Labor Day celebrates the labor movement and labor unions in the US, whose gains are always being challenged by the far right. The 5 day/40 hour work week, overtime pay, worker safety protections and worker’s comp, sick leave, military leave, minimum wage, and guaranteed breaks are all thanks to the labor movement. One of the labor movement’s most spectacular gains was the enactment of national child labor laws.
While there were activists fighting for child labor protections for many years, and even some serious Congressional efforts to enact such legislation nationally, there were few child labor protections until 1938, when FDR signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which outlawed child labor under the age of 14, and limited the kind of work and the hours of work for people 15-17, in addition to many other gains the labor movement had been fighting for. Conservatives have been seeking to erode or even destroy the FLSA since its inception. For decades, those conservatives who sought to undo basic labor protections like child labor laws and the minimum wage were considered the fringe far right. Even Reagan championed unions and collective bargaining, calling them crucial to freedom. Now, anti-labor and anti-union sentiment is at the center of the party, including a push to roll back child labor laws, complete with a romanticization of child labor instilling “values” and “work ethic.”
Republicans across the country are working hard to eliminate child labor laws, succeeding in four states thus far. GOP presidential candidate Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, abolished all restrictions on the hours kids between the ages of 16 and 17 can work in his state. In Idaho, child labor laws were changed to allow children as young as 12 to be employed by their schools for up to 10 hours a week. The conservative legislatures of Maine and Michigan both increased the number of hours minors are allowed to work in their states. While these four states are the only ones whose conservative politicians have succeeded in rolling back child labor protections, Republicans in Ohio, Utah, Missouri, and Minnesota are fighting hard to roll back child labor protections in their states as well. Some seek to ease restrictions on the number of hours children can work, some seek to ease restrictions on the type of work they can do (teens are currently restricted from performing dangerous work), some seek to create a sub-minimum wage for people under 20, and some are seeking to eliminate child labor laws completely. While Republicans have continuously fought hard against child labor laws beginning the moment the ink was drying on FDR’s signature, the most recent push to end child labor protections arguably stems from former GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s call to repeal child labor laws entirely, calling them “truly stupid,” in 2011. Current GOP politicians, including the current crop of presidential candidates, deeply romanticize child labor, pretending it’s all character-forming summer jobs, all-American paper routes, and light shifts after school at the local fast food place.
Child labor laws in America have always contained special exemptions for agricultural workers, who are legally allowed to work as young as 12 years old in the general season, 10 for hand-picked short-season crops. Even with exemptions, child labor laws are constantly violated in the agricultural industry, and I don’t mean kids helping out on family farms. I mean children working on commercial farms up to 60 hours a week in the blazing sun under brutal conditions. While it’s a problem industry-wide, it’s a particular problem on tobacco farms, where Human Rights Watch found children as young as 7 working, 2/3 of them suffering from symptoms of nicotine poisoning, such as vomiting, nausea, and headaches. Conservatives have fiercely protected agriculture’s right to hire children, and blocked efforts to improve their working conditions.
This Labor Day, let’s honor the spirit of the day by pledging to stand firm against conservative lawmakers fighting to destroy our hard-won child labor protections. Let’s seek further protections for children working in our fields. Let’s push back against the romanticization of unregulated, unrestricted child labor, and remember it for what it was: exploitation.