Put your Kid to Work Day
Child labor, capitalism, and the coming crisis
Yesterday a Mississippi poultry plant was fined $212,646 after a 16-year-old boy was caught in a machine and killed. Duvan Tomas Perez, an immigrant from Guatemala, died on July 14 on an evening shift at the Mar-Jac’s plant. Last June, a teenager named Michael Schuls was trying to unjam a machine in a Wisconsin sawmill. And the machine killed him, just weeks after his 16th birthday. Across the United States, child labor violations were up 50% in 2023. And, as we can see, some of these kids are dying on the job. More are being seriously injured.
But now multiple state legislatures are kicking off 2024 by trying to weaken child labor laws even further. This past week an Indiana Republican filed a bill to allow kids as young as 14 to drop out of school and work on corporate farms, during school hours. Kids would only need to complete 8th grade in order to work 40 hours a week as a farm laborer. A Florida House committee also advanced a bill to let bosses schedule 16 and 17-year-old kids more than 8 hours a day, more than 30 hours a week, and more than six straight days during the school year. That bill also lets bosses eliminate breaks for teens. Another Florida bill allows 16 and 17-year-olds to be put to work in jobs like roofing and scaffolding. And these are just the beginning. Arkansas, Iowa, New Jersey and more enacted laws weakening child labor protections last year. Another eight states saw legislation introduced.
No one will be surprised that big corporate and billionaire money is behind this push. When More Perfect Union looked into the money behind the Iowa bill they found the National Restaurant Association, which represents companies like Burger King and Taco Bell, and lobbies for corporations like Pepsi and Sysco. The Iowa law, which passed, allows 16- and 17-year-olds to operate dangerous power-driven machines, engage in heavy manufacturing, and work in demolition — all of which are prohibited under federal labor law. It is now unclear, as it has been for several months, what the federal government will do about this illegitimate rollback of child labor regulations. But what is clear is that in the meantime multiple states are marching ahead with making it easier and easier for bosses to put kids to work in dangerous jobs, for longer hours, and with fewer protections.
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Both the surge in child labor and the conservative, big-money push to allow even more kids to be put to work are not happening in a vacuum. A tight labor market as a result of the pandemic and a growing demand for workers has allowed us to demand higher wages. Union organizing has also been increasing, frightening bosses and raising the floor in multiple industries. At the same time, the majority of states have been raising the minimum wage, over the objections of corporations and their owners. All of this has brought up the cost of labor. Or, if you’re looking at it from the angle of working people you might say all of this has helped us get paid a little better, although still a lot less than we deserve, by and large.
The capitalists view it differently. Even though they’re making record profits, literally hitting record highs in 2022 and nearly hitting those same numbers in 2023, that’s still not enough for them. More specifically, the executives of these companies are mandated to produce growth for shareholders, and therefore there is no such thing as enough in this system we live under. And since record profits are not sufficient to appease the insatiable maw of capitalism, more ways to extract profit must be found. And therefore we find business interests turning their eye to a new source: our children.
Well, it’s actually not a new source. It’s an old source. Articles about this resurgence of child labor are often paired with black and white images that so many of us have seen in history books. Images from the 1800s or early 1900s of kids in coal mines, or mills, or factories.
Beyond shocking us, these images should inform us. They show how the capitalist push for more child labor is part of a bigger project to drag this country, and the world, backwards in time. From Elon Musk to Jeff Bezos to nearly everyone with extreme wealth, there has been a recognition that people are getting fed up. Billionaires see the left gaining new ground, they see unions surging, and they see how many of us are done with overpriced rent and food that’s too expensive. But instead of ceding any ground, instead of making life more livable, they’re still tied to that endless drive for endless profit growth. So the solution, to their mind, is to make this country less democratic and less equitable. They would prefer the 1890s to a future without capitalist exploitation.
We’ve all been warned about a dystopian future into a million different ways, from fiction to the countless think-pieces of the Trump era. But the real dystopia already took place, a century ago and more. And now new Robber Barons want to return us to that gilded age, want to take us into a techo-fascist era even more unequal than the one we’re already in. And their plans to do so are multifaceted and nefarious.
These efforts to usher in a new dystopia, eerily similar to our history books, involve defunding schools, forced birth policies, anti-immigrant laws, and more. Together this approach builds a web that disempowers the working class and directs us towards lives as cheap labor rather than lives with ample choices about how we spend our time or our careers. The ruling class wants more people who are less educated, making it harder for us to command as much in the labor market. They also want migrants without a path to citizenship, allowing for the mass exploitation of people with few legal protections on the job. This is already what capitalists are doing to migrants' kids as much as they can, and migrants without documentation as a whole. We see the results of this born out in the number of migrant kids found working in slaughter houses, construction, and other fields. This is also the position they want all children of the working class to be in: easily exploited workers.
And it’s working; the capitalist push to expand child labor is starting to bear fruit. Not only are total child labor violations up 50% last year, but in the food service industry rates are up over 500% for the last decade. According to a recent Washington Post report by Lauren Kaori Gurley and Emmanuel Martinez, “More than three-quarters of child labor violations in the first nine months of 2023 were in food service, with most of those at franchised brands.” McDonald’s and Burger King aren’t just hiring kids, they’re exploiting them. And instead of preventing it states are passing laws like the one Florida is considering right now, where teens could be put to work for over 30 hours a week, even during the school year. In other words, Republican state legislatures are facilitating the dramatic rise in child labor and exploitation.
These politicians enabling and helping in the massive rise of kids being put to work, hurt, and taken advantage of are of course the same ones who insist that they care about protecting children. But calling out their aggressive hypocrisy isn’t enough, tempting as it may be. What we need to do is fight back. In every statehouse and at the federal level and in our unions and beyond. Ceding any ground in the way we fight back is not enough. When these stories of new roll-backs to child labor law come, far too often right now, I see people say things like “Oh, so if you’re putting them to work you’re going to let them vote, right?’ No. No, they won’t let them vote, and even more importantly this isn’t a game of rhetorical gotcha. This is the lives of children, the limbs of children, and a fight over our future.
So do not concede anything, ever. Don’t concede letting our kids become low-wage workers, even in your language. Don’t ask rhetorical questions that assume the lowering of the age at which our children can be put to work in dangerous jobs, and asks for concessions we won’t get from these politicians in return. Don’t give up crucial child labor fights before they’re over. The fascist movement, intimately tied up with the billionaires backing these bills, never gives the rest of us an inch, and we should do the same. We should never appease them and should never cede a thing.
If my own rhetoric here sounds intense, good. I can think of few things more infuriating than seeing kids steadily put to work in more jobs, more dangerous jobs, and for longer hours. State by state this wave of legislation dragging us back to the 1800s grows. And we need to fight back. We need to have the mentality of people engaged in real struggle, because if your opponent brings a gun and you bring a strongly worded letter, you’re going to lose. So get organized. Talk to your neighbors and coworkers. We need to take over state legislatures and we need to build power in our communities. We need to organize and push back against those who would have our kids be roofers, meat packers, and farm workers instead of spending their time in safe, welcoming, well-funded schools.
Capitalism is showing us all how its limitless thirst for profits comes around to harm us and our families. We can’t let this continue. Our organizing must set its eye on the horizon, on a world where the endless extraction of profit is not the animating force of our economy. We must aim for a world where human and ecological flourishing come first, where our kids have long healthy childhoods and where putting them to work in dangerous jobs is inconceivable. We can reach that place, but it’ll take a struggle. It’s a struggle we have to win.
Thank you for reading today’s newslatter on this difficult topic, I appreciate your support and that you’re in this fight. If you’re able to become a supporting subscriber and help me write more for you, I appreciate it doubly - Josh