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Having Dealt Blows to Nurses and Teachers, Conservatives Take on… Kids

Not content that parents with jobs have had to work increasingly long hours over the last thirty years, some conservative lawmakers would like to send their children to work, too.

Last week capped the end of what was undoubtedly one of the darkest months for working people in decades, with Ohio Governor John Kasich signing the notorious Senate Bill 5 – stripping public sector workers of their collective bargaining rights – and similar measures advancing in New Hampshire and Oklahoma, and attacks on teachers moving forward in Idaho and Tennessee. At the same time, legislators in Maine opened up another front in the assault on workers’ rights in their state by introducing a bill aimed at gutting one of the most fundamental and cherished labor standards in the country: our child labor laws.
A bill introduced last week by Rep. David Burns (R-ME) and seven co-sponsors, LD 1346, would erode several basic provisions of the state’s child labor laws. It would set the minimum wage for workers under age 20 to a full $2.25 per hour lower than the state’s minimum wage of $7.50 for the first 180 days on the job. The bill would also remove limits on the number of hours 16- and 17-year-olds can work on school days, and increase to four hours the amount of time during a school day workers under age 16 can work. Furthermore, LD 1346 would repeal the requirement that students obtain a work permit from the school district, substituting parental sign-off on a consent form. Another bill introduced in the Maine Senate in February, LD 516, would also roll back protections for young workers. This bill would repeal limits on the number of hours those aged 16-and-under can work when school is not in session, and removes all limits on the number of hours 17-year-olds can work.

A substantially similar bill was introduced in Missouri this year, one among many bills intended to undermine basic labor standards and labor unions in the state. SB 222 would repeal restrictions on workers under the age of 14 and remove the requirement that workers under age 16 obtain a work permit. It would also loosen industry restrictions on employment of minors, for instance by enabling hotels to employ children under age 16. Perhaps the most radical provisions of the bill would revoke any semblance of regulation and enforcement: the bill would strip the state Department of Labor of the authority to inspect workplaces that employ children, eliminate employer record-keeping requirements, and abolish the presumption that the presence of a child in the workplace is evidence of her/his employment. Amidst controversy over bills to repeal the state’s minimum wage law and to implement a so-called “right-to-work” policy to politically undercut unions, SB 222 died in committee.

These moves to roll back child labor protections are a direct result of the dangerous ideologies being invoked in other attacks on collective bargaining rights and basic labor standards. Legislators sponsoring these bills are using rationales shockingly similar to those used by the original opponents of child labor laws – that the government has no right to restrict children’s ability to “contract” their own labor, and that it is parents’ responsibility to balance their children’s education and employment:

  • LD 1346 co-sponsor, Maine Rep. Bruce Bickford (R): “Kids have parents. Let the parents be responsible for the kids. It’s not up to the government to regulate everybody’s life and lifestyle. Take the government away. Let the parents take care of their kids.”
  • SB 222 author, Missouri Sen. Jane Cunningham (R): “What we’re trying to recognize is that parents know best, what’s good for their children and how to teach a work ethic, more than a bureaucrat in Jefferson City,” Cunningham said.

The resurrection of such absurd platitudes more than seventy years after the nation moved to end egregious child labor practices exposes the dangerous, regressive agenda behind the attacks on working people. Exploitation of children became rampant in the early twentieth century as a way for employers to depress wages for all workers and defeat unions. Regulating child labor, in fact, was one of the top priorities of labor unions, women’s organizations, and consumers’ organizations for decades. Enabling children to focus on going to school led to a better-educated, increasingly skilled workforce, opened up job opportunities for adults trying to raise a family, supported rising wage standards and unionization, and ultimately the development of the very middle class that is now under attack.

Tellingly, Maine Governor Paul LePage tried to erase that history just days before Rep. Burns introduced his attack on child labor by ordering the removal of a mural depicting Maine’s labor history from the state Department of Labor’s headquarters. The mural illustrates the aspirations of working people and the progress toward living up to them, including the plight of child workers, whom Maine first enacted laws to protect in 1847. It will take more than Gov. LePage’s symbolic act to rewrite history, but the likely passage of one or both of the child labor bills in Maine could be the first steps down that road.

Once eliminating fundamental labor standards such as the minimum wage and the right to join a union are on the table, the very notion of workers’ rights and the foundation of a decent society are called into question. Or put another way, in order to scapegoat working people, the unemployed, and collective bargaining for the economic and fiscal problems caused by Wall Street and greedy executives, conservatives have tapped into ideologies that justified mass exploitation of children, brutal union-busting, dangerous and degrading working conditions, and savage economic inequality throughout the country.

Full Resources from this Article

Having Dealt Blows to Nurses and Teachers, Conservatives Take on… Kids

University of Iowa – Child Labor Public Education Project
Bangor Daily News – Will 100 Years of Progress Disappear?
In These Times – Missouri Legislator Wants to Increase Child Labor
Economic Policy Institute – The Sad But True Story of Declining Wages in America

This article is part of PSN's email newsletter, The Stateside Dispatch.
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