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Madness: Right-Wingers Are Serious About Trying to Undermine Child Labor Laws

Yes, they are trying to roll back the 20th century.

The fact that we're debating the social benefits of child labor laws in the second decade of the 21st century casts the madness that's gripped our right-wing in sharp relief. It took a hard-fought, century-long battle to get compliant kids working for slave-wages out of American workplaces, and that battle was supposedly won 73 years ago during the New Deal.

But according to Ian Milhiser, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has “called for a return to a discredited theory of the Constitution that early twentieth century justices used to declare federal child labor laws unconstitutional” in three separate decisions. In January, Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah,  said that children's employment was a states' rights issue, and their regulation by the federal government is unconstitutional. Milhiser noted that “many GOP elected officials have embraced rhetoric suggesting” that they agree, but have stopped short of coming out and saying as much.

The National Employment Law Project (NELP) announced this week that it is diverting attention from its primary task of advocating for the 14 million Americans without jobs to run ads in Maine against two measures that would significantly undermine the state's limits on child labor. A NELP spokesperson told AlterNet that the organization is spending “significant resources” to run the ads on local CNN and Fox affiliates in an effort to educate Mainers about what their new Tea Party-endorsed governor and his GOP-controlled legislature are trying to enact.

The state senate is considering two bills that would weaken existing workplace protections for minors. L.D. 1346 would allow employers to pay anyone under 20 a six-month “training wage” that falls more than $2 per hour below the minimum wage, eliminate rules establishing a maximum number of hours kids 16 and over can work during school days, allow those under 16 to work up to four hours per school day, allow home-schooled kids to work during school hours and eliminate any limit on how many hours kids of any age can work in agriculture (with a signature from their parents or legal guardians).  L.D. 516 would allow teens to work longer hours and later into the night than is allowed under current law.

The bills appear to be headed for easy passage in the state senate, but may face some resistance in the lower chamber. While it's controlled by the GOP, several members have broken with leadership on this issue to side with Maine Democrats.

Both bills, as you might imagine, are being championed by various industry groups, notably the Maine Restaurant Association – think fast-food. They argue that Maine's restrictions on child labor are more strict than those imposed by federal law, yet that's long been the point of the state's code, as the Brunswick Times-Record notes, “Under the existing state child labor laws in Maine, when there’s a difference between state and federal law, 'the law that provides the most protection to the minor takes precedence.'”

Maine was a leader in establishing limits on the work children could do and the hours in which they could perform it. It passed its first child labor law in 1847, 91 years before the first such legislation was enacted at the federal level (and only a short time after Massachusetts passed the country's first limits on child labor in 1836).

Child labor laws attempt to strike a delicate balance: often, they affect teens from low-income families that rely on the extra cash from the jobs they work after school and on weekends. The problem is that the short-term economic benefits to those families are often great enough that they have an incentive to sacrifice the long-term economic benefits of getting a decent education. The state has a “compelling interest” to make sure tomorrow's workforce is getting the skills it will need to thrive.

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