“We Got Support from Unions and That Proved a Useful Tiebreaker”: the Repoliticization of the Subminimum Wage, 2009-2022

Emily Ruppel, University of California, Berkeley

In the United States, it is legal to pay subminimum wages to workers with disabilities under section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Prior historical research on section 14(c) has focused on its initial passage in the 1930s and transformations in its regulations over the mid-to-late twentieth century. This research documents the political invisibility of the subminimum wage through the twentieth century, demonstrating that section 14(c) was constructed as a technical issue under the professional purview of disability employment program managers. Yet contrary to the predictions of this research, in recent years the subminimum wage has been subject to sustained activist attention and news coverage, has emerged as an electoral issue, and has been restricted or eliminated in multiple localities. Drawing on archival research and interviews with prominent activists, union representatives, and representatives of the employment programs industry, I trace the increasing political salience of section 14(c) 2009-present. During this period, a number of emergent crises in subminimum wage programs prompted political responses. I argue that in the face of ongoing opposition from employment program professionals, increased coalitional work between labor unions and disability rights groups played a determinative role in contestation over section 14(c). This paper highlights the significance of the labor-disability coalition, the fraught political history of which has not been adequately addressed in prior academic literature. Furthermore, it has implications for coalitional organizing to bring other forms of invisible exploitation to public attention.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 67. Good Jobs, Bad Jobs