Strong: Fought and died for in blood

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“Kids don't have a little brother working in the coal mine, they don’t have a little sister coughing her lungs out in the looms of the big mill towns of the Northeast. Why? Because we organized; we broke the back of the sweatshops in this country; we have child labor laws. Those were not benevolent gifts from enlightened management. They were fought for, they were bled for, they were died for by working people, by people like us. Kids ought to know that.” 

— Utah Phillips, American labor organizer.

For centuries, children worked in family businesses and farms. They were apprenticed out to learn a craft. Families supervised their children and guilds regulated apprenticeships, to ensure safe, fair treatment.

When the Industrial Revolution started around 1760, society began changing, for good and bad. Over time, people left their farms and small businesses and moved to cities to work in factories and large industries.

Economic pressures in the cities meant many children had to become wage earners, with few protections. They faced dangerous conditions, and most were unable to receive an education.

As early as 1836, Massachusetts passed a law requiring factory children under 15 to attend school for at least three months a year. In 1842, they passed a law limiting children to working 10 hours a day. In 1892, the Democratic Party platform advocated no factory employment for children under 15.

Despite efforts to make sure children attended school, “in 1890, more than 18 percent of children ages 10 to 15 were employed.” (Trattner, Crusade for the children, 1970)

After years of attempts to limit child labor, Congress finally passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. This law made 14 the minimum age for working after-school jobs, 16 the minimum for working during school hours, and 18 for dangerous jobs.

In Nevada, Chapter 609 of the NRS defines which jobs are allowed and which are prohibited for minors. Children under 14 are not allowed to work during the school day. Children under 16 are restricted in the jobs they can take and how many hours they may work. These are just a few of the laws regarding child labor.

Violations of these statutes result in criminal penalties. All of this is to ensure children get the education they need and are protected from injury. Most of us understand how important this is.

Despite these advances, Republicans have been working for years to turn back the clock. In February 2011, Missouri Republican Sen. Jane Cunningham proposed Missouri Senate Bill 222. This act would eliminate restrictions on where and how long 14-year-olds could work. It eliminates the requirement that a child aged 14 or 15 obtain a work permit to be employed. The law basically removes most protections for child workers.

This movement has since grown under Republican legislators. “In the past year, lawmakers in at least 10 states have sought to undo child-labor protections... A bill in Minnesota would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work in construction.” (Washington Post, April 23)

In Iowa, Republicans want to allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work in freezers and 16- and 17-year-olds to serve alcohol in restaurants. That bill, Senate File 542, was approved by the Iowa Senate and House. Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds is expected to sign it. In Arkansas, on March 8, Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed the Youth Hiring Act of 2023, eliminating age verification for child workers.

Why are Republicans working so hard to eliminate protections for children? This seems to be part of their goal to return to the “good old days,” when children were the property of their parents and everyone “knew their place.”

Advocating for these policies is a group called the Foundation for Government Accountability, a right-wing think tank funded by major Republican donors. They are working to eliminate various laws protecting women, children and the poor. They write much of the legislation being proposed by Republican state legislatures. (Truthout, April 24)

No one wants to prevent young people from working jobs that are appropriate for their age. But the same people who think teenagers are too immature to choose their own books also think they should be able work in slaughterhouses, assembly lines, auto factories and other dangerous work sites. They’re even OK with night shifts for young teenagers.

Those of us who believe our children deserve a childhood and an education need to push back. These protections were achieved with sweat and blood. We shouldn’t be throwing them away.

Jeanette Strong, whose column appears every other week, is a Nevada Press Association award-winning columnist. She may be reached at


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