Ohio History Journal

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Protective Legislation in Ohio:

The Inter-war Years



During the 1920s, protective legislation-legislation that applied only to

women and was intended to preserve the health and safety of the female

worker-made obvious the conflict between orthodox trade union theory

and the expeditious achievement of economic goals. The American

Federation of Labor and its Ohio affiliate, the Ohio State Federation of

Labor, subscribed to the doctrine of "voluntarism," the idea that labor's

best interests were served by voluntary organization and collective

bargaining. This implied that the state should play only a minimal role in

regulating economic conditions. Hence, on those issues that could be

resolved through the bargaining process, the union jealously guarded its

role as a spokesman for the laborer's interest.1 The AF of L opposed

legislation to set a minimum wage or maximum hours for male workers

because, in its view, reliance on social welfare legislation would ultimately

weaken union organization. As the AF of L Executive Council warned in

1923: "The threat of state invasion of industrial life is real. . . . The

continuing clamor for extension of state regulatory powers under the guise

of reform and deliverance from evil can but lead into greater confusion and

hopeless entanglements."2

Labor's position on protective legislation for women suggests the

practical limits and hidden meaning of the Federation's voluntarist

ideology. As a group of largely unskilled, unorganized workers expected to

remain in the work force only a short time, women posed a considerable

threat to the wage level. Labor's voluntaristic philosophy suggested that

improvement in wages and hours, for both sexes, should come through



Patricia Brito is a graduate student at Rice University

1. For a more complete discussion of organized labor's voluntaristic philosophy, see

George Gilmary Higgins, Voluntarism in Organized Labor in the United States, 1930-1940,

The Catholic University of America, Studies in Economics, Vol. 13 (Washington, D.C.,

1944), 35-51; Max M. Kampelman, "Labor in Politics," Interpreting the Labor Movement,

eds. George W. Brooks, Milton Derber, David A. McCabe and Philip Taft (Champaign,

1952), 171-91; Louis S. Reed, The Labor Philosophy of Samuel Gompers (New York, 1930);

and Selig Perlman, A Theory of the Labor Movement (New York, 1928; reprint ed., New

York, 1949).

2. American Federation of Labor, Report of Proceedings, Forty-third Annual Conven-

tion, 1923, 31.