It's been a long time since the engines of American industry were driven by tiny fingers. So when Newt Gingrich recently proclaimed, "Young people ought to learn how to work," and suggested that children could develop a strong work ethic by working as janitors in their own schools, many Americans probably missed the throwback to the early 20th century, when hundreds of thousands of children toiled in factories. But after decades of campaigns against youth exploitation, the right is rekindling vestiges of the sweatshop era with legislation aimed at rolling back child labor laws.
While they didn't go so far as to recruit tweens back to the factory floor, throughout 2011 state legislators pushed bills to erode regulation of youth employment. Maine Republicans sought to ease protections for young workers with amicably named legislation to "Enhance Access to the Workplace by Minors." The original bill, introduced by State Representative David Burns, would remove some limits on working hours for teenagers and expand the number of days a youth under 20 could work for $5.25 an hour -- to about half a year. That would be a bargain for employers, who pay adult Mainers a minimum wage of $7.50. Last summer, a more limited teen labor bill passed, which only eased restrictions on working hours.
Dismissing his bill's critics in a Press-Herald commentary, Burns argued the purpose was simply to provide job-seeking youth valuable opportunities, since many "have no experience, and perhaps no work ethic, and don't merit the minimum wage until they learn a job." As for government safeguards against abuse, he added, "We have usurped the responsibility of families to make intelligent decisions and transferred that responsibility to school officials and the state."
Meanwhile, Wisconsin's legislature, following a vicious battle with unions over protections for collective-bargaining rights, repealed regulations on the hours that 16- and 17-year-olds could work during the school week and breaks.
In Missouri, Republican State Senator Jane Cunningham proposed removing restrictions on hiring kids under age 14 and on the hours and times of day that teens could work. Touting the policy as "common sense," Cunningham argued last February, "We're not doing students any favor by telling them, 'You cannot work.' "
Though changes in laws would not trump the overarching restrictions in federal labor regulations -- which generally set 14 as a minimum employment age, with exceptions for agricultural work and some other types of jobs -- advocates say state-level rollbacks undermine critical protective standards. "Kids in these states can now be made to work longer hours, later into the night," Anne Thompson, a policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project Action Fund, told The Nation. "This is part of coordinated efforts by conservatives across the country to use the economic crisis to shred critical worker protections."
Paralleling an anti-regulatory movement in federal and state politics, lawmakers who have challenged child labor restrictions say they're an unneeded barrier to exposing youngsters to old-fashioned discipline and rigor of the workplace.
In a public lecture posted to YouTube, Senator Mike Lee of Utah challenged federal child labor laws on constitutional grounds. Citing a 1918 Supreme Court decision that struck down anti-child labor legislation as an unjust encroachment on state authority, Lee contended, "As reprehensible as child labor is, and as much as it ought to be abandoned -- that's something that has to be done by state legislators."
Lee's legal rationale traces back to the debate surrounding the Keating-Owen Act of 1916, which would have curbed the employment of children had the Supreme Court not blocked it. Full-scale anti-child labor policies weren't firmly implemented until the Great Depression. Backed by New Deal advocates and an emboldened labor movement, the federal government finally pushed through age and work-hour regulations for child workers in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act.
The slippery slope on child labor has intersected with the presidential campaign trail, too. Speaking at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government last November, Newt Gingrich promoted quasi-vocational programs for poor school children, to offer "work experience in the cafeteria, in the school library, in the front office." Besides, he said, "Middle-class kids do it routinely. We should give poor kids the same chance to pursue happiness."
This bootstraps ideology is neither novel nor limited to the Republican Party. The meme of the shiftless, dependency-prone poor shaped the fictive image of Reagan's "welfare queen." It also formed a pillar of the Clinton administration's welfare reforms, which downplayed structural social barriers and aimed to "train" poor people of color through "welfare-to-work" labor programs.
Gingrich's philosophy on child labor complements Dickensian statements about child welfare during his tenure as House Speaker; he suggested placing children of dysfunctional parents in orphanages, removing them from their parents' negative influences.
Many children who "pursue happiness" through labor have dismal options. Common gigs for youth -- like construction, hospitality and restaurant jobs and farming -- often come with major hazards. According to a federal analysis of emergency department data, compared to workers 25 years and older, workers aged 15 to 17 suffer far higher rates of work-related injury.
Farm work is uniquely dangerous, leaving roughly 3,400 children and adolescents injured in 2009. Far from the bucolic ideal of the yeoman family, much of this sector today involves impoverished Latino migrant families. Farms can currently hire kids as young as 12 with parental consent. According to a 2010 Human Rights Watch report, threats facing child workers include pesticides, heat stress, accidents, employer abuse and massive school drop-out rates.
The right's fight against child labor laws coincides with a small push in the other direction from the Obama administration. Following years of pressure from advocates, the Labor Department has proposed new farm labor rules that would bar children under 16 from handling certain hazardous equipment and engaging in "agricultural work with animals and in pesticide handling, timber operations, manure pits and storage bins." Activists praised the initiative, but said it was only a small step toward addressing child exploitation in agriculture.
Separately, advocacy groups have pushed for the more comprehensive Children's Act for Responsible Employment, which would extend existing child labor regulations for other industries to agriculture. But the bill has languished in Congress.
Even the Labor Department's modest proposed reforms to farm work rules provoked backlash. A group of senators sent a letter of protest to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis in December, warning that tighter regulation could have "significant adverse economic impacts on rural employers" that rely on teen labor "to meet seasonal employment needs."
The right-wing canard of "tradition" versus worker protection might not portend a full-scale Oliver Twist redux. Nonetheless, recent debates around child labor have dusted off old arguments against government "overreach" dating back to a much crueler economic era.
"It seems that conservative politicians are trying to take us back to the nineteenth century -- a time when children went to work instead of school and toiled under dangerous conditions for little pay," said Justin Feldman of Public Citizen. Though some regulated work experience may be considered educational, he added, patterns of abuse and injury show that "children need more protection from these hazards, not less."
The phrase "child labor" suggests grainy photographs of waifish mill girls, or images of kids trapped in faraway sweatshops. But when US politicians grumble at basic protections for the youngest, most vulnerable workers, they reveal that the Industrial Revolution's legacy of unbridled capitalism still haunts the country's political arena.