A Brief History
On April 17, 1905, the US Supreme Court dealt a blow to Progressives that were mobilizing across the United States to reform business practices, government, and a myriad of social and cultural institutions. (See our article, The Progressive Era, from April 15, 2017) The decision known as Lochner v New York overturned a state law that attempted to protect bakery workers from excessive work hours.
A New York state law had been passed that limited bakery workers to a maximum of 10 hours per day and 60 hours per week, an effort to enhance the quality of life for men and women that were being worked to a frazzle. (Technical term, frazzle…)
The Court ruled that the New York law violated the 14th Amendment “due process” clause and “freedom of contract” and that workers should be allowed to work as much as they want, as agreed to with the employer. This decision was not clear cut and dried, so to speak, and was a controversial 5 to 4 decision, with the dissenting opinion written by Oliver Wendell Holmes becoming a classic American court opinion.
This landmark anti-Progressive decision by the Supreme Court of the United States began an era known as “The Lochner Era” from the time of this decision until the Great Depression in which the Supreme Court ruled against many Progressive labor and other reforms. The Lochner Era is generally deemed to have ended with the 1937 decision West Coast Hotel Co. v Parrish in which the Court upheld the legality of a minimum wage law in Washington State.
The Lochner Era was 32 years of battle between Progressives and vested interests that sought to strike down progressive reforms. During this period the Supreme Court generally ruled against labor and the consumer in favor of big money. Conservatives saw the Lochner Era as a time to limit the power of government to infringe on business.
The Lochner decision is often referred to by liberal legal scholars as an example of judicial misbehavior in favor of the status quo over the constitution, and place this case in league with Plessy v Ferguson and Korematsu v United States in the pantheon of bad decisions.
Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think? Should states be able to make laws limiting how many hours workers can be forced to work? Should government at all levels stay out of labor issues? Please share your opinions with us in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Kens, Paul. Lochner v. New York: Economic Regulation on Trial. University Press of Kansas, 1998.