Washington Minimum Wage and Hour Act goes into effect on June 11, 1959.

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 11/26/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10657

On June 11, 1959, the Washington Minimum Wage and Hour Act goes into effect, setting the state minimum wage for most workers at $1 an hour. Small increases will be made to the minimum wage over the years until 1988, when voters will approve a large increase making Washington's minimum wage the highest in the nation. Another rate hike will occur in 1998 and later adjustments for inflation will follow.

An Earlier Attempt

In 1912, Massachusetts became the first state to institute a minimum wage law, which applied to women and children. Between 1912 and 1925 fourteen states -- including Washington and Oregon -- passed similar laws. At the time, Washington's law was considered to be one of the more effective minimum wage statutes, both stronger and more enforced than those in other states.

State Senator George U. Piper (1866-1923) introduced Washington's minimum wage bill in 1913, arguing that a minimum wage was needed to protect women's health and morals. Piper worried that a woman making $5 a week when she needed $9 might turn to the "earnings of shame" (Tripp) to make ends meet. The Piper bill passed both the Senate and the House with overwhelming majorities.

An Industrial Welfare Commission (IWC) was established to enforce the law, and in 1914 it recommended weekly wages for women in five categories of work: $10 a week for mercantile workers, $8.90 for manufacturing, $9 for laundering, $9 for telephone, and $10 for clerical. Three years later, the IWC raised the minimum wage to $13.20 a week for women in all industries.

There and Gone

During the law's first five years it was strictly enforced, to the betterment of women workers throughout the state. In the 1920s, following the election of Governor Louis F. Hart (1862-1929), the IWC was abolished, putting further minimum wage increases in limbo.

In 1923, the United States Supreme Court struck down a District of Columbia minimum wage law, ruling that the statute violated liberty of contract and due process. In Washington, Governor Hart assured women's groups that the decision would not impair this state's law. Officials from the state labor department continued strong enforcement of the statute, while other states started abandoning theirs.

After the 1924 election of Governor Roland H. Hartley (1864-1952), it all fell apart. Hartley, an anti-labor Republican, dismissed labor officials who were enforcing the law, effectively destroying it. The law remained on the books, but was rendered ineffective. In 1938, a federal minimum wage was established at 25 cents an hour, and gradually increased over the years as the cost of living rose.

In for a Dollar

In March 1959, a senate bill was introduced in Olympia, creating a new minimum wage and hour act for Washington. The bill passed both houses of the legislature and the law became effective on June 11, 1959. It set the minimum wage at $1 an hour, and called for a 40-hour work week. The new law was immediately challenged in court by several business owners, but was found to be constitutional. Overtime provisions in the act, however, were not. They were taken out.

On 1961, the law was amended, raising the minimum wage to $1.15 an hour, and then again to $1.25 an hour six months later. The amendments also excluded more than 105,000 workers from the law's protection, including 25,000 youths under 18 years of age who held temporary jobs. Nevertheless, out of a total state labor force of more than a million workers, approximately 600,000 of them were covered by the law.

Over the next fifteen years, the state minimum wage was raised four times, and generally adhered to federal minimum wage increases. In 1976 it had reached $2.30 an hour, where it remained for more than a decade.

Leading the Nation

By 1988, the federal minimum wage had risen to $3.35 an hour -- more than a dollar above Washington's minimum. Polls at the time showed heavy support for raising the state's minimum wage, but Republicans in Olympia scuttled the plan to raise it because the proposal extended the law to farm workers. Instead, an initiative was placed on the ballot that November, where it won with more than 76 percent support. It raised the limit to $3.85 an hour for 1989 and then to $4.25 an hour in 1990, and included agricultural workers.

Washington now had the highest state minimum wage in the nation, surpassing federal minimum-wage limits. In 1998, voters approved another initiative, this time increasing the minimum by 33 percent over two years to $6.50 an hour in 2000, after which it would be adjusted annually for inflation.

By 2013, Washington's minimum wage had risen to $9.19 an hour, still the highest of any state in the nation, and well above the federal limit of $7.25 an hour, which many considered to be far too low given the increased costs of living over the years. Some felt that a $15-an-hour minimum wage would extend a helping hand to America's working poor.

Nationwide, debate over such a wage hike raged on, but the city of SeaTac took center stage when a ballot proposition, backed by unions and other minimum-wage-hike backers, asked voters there to approve a $15-an-hour minimum wage for many workers in and around Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The proposition led with nearly 54 percent of the vote in election-night returns. When the results were certified three weeks later on November 26, 2013, the $15 minimum wage had eked out a 77-vote victory (3,040 to 2,963); opponents, who were already challenging the measure in court, announced they would seek a recount.


Sources: Joseph Tripp, "Toward an Efficient and Moral Society: Washington State Minimum Wage Law, 1913-1925," Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Volume 66, July 1976, pp. 97-112; ; "Digest of Bills in State Legislature," The Seattle Times, March 9, 1959, p. 16; "Labor's Score Sheet Shows Both Victories and Defeat," Ibid., April 6, 1959, p. 17; "State Wage, Hour Act to be Challenged," The Seattle Times, May 30, 1959, p. 8; "Overtime Section of State Wage Act Quashed," Ibid., April 14, 1960, p. 8; "New State Minimum Wage Law Will Exclude 150,000 Employees," Ibid., June 18, 1961, p. 13; "Polls Show Strong Support for Raising Minimum Wage," Ibid., February 29, 1988, p. A-1; " Minimum Wage Boost Wins Big," Ibid., November 9, 1988, p. E-9; " Wage Vote May Send Some Prices Up," Ibid., November 5, 1998, p. E-9; Manuel Valdes, "Recount Requested of SeaTac $15 Minimum Wage Vote," KOMOnews.com website accessed November 26, 2013 (http://www.komonews.com/news/local/Recount-requested-of-SeaTac-15-minimum-wage-vote-233507051.html); "Minimum Wage," Washington State Department of Labor & Industries website accessed November 3, 2013 (http://www.lni.wa.gov/WorkplaceRights/Wages); King County Elections website accessed November 26, 2013 (http://www.kingcounty.gov/elections/).

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