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 camera.
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 and Appalachia.
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.