One hundred years ago this month, I was reminded by Portside’s “This Week in People’s History” feature (5/29/23), a constitutional amendment passed both houses of Congress, with large majorities, and went to the states for ratification. It remains a proposal, not a law, to this day, because the necessary three-quarters of states didn’t accept it.

The proposal is the Child Labor Amendment, giving Congress authority to regulate “labor of persons under 18 years of age.”

Efforts to protect children from dangerous work continued anyway, of course, and the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act included prohibitions on children under 14 working in most occupations. Separate rules have been crafted for agricultural jobs (which is its own story).

Popular concerns used for private ends

In the last four years, state legislatures in at least 28 states have taken up proposals to roll back child labor protections; 12 states have passed such laws.

In April 2023, the Washington Post (4/23/23) reported on the Foundation for Government Accountability, a Florida-based think tank with a lobbying arm, the Opportunity Solutions Project, that’s crucially behind these state-level moves to undermine rules to keep children from working long hours in dangerous conditions. The Iowa state senate had just approved an FGA-maneuvered bill letting children as young as 14 work night shifts.

The FGA, with some 115 lobbyists in 22 states, presents child worker bills as part of a cultural debate about “parental rights.”

Post reporters Jacob Bogage and María Luisa Paúl explained how the group has worked systematically, if stealthily, to push state policy to the right on things like restricting access to anti-poverty programs and Medicaid expansion.

Despite what is, on examination, a broad deregulatory agenda, the FGA, with some 115 lobbyists in 22 states, presents child worker bills as part of a cultural debate about “parental rights.” They aim to remove “the permission slip that inserts government in between parents and their teenager’s desire to work,” a representative said. One bill, in Georgia, would prohibit the state government from requiring a minor to obtain a work permit.

Besides a warning to legislators, such a report ought to have been a call to reporters: Beware of “grassroots” efforts that suspiciously mimic the goals and language of this right-wing interest group, with its undeclared intent to use popular concerns to advance private ends.

‘Shocks the conscience’

Over a year later, child labor rules are still in the news: Early June saw a Labor Department lawsuit against Hyundai after a 13-year-old girl was found working a 50- to 60-hour week on an Alabama assembly line (CBS5/31/24). It “shocks the conscience,” said one official.

Before that, we had the Louisiana House voting to repeal the law requiring employers to give child workers lunch breaks (MSNBC4/19/24). Many of my child employees want to work without lunch breaks, claimed bill sponsor and Republican state representative and smoothie franchise owner Roger Wilder.

But what about the puppetmasters? A rough Nexis test I did found that over the last three months, a search for the term “child labor” in US newspapers gets 740 results. Add the words “Foundation for Government Accountability” and the number drops to 14.

Does every story on child labor need to mention the advocacy group? Of course not. But if you consider the rollback of child labor laws a problem, connected to other problems, then calling groups like them out adds something key to understanding that problem and how to address it.

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