Lochner v New York, a decision of the USA Supreme Court (the apex Court) in 1905, was, in its time, a landmark labour law case dealing with statutory limits to working time.
Mr Lochner owned a bakery in a town in New York State. At the time, under State labour legislation, no employee in a bakery or confectionery establishment “shall be required or permitted to work … more than sixty hours in any one week, or more than ten hours in any one day.” Lochner contracted with his employees to work longer hours. In 1899, he was found guilty of contravening the legislation, and fined. In 1901, he was again found guilty of contravening the legislation, and fined (about USD 1 500 in current money value). This time he appealed, and lost, until he appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.
Lochner’s defence was that the legislation should be struck down as unconstitutional, as it was in conflict with provisions in section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment of the USA Constitution: “[No State shall] deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”
Five of the nine Justices upheld the appeal (so Lochner won):
“There is no reasonable ground for interfering with the liberty of person or the right of free contract, by determining the hours of labor, in the occupation of a baker. There is no contention that bakers as a class are not equal in intelligence and capacity to men in other trades or manual occupations, or that they are not able to assert their rights and care for themselves without the protecting arm of the state, interfering with their independence of judgment and of action. … Clean and wholesome bread does not depend upon whether the baker works but ten hours per day or only sixty hours a week.”
Of the four dissenting Justices, two concurred in the opinion of Justice Harlan, and Justice Holmes delivered a separate dissenting opinion:
“It is plain that this statute was enacted in order to protect the physical well-being of those who work in bakery and confectionery establishments. It may be that the statute had its origin, in part, in the belief that employers and employees in such establishments were not upon an equal footing, and that the necessities of the latter often compelled them to submit to such exactions as unduly taxed their strength. … Whether or not this be wise legislation it is not the province of the court to inquire.“
Justice Holmes referred to a long list of cases in which the Court had upheld statutes limiting the freedom to contract, including Holden v Hardy (1898), in which the Court held a limitation on working time of eight hours per day for miners and smelters was constitutional. He concluded:
“I think that the word liberty in the Fourteenth Amendment is perverted when it is held to prevent the natural outcome of a dominant opinion, unless it can be said that a rational and fair man necessarily would admit that the statute proposed would infringe fundamental principles as they have been understood by the traditions of our people and our law. … A reasonable man might think it a proper measure on the score of health. Men whom I certainly could not pronounce unreasonable would uphold it as a first instalment of a general regulation of the hours of work.“
In 1937 the Supreme Court overturned the Lochner decision.