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


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-Recordnotes, “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.

Maine appears to have struck that balance, allowing young people to put in significant work hours, but preventing them from working long hours on school days or past 10 pm. The state doesn't exactly have a labor shortage – its unemployment rate stands at 8.5 percent – but the legislature is trying to water down the existing laws to expand its low-wage workforce. It's a classic move in the race to the bottom.

And it's part of a larger assault on the working class. Maine's new governor, Paul LePage, is a Tea Party darling best known (after his “brazen” nepotism) for ordering the removal of a mural that depicted workers in a positive light.

Child labor laws and the growth of the American labor movement have gone hand-in-hand. According to the Child Labor Education Project, “Union organizing and child labor reform were often intertwined, and common initiatives were conducted by organizations led by working women and middle-class consumers, such as state Consumers’ Leagues and Working Women’s Societies.”

In 1876, the Working Men’s Party fought to ban the employment of children under the age of 14. These grassroots organizations would fight for better conditions for all workers, and for limits on children's labor, until the first federal child labor laws were passed in 1938.

Organized labor doesn't have the same clout it did in the 1930s – 13 percent of Maine's workforce belonged to a union last year. And that is an integral part of the widespread assault on workers' protections, from public employees' right to bargain collectively to the insidious “right to work” laws that result in the average working person taking home $1,500 less in pay each year. And now the wisdom of child labor laws are once again subject to debate in the American mainstream.

Last month, a measure far more extreme than that being considered in Maine was introduced by Missouri state rep. Jane Cunningham, R-West County. According to the St. Louis Waterfront Times, if her bill, SB 222, were enacted:

Children under the age of 14 would no longer be barred from employment. They'd also be able to work all hours of the day, no longer need a work permit from their school and be able to work at motels and resorts so long as they're given a place to lay their weary heads each night. Moreover, businesses that employ children would no longer be subject to inspections from the Division of Labor Standards.  

Charles Dickens would feel right at home.

You can watch the ad NELP is airing in Maine below:

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