are free to contract. When one side can say to the other, "Work on these terms or lose your job," "Work or starve," the contract is not free.
(1) A candy factory during its rush season last winter kept its women employees at work from 7:15 a.m. to 7:45 p.m., with one-half hour for dinner and no time for supper twelve hours a day, five days in the week. On Saturday they worked until 6:45 p.m., eleven hours,--seventy-one hours in the week.And the law hitherto designed to meet such conditions reads:
(2) In a factory where brass bedsteads are made, the hours last winter were from 7 a.m., until twenty minutes of nine p.m., with forty minutes for dinner and no time for supper, thirteen hours a day for five days in the week. On Saturday they stopped at twenty minutes before four. On Sunday they worked a half-day, making a total of more than seventy-five hours a week.
(3) A laundry works from 7 a.m until 8:30 p.m., with an hour for dinner, four days in the week. The other two days work stops at six,--seventy hours a week. A footnote on a report concerning it reads, "Do not stop for supper. Girls eat while working. This girl stands all day, she is a folder."
(4) A factory for the preparation of table delicacies works from 7:30 a.m., until 9 p.m., five days in the week, with an hour for dinner, one-half hour for supper. Saturday until 5:30--sixty-nine hours a week.
(5) A book bindery works from 7:45 a.m. until 9 p.m. with three-quarters of an hour for dinner and one-half hour for supper--a thirteen hour day. The girl whose work was "knocking up for the Dexter" (stooping down and taking the leaves from the folding machine at a rate of speed entirely beyond her control) tired out by the long day, told the forelady that she could not work overtime the next day. She was immediately discharged.
(6) In a brass foundry the women worked from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m., with one- half hour for dinner and one-half hour for supper--every day but Saturday when they stop at 4:30--twelve hours a day for five days--sixty-eight hours a week.
(7) In a cigar factory the women work from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., and on Saturday until 5 o'clock. The workers live in the neighborhood. Promptly at twelve they rush from the factory for dinner, returning to work in fifteen minutes or less. They are piece workers,--and they must lose no time or their wages will be very small. Their week in rush seasons is nearly seventy hours long.
(8) The makers of misses' and children's fine dresses work during the rush season from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m. with three-quarters of an hour for dinner and one-half an hour for supper, five days in the week. Saturday until five, sixty- seven hours a week. Then they take work home, and toil until 11 o'clock at night.
No female shall be employed, permitted, or suffered to work in any factory in this state before six o'clock in the morning or after nine o'clock in the evening of any day; or for more than ten hours in any one day except to make a shorter work day on the last day of the week; or for more than sixty hours in any one week, or more hours in any one week than will make an average of ten hours per day for the whole number of days so worked.The clause which reads, "except to make a shorter work-day on the last day of the week," practically nullifies the ten hours law and renders it almost impossible to prove violations of the sixty hour law. Should the clause which forbids night work be declared unconstitutional, we should be without instruction as to how large a fraction of the sixty hour week might be worked in any one working day. The dressmakers referred to, whose working day lasted from eight in the morning until half past two the next morning would then be within the law.
Overtime in the work room means no time for healthy pleasure or for education. The overworked girl who has left school at fourteen,--has neither time nor strength to fit herself for any but unskilled labor. Unskilled labor means low wages, and low wages plus long hours spell malnutrition.
Nor do the evils end here. Another evil following in the same train is indicated by the third recommendation made by the Committee of Fifteen appointed to investigate the social evil. They said:
Whatever can be done to improve the material conditions of the wage-earning class, and especially of young wage-earning women, will be directly in line with the purpose which is here kept in view. It is a sad and humiliating confession to make at the opening of the twentieth century in one of the greatest centres of civilization in the world, that, in numerous instances, it is not passion or corrupt inclination, but the force of actual physical want, that impels young women along the road to ruin.Says Attorney General Mayer in his brief before quoted,
No state in the Union has so large a number of manufacturing establishments and factories as the state of New York. This state represents the highest development in this direction. These factories and workshops, with their complicated machinery and almost slavish discipline of labor, present a problem unknown in economic life a generation ago.New York is in a position to lead the way in sane and adequate legislation for the protection of the women in factories.
If we are in earnest in demanding such regulation three things are necessary:
1. A law prescribing a definite maximum not to be exceeded in any day either "to make a shorter work day on Saturday" or for any other qualifying reason.
2. A law defining a legal period within which the working day must fall and not greatly exceeding the prescribed maximum working day, such as from 6 a.m., to 7 p.m., in order that night work may be prevented and the enforcement of the maximum day may be possible.
3. The upholding of the Department of Labor by sufficient appropriation for an adequate number of inspectors, such appropriation to be followed by the enlightened demand of the public for prompt enforcement by prosecution.
The Department of Labor is proving itself worthy of public support.
Public interest and public demands alike will be a help to it in the work which it has shown itself anxious to perform. It ought not to be possible dismiss a case from the courts as the result of forced testimony that the women employed in a factory found by two inspectors to be in full operation late at night "were holding a tea-party after working hours"(4)
Each year marks progress in child labor legislation. Shall we not use every effort to extend effective protection beyond the age of sixteen years, and to secure wise and adequate laws for the betterment of industrial conditions for the increasingly large number of women and young girls employed in the factories of the state? The field is large; the one thing needed is an enlightened and active public opinion.