Regulating Work Conditions | Past & Present

Apr 17, 2018

On April 17th 1905, the US Supreme Court held, in a 5-4 decision, that maximum hours laws violated the 14th Amendment and an individual’s right to contract. The New York state legislature had passed the Bakeshop Act in 1895 that restricted bakery employees to 10-hour workdays and 60-hour workweeks. 

Research pointed to health risks associated with working in bakeries, in particular, inhaling the flour and yeast dust that doctors believed caused chronic shortness of breath and early death. Like many industrial states, New York, pressed by labor activists, began to pass protectionist legislation that regulated workplaces, especially for unskilled and semi-skilled workers. 

However, the Court struck down this piece of protectionist legislation as unconstitutional because it violated the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. In the opinion, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes argued that an individual had the right of due process when New York wanted to take away property. In his eyes, the definition of property extended beyond the physical, to include a person’s labor and freedom of contract. By limiting the right to sign a contract for more than the maximum hours prescribed by the law, the state had taken away workers’ property without their consent. As for the elevated health risks for bakers, Holmes noted, “someone has to die first”; the State had no right to use its police powers to infringe on workers’ rights.

Lochner is one of the Court’s most controversial decisions and ushered in a 32-year period of time in which the Court struck down state and federal laws that attempted to regulate working conditions in the United States in favor of preserving “freedom of contract” and an unregulated, free-market economy.