The Racist History of Minimum Wage Laws

mises.org / Chris Calton / April 17, 2017

In 1966, Milton Friedman wrote an op-ed for Newsweek entitled “Minimum Wage Rates.” In it, he argued “that the minimum-wage law is the most anti-Negro law on our statute books.” He was, of course, referring to the then-present era, after the far more explicitly racist laws from the slavery and segregation eras of United States history had already been done away with. But his observation about the racist effects of minimum wage laws can be traced back to the nineteenth century, and they continue to have a disproportionately deleterious effect on African-Americans into the present day.

The earliest of such laws were regulations passed in regards to the railroad industry. At the end of the nineteenth century, as Dr. Walter Williams points out, “On some railroads — most notably in the South — blacks were 85–90 percent of the firemen, 27 percent of the brakemen, and 12 percent of the switchmen.”

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, unable to block railroad companies from hiring the non-unionized black workers, called for regulations preventing the employment of

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