Labor and the Progressive Movement in New York State, 1897-1916

By Irwin Yellowitz | Go to book overview

VII
The Problem of
Labor Law Enforcement

ORGANIZED labor and the social Progressives applauded Governor Theodore Roosevelt's first labor program in 1899 even though he did not suggest a new series of reforms. Roosevelt simply proposed to enforce the labor laws already on the statute books. However, like so many other men before and after him, T.R. failed to make the law the law in fact. From 1897 to 1916, the lag between enforcement and legislation constituted a major problem for the reform forces in New York. By the end of this period, it had been only partially solved.

The difficulties in enforcement began with the wording of the laws. Many key statutes became entangled in court tests and were inconsistently administered because they lacked definition or had loopholes which employers used to evade the purpose of the measures. The important law providing for the eight-hour day on public works permitted exceptions in the event of an emergency--but it offered no criteria for determining what was an emergency.1 The decisions by inspectors, or by the commissioner of labor, inevitably drew fire from labor or employer. "Clean and healthful" conditions were required for a license under the law of 1899 which regulated tenement manufacturing;

____________________
1
New York State Department of Labor, Sixth Annual Report of the Commissioner of Labor for the Twelve Months Ending September 30, 1906, p. 70.

-145-

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