Amid the ongoing push to expand child labor across the nation, 16-year-old Michael Schuls was tragically killed while working at a sawmill in northern Wisconsin. Florence Hardwoods had illegally employed the teen despite Wisconsin state law prohibiting minors from all occupations in logging and sawmills. This comes in the wake of the revelations that children as young as 13 have been working in dangerous meat production facilities across the country.
Labor protections under attack
Even though child labor violations have increased 37% in the last year alone, corporations and lobbying groups have been pushing harder than ever to expand the use of child labor. Last March, Republican and Democratic lawmakers came together with significant financial support from the lumber industry and their lobbyists to reintroduce a bill that would allow minors to work in the lumber industry. This comes amid a nationwide push to expand child labor and undermine the victories of the labor struggles of the past. In the last two years, 14 states have either passed or introduced laws expanding child labor with Iowa’s governor signing a bill allowing children as young as 14 to work in jobs previously deemed too hazardous.
The Supreme Court as a weapon against child labor protections
After decades of protests, labor strikes, and campaigns against child labor, the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act was the first piece of federal legislation that sought to weaken the use of child labor in industry. It prohibited factories from selling their goods if they employed children under the age of 14, it banned mines from selling their products if they employed children under 16, and prohibited any business from having children under 16 work nights or over 8 hours a day. The bill was signed into law by Woodrow Wilson in 1916, but overturned in 1918 by the Supreme Court on the grounds of federal overreach.
A second attempt was made in 1918 to address the growing opposition amongst the masses to child labor with the passing of the Child Labor Tax Law. This was also undemocratically eviscerated by the Supreme Court in the Hammer v. Dagenhart decision on the grounds of federal overreach over commerce. As the movement around a constitutional amendment against child labor grew in the 1920s, so did the movement to discredit it. With the campaign against child labor largely being led by communists and labor unions, it soon became victim to Red Scare propaganda with corporate interest groups calling the movement “a communist-led plot to subvert the constitution.”
Fight back to end child labor
The first efforts to prohibit child labor came about in the 1870s with the Working Men’s Party of the United States, one of the first socialist parties in the country, putting forward a proposition to outlaw the employment of children under the age of 14. Shortly after, during its inaugural convention, the American Federation of Labor passed a resolution demanding states immediately prohibit the employment of children under 14. In 1883, New York labor unions were successful in putting forward legislation that banned tenement cigarmaking, which was notoriously rife with child labor.
The fight against child labor truly became organized when Florence Kelly, a well-known communist organizer, former resident of Hull House, and close friend of Fredreich Engels, founded the New York Child Labor Committee in 1902. At the same time, renowned civil rights activist Reverend Edgar G. Murphy was organizing against child labor in Alabama. In 1904, after meeting at the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, Murphy and Kelly created the National Child Labor Committee, which would emerge as the leading organization against child labor for decades to come. The NCLC worked alongside labor unions to build support for the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act, the Child Labor Amendment, and the Fair Labor Standards Act, as well as engaging in militant journalism to expose and document the horrors of child labor.
By the height of the Great Depression, with so many workers facing unemployment and insecurity, the movement for labor rights reached an all-time high with communists playing a leading role in the organization of huge strikes. Millions of Americans joined the struggle against exploitation and for basic workers’ rights, including ending child labor. It was through this mass movement, inspired and led by communists, that the first piece of federal legislation prohibiting child labor was adopted: the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
Immediately after being signed into law, the Fair Labor Standards Act was challenged in federal court and risked being ruled unconstitutional like the child labor laws that came before. However, this time the pressure from the working masses was too great to oppose. The Fair Labor Standards Act was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1941 in the Hammer v. Dagenhart and U.S. v. Darby decisions. But like all reforms won under capitalism, the rights granted by the Fair Labor Standards Act remain at risk of being stripped away at any time.
Under a system that prioritizes profit above all else, nothing is off limits — including forcing children to work in unsafe environments while getting paid low wages. If we want to create a better world that guarantees a safe and bright future for our children, we need a new system that puts people over profits.