Republicans Want to Take Child Labor Laws Back to the 19th Century
Even the most casual students of American labor history undoubtedly have
come across the appalling accounts of child labor, accompanied by photos of
exhausted, grime-covered teen and pre-teen children staring sad-eyed into
The children stand outside the mines, mills, farms and other often highly
dangerous places where they worked 10, 12, 15 hours a day, sometimes even
more. They worked at home as well, in their impoverished families'
dilapidated tenement flats, rolling cigars, stitching garments and doing
other work for long, miserably paid hours.
It began with the New England colonists, who brought the practice of child
labor with them from England. Use of child labor regardless of the age or
frailty of the child was common throughout the colonies, and remained common
after independence including in the southern U.S., where the black slaves'
children were ordered to work along with their captive parents.
Finally, in the 1840s, reform groups managed to pressure several state
legislatures in New England to ban the labor of minors under 15 for more
than 10 hours a day without their parents' written consent. Yes, that's how
bad it was so bad that allowing kids under 15 to work more than 10 hours a
day was OK. All they needed was the agreement of their economically
The ten-hour, six-day workweek became standard for minors in most states.
Again, that was considered a major reform. Most states also adopted reforms
that prohibited children from working in hazardous industries. That was
ignored, however, in the particularly dangerous coal mines of Pennsylvania
In 1914, the federal government stepped in to levy a 10 percent excise tax
on employers who hired 14-year-olds. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson
signed a law prohibiting some employers from hiring anyone under 16. But,
believe it or not, the Supreme Court voided both laws.
Child advocates couldn't even get congressional approval for a law
empowering the government to regulate the labor of minors under 18, mainly
because of a business campaign that called that idea "socialism." Sound
familiar? Then, as now, that could be enough to defeat progressive measures.
But finally, with the coming of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal
reforms in the 1930s, decisive steps were taken to regulate the use of child
labor. They came mainly with passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in
1938. The law, which covers workers under 18, limits the hours they can
work, depending on their age and occupation. They must be paid at least as
much as the legal minimum wage, and they must be covered by the protective
laws that apply to adult workers.
The idea was not only to protect children from the harmful exploitation they
commonly suffered but specifically to give them the time and opportunity to
get a decent education, to get enough rest and time for study.
Passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act obviously did not end the misuse of
child labor. Yet it did set a standard for protecting young workers that's
been followed by states that have enacted their own versions of the act,
some more liberal than the federal law.
But now come business trade associations, employer groups, reactionary
Republican politicians and Tea Party activists to urge severe weakening of
the state laws, and, ultimately, of the federal law. They agree with Supreme
Court Justice Clarence Thomas that the child labor laws are unconstitutional
for a variety of obscure legal reasons. They've begun their legal attacks on
state laws with the laws in Maine and Missouri.
In Maine, which was among the first states to enact child labor laws,
they've been pushing a bill that would allow employers to pay anyone under
20 a six-month "training wage" that would be more than $2 an hour below the
minimum wage. They'd also eliminate rules setting a maximum number of hours
kids 16 and older can work during school days and allow those under 16 to
work up to four hours on school days and up to 11 p.m.
The Missouri bill is even worse. It would lift provisions in the current
state law that bar children under 14 from employment, They'd be allowed to
work all hours of the day and no longer need work permits from their
schools. What's more, businesses that employ children would no longer be
subject to inspections by the federal agency that enforces the child labor
By the time you read this, the proposed laws in Maine and Missouri may have
been passed or, hopefully, rejected. But that's almost beside the point.
What's worse is that 11 years into the 21st century, people are actually
taking seriously proposals that would send us back into the 19th century.