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 desperate parents.
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 laws.
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.