Delusion: The Minimum Wage Ended Slavery

Late last week, a prominent Wisconsin liberal community organizer offered this gem of historical insight on Wisconsin Public Radio: “In fact, we had a system where we didn’t require employers to pay anything at all, it was called slavery.”


The liberal was Jennifer Epps-Addison, who leads Wisconsin Jobs Now, an SEIU-founded and funded group that functions as a get-out-the-vote operation for Democrats during elections and lately has championed a minimum wage hike in Wisconsin.

Raising the minimum wage is actually popular with the majority of Wisconsin voters. A survey by the Marquette University Law School, just before the November election found 56.1% of likely voters want a minimum wage increase. Perhaps sensing this generic public support for raising the minimum wage, liberals, including Epps-Addison’s own Wisconsin Jobs Now, successfully placed local, non-binding minimum wage increase referendums on ballots in Democrat-leaning and battleground areas of the state.

The referendums were a thinly disguised attempt to turnout pro-Democrat voters who typically only vote in presidential elections. Without these voters, Democrats lose Wisconsin. But the referendums had no negative impact on Republicans, including Gov. Scott Walker, who have so far refused to consider raising the state’s minimum wage and managed to keep a firm grip on state government in the election.


With a minimum wage increase out of the picture for Wisconsin, liberals like Epps-Addison appear ready to rewrite history to make incredible claims in support of their cause. Hence, she asserts that slavery is just a lack of a minimum wage.

Besides the obviously historical problem of slavery being outlawed in the United States via the 13th Amendment in 1865, and the mandatory minimum wage being an invention of the Progressive movement in the early 20th Century, Epps-Addison’s claim is absurd in other ways.

After asserting that slavery is what happens when there is no minimum wage, Epps-Addison argued that, “we had record poverty” until a minimum wage was established. However, Wisconsin established its minimum wage – they called it a “living wage” – in 1913. In 1932, as the Great Depression was going on, Wisconsin slashed its minimum wage requirement by 10%. So, as more people began living in poverty or close to poverty, the state reduced the wage floor to stimulate employment. That’s hardly the result Epps-Addison would have wanted.

The federal minimum wage, which Wisconsin now matches today, was established in 1938 and applied only to jobs related to interstate commerce. When Wisconsin established its own minimum wage in 1913, it applied only to women and minors. It wasn’t until 1975 that the state revised the law to include a minimum wage for men.


Assuming Epps-Addison’s theory that slavery is what happens when there is no minimum wage is true, slavery for women and minors was not outlawed in Wisconsin until 1913, and it wasn’t outlawed for men until 1975.


Also problematic for the slavery claim is the list of jobs on the U.S. Department of Labor website that are not subject to the federal minimum wage law. Using Epps-Addison’s reasoning, these jobs are potential slavery-type jobs without federal minimum wage protections. Such jobs include babysitting, newspaper delivery, federal criminal investigators and workers with disabilities, among others.


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