NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- In 1905, the labor activist Emma Gotcher was working in an Oregon laundry. It wasnt uncommon for such jobs to require shifts of 13 hours or more, for wages of $3.50 to $5 a week. But Oregon had recently passed several labor laws, guaranteeing workers the right to join unions; regulating child labor; and limiting women employed in factories, mechanical establishments and laundries to 10 hours of work per day.
Gotcher's employer, Grand Laundry owner Curt Muller, was not a believer in so-called protective labor legislation. So on Labor Day, Muller told his foreman to make Gotcher work longer than the statutory maximum. Muller was cited for this infraction, and fined $10, which didn't sit well with his free enterprise principles. The result was a consequential court battle, which not only decided between worker protection and laissez-faire but also split labor activists and equal-rights feminists, setting a precedent for laws based on sex differences -- pregnancy in particular.
Although several state courts had upheld limits on working hours in the previous decade, a powerful contrary precedent was set that same year: in Lochner v. New York, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to strike down a ten-hour workday for bakers in the Empire State. Proponents presented the law as a necessary safeguard of worker health, but the majority deemed it "unreasonable, unnecessary and arbitrary interference with the right and liberty of the individual to contract."In spite of this ruling, Muller lost the first two rounds of his legal challenge. So he and his attorney -- corporate lawyer William Fenton, who had previously represented Standard Oil, American Steel and Wire, and Southern Pacific Railroad -- appealed to the Supreme Court. Local laundrymen contributed funds to help to pay Muller's legal expenses, and thereby keep their cause alive.
Gotcher's cause (and Oregon's) was taken up by the National Consumers League, a citizens' lobby for workers' rights. Under the directorship of Florence Kelley, the NCL fought against sweatshops and in favor of the eight-hour workday. Although Kelley wanted all workers to benefit from new protections, she focused her efforts on women and children -- partially as a matter of principle, and partially out of pragmatism. The legal and intellectual atmosphere of the age was not sympathetic to labor -- social Darwinism was widely influential -- and Kelley's strategy was to use initial, limited recognition of rights as an "entering wedge," a beachhead from which to push for broader reforms.