Lochner v. New York

Lochner v. New York is a 1905 Supreme Court decision invalidating a New York law that forbids bakers to work more than 60 hours a week.

It’s now widely-reviled as an example of the heartlessness of a Supreme Court that always sides with businesses against workers.

There are modern scholars, though, who like it because it upholds the right to contract. And it looks like this law was passed by big bake shops who wanted to make business more difficult for (mostly-immigrant) competitors.

This article, by Damon Root of Reason, offers the clearest articulation of that view. David Bernstein of GMU has written a book on Lochner, but this article sums it up nicely.

At issue in the case was a provision capping working hours in New York’s 1895 Bakeshop Act, which banned bakery employees from working more than 10 hours per day or 60 hours per week. In its 5-4 decision, the Court nullified this provision for violating the liberty of contract secured by the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.

In his 1987 Columbia Law Review article “Lochner’s Legacy,” which is one of the most cited articles on the case from the last two decades, Sunstein criticized Lochner for preventing the state from using its lawful power “to help those unable to protect themselves in the marketplace.”

As Justice Rufus Peckham wrote for the majority, while New York certainly possessed the power to enact valid health and safety regulations, the maximum hours provision of the Bakeshop Act “is not, within any fair meaning of the term, a health law.” Not only was the baking trade “not dangerous in any degree to morals, or in any real and substantial degree to the health of the employee,” the limit on working hours involved “neither the safety, the morals, nor the welfare, of the public.” In other words, “clean and wholesome bread does not depend on whether the baker works but ten hours per day or only sixty hours a week.”

Indeed, as Peckham carefully explained, those sections of the Bakeshop Act regulating “proper washrooms and closets,” the height of ceilings, floor conditions, and “proper drainage, plumbing, and painting,” remained perfectly valid health and safety regulations; only the hours provision was struck down. Moreover, just three years later, in Muller v. Oregon, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld a state law limiting female laundry employees from working more than 10 hours a day. So much for Lochner making “‘laissez faire’ into a constitutional requirement.”

The real origins of the Bakeshop Act lie in an economic conflict between unionized New York bakers, who labored in large shops, and their non-unionized, mostly immigrant competitors, who tended to work longer hours in small, old-fashioned bakeries. As Bernstein observed, “a ten-hour day law would not only aid those unionized workers who had not successfully demanded that their hours be reduced, but would also help reduce competition from nonunionized workers.”

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