My grandfather and his brother worked as 11- and 12-year-old “slate boys” in the coal mines of Georgia and Alabama starting right before World War I got underway in Europe. Their job was to straddle conveyor belts carrying coal from the mine face and remove chunks of slate from the fast-moving belts. Dangerous work for anyone, but especially children. Injuries were an everyday occurrence, and some unknown number of boys were killed performing this task. My grandfather’s brother lost two fingers grabbing slate.
In their mid-teens, both of them began working underground. In his late 20s, the brother moved to Nebraska to work the rest of his life in various jobs for Union Pacific. My grandfather became a union organizer in 1927 for the United Mine Workers. Over the next 22 years, that job took him to Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and, for a brief time, Wisconsin, as the UAW experimented unsuccessfully with organizing hard-rock miners. Both men died horribly of black lung, even though the time each worked directly in the mines was less than a dozen years.
They were just two of the tens of thousands of children forced into grueling and sometimes lethal full-time work in that era. Like so many others, neither of them got as far as the sixth grade. Adding to the physical injuries, because they were Indigenous, they were paid even less than the paltry wages white slate boys earned.
Labor advocates began pushing social reforms that included protections for child workers in the second half of the 19th century, with scarcely any progress beyond spreading awareness of the issue. In 1904, the National Child Labor Committee was established to bring attention to the appalling conditions these young people faced by promoting “the rights, awareness, dignity, well-being and education of children and youth as they relate to work and working." A big project was the more than 5,000 photos taken of child workers by Lewis Hine, a committee-hired photographer, from 1908 to 1924. You can access the photos here.
Over and over, Hine saw children working sixty and seventy-hour weeks, by day and by night, often under hazardous conditions. He saw children caught in a cycle of poverty, with parents often so ill-paid that they could not support a family on their earnings alone, and had to rely on their children's earnings as a supplement for the family's survival. He saw children growing up stunted mentally (illiterate or barely able to read because their jobs kept them out of school) and physically (from lack of fresh air, exercise, and time to relax and play). He saw countless children who had been injured and permanently disabled on the job; he knew that, in the cotton mills for example, children had accident rates three times those of adults.
Together with leaflets and even mass mailings, the photos had the desired impact, sparking outrage in the public. Other child labor organizations were established in the same period with a focus on state legislatures. The Progressive Era reform movement managed to get some state-level reforms passed, but Southern states wanted nothing to do with this. That led to Congress passing two extremely modest protective child labor laws in 1916 and 1918. But the Supreme Court declared both unconstitutional in Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918) and Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Co. (1922).
The outcome of those cases kindled a row and led reformers to push Congress for a constitutional amendment that would allow passage of federal child labor legislation. In 1924, the House of Representatives passed a joint resolution on the amendment with a vote of 297–69; the Senate passed it 61–23. But, in great part due to a nasty ad campaign, just 28 of the 36 states needed to ratify the amendment did so.
Along came the Great Depression. Millions of adults lost their jobs, generating the New Deal program under President Franklin Roosevelt. The job situation created further impetus for getting children out of the workforce. Many of the provisions of the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act included reducing child labor. The Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1935. But in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act imposed limits on child labor, including the number of hours they could work in businesses where interstate commerce was a factor. For those under 16, employment in manufacturing and mining was effectively eliminated, at least on paper.
You can learn about current federal regulations on child labor here.
Unfortunately, same as it was a century ago, some employers are perfectly willing to exploit child workers regardless of what the laws say. In the past five years, since 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor has cataloged a 69% rise in the number of companies illegally employing children. Last year, the department found that 835 companies broke the law by employing more than 3,800 children. One case that caught the attention of a congressional committee found a company liable for employing more than 100 children, aged 13 to 17, at meat-processing facilities in eight states. Given the government’s limited resources, that number is almost certainly an undercount of the actual violators.
Meanwhile, as law-breaking in the matter rises, Jennifer Sherer and Nina Mast at the liberal Economic Policy Institute reported in March that 14 states have introduced (and some have passed) legislation weakening child labor protections. “The trend reflects a coordinated multi-industry push to expand employer access to low-wage labor and weaken state child labor laws in ways that contradict federal protections, in pursuit of longer-term industry-backed goals to rewrite federal child labor laws and other worker protections for the whole country, “ they write. “Children of families in poverty, and especially Black, brown, and immigrant youth, stand to suffer the most harm from such changes.”
The two economists updated their report last week, pointing out:
Last Friday, this concerted attack on child labor safeguards further expanded. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed an expansive bill enacting numerous changes to the state’s child labor laws, including:
- allowing employers to hire teens as young as 14 for previously prohibited hazardous jobs in industrial laundries or as young as 15 in light assembly work;
- allowing state agencies to waive restrictions on hazardous work for 16–17-year-olds in a long list of dangerous occupations, including demolition, roofing, excavation, and power-driven machine operation;
- extending hours to allow teens as young as 14 to work six-hour nightly shifts during the school year;
- allowing restaurants to have teens as young as 16 serve alcohol; and
- limiting state agencies’ ability to impose penalties for future employer violations.
Multiple provisions in the new state law conflict with federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) prohibitions on “oppressive child labor” involving hazardous conditions or excessive hours that interfere with teens’ schooling or health and well-being.
The authors note that the new Iowa law “allows several forms of hazardous child labor that are expressly prohibited under DOL regulations on work permitted for 14–15-year-olds or are banned for all youth under 18 under “Hazardous Occupations Orders” (HOs).” Expressly banned. A thumbed-nose to protective legislation on the books for 85 years.
Sherer and Mast go on at length to discuss the perils of this and other state legislation, offer some details of the violations under investigation, give shout-outs to labor and grassroots organizations for their vigorous but unsuccessful efforts to squelch or at least dilute the dangerous Iowa legislation. And they recommend changes for fixing the problem. The latter includes ditching the exemption of agricultural employers from most child labor laws as well as the widespread practice of paying youth sub-minimum wages. For instance, they spotlight Teens in Virginia, a grassroots group whose efforts helped block a bill that would permit employers to pay workers under 18 $3 less than the state’s current minimum wage.
The violations plus state legislation has spurred federal impetus to stiffen penalties for this labor outlawry. New laws are welcome. But one big problem in the federal government are departments and agencies under-budgeted and under-staffed when it comes to enforcement of existing laws. Like the Environmental Protection Agency, which is now under the gun to complete faster environmental reviews of energy projects, the Department of Labor needs more staff to investigate and penalize violators. As Sherer and Mast write:
As states like Arkansas and Iowa weaken state-level protections and leave a greater share of enforcement up to federal agencies and workers themselves, addressing the child labor crisis will require nothing less than fully funding the Department of Labor, fixing our broken immigration system, and empowering workers of all ages to form unions.
Good ideas, but there’s more that can be done. The day Democrats get a solid trifecta in Washington, with the White House and both houses of Congress having more than razor-thin margins, they should take a number of steps to fix labor law, including child labor protections. Repealing the anti-labor elements of the 75-year-old Taft Hartley Act would be a good place to start. Then there is full funding for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Labor Relations Board, and the creaky unemployment insurance programs whose flaws were demonstrated in the 2008 financial crisis and during the pandemic.
Many people argue that having a part-time job is a fine, life-enhancing experience for youths. That can be true. But they are not going to get that from working six hours a night during the school year on the line at a meat-packing plant any more than those slate boys could from risking their fingers and lives on coal conveyors. A serious federal approach to life-enhancing child labor would be to amply fund apprenticeship programs that would provide on-the-job training and education with reasonable pay and modest working hours to allow children to still be children.
Rolling back child-labor laws? Has the GOP never read Dickens? (LZ Granderson)
Attacks on Child Labor Laws Are a Dangerous Throwback to Social Darwinism (Naomi Oreskes)
New State Laws Are Rolling Back Regulations On Child Labor (NPR)
Kevin McCarthy keeps talking about putting a 'child' to work (Laura Clawson)
Facing labor shortages, the Republican solution is to rip up child labor protections (Hunter)