March 27, 2023
From Popular Resistance

Above Photo: Portrait of a young apprentice locomotive engineer in train works. Stock photo via Getty Images.

‘It Is Coming To Your State Soon.’

The push by Republicans and industry lobbyists to roll back child labor laws in states like Arkansas, Iowa, and Ohio are part of a larger attack on workers and the federal government’s ability to enforce labor standards.

A 16-year old was crushed to death on the job by a multi-ton tractor. A 15-year old died after falling 50 feet on his first day working for a roofer. Horrific revelations continue to come out about the common exploitation of child labor in meatpacking and food processing plants, industrial and office cleaning, and even auto manufacturing, including in at least four Alabama parts suppliers to Hyundai and Kia. These are not stories from the early 1900s. This is happening here, now, all around us.

While we Americans like to believe that child labor is a thing of the past, an antiquated detail of a dark history that is safely in our rearview mirror, the sad reality is that, even today, in the year of our Lord 2023, the exploitation of children and their labor continues to be a dismal feature throughout the production and supply chains behind many of our favorite brands and companies, including Lucky Charms, Cheetos, Walmart, Target, Whole Foods, Fruit of the Loom, Ben and Jerry’s, etc. There are kids farming the produce that we buy in the supermarket, kids making the parts that end up in our cars, kids cleaning industrial bone saws, office buildings, and houses, kids on construction sites and in the backs of restaurants. And it is getting worse. As Lauren Gurley recently reported at The Washington Post, according to data from the Department of Labor, child labor violations in the United States have nearly quadrupled since 2015.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, rather than be justifiably horrified by the situation and take serious steps to address the scourge of child labor, Republican lawmakers in states like Arkansas, Iowa, and Ohio are pushing to roll back labor laws and to make it easier for businesses to hire minors, have them do more dangerous jobs, and even extend their working hours.

As Dr. James A. Merchant, professor emeritus of public health and medicine and founding dean emeritus in the College of Public Health at the University of Iowa, recently wrote in the Des Moines Register:

Last November, the U.S. Department of Labor filed an injunction in U.S. District Court in Nebraska against Packers Sanitation Services for illegally employing children in meatpacking plants it serves. Judge John M. Garrard swiftly granted the injunction requiring Packers to stop “employing oppressive child labor.” The Department of Labor (DOL) has now found that Packers had employed at least 50 children in night shifts in four Minnesota, Nebraska and Arkansas meatpacking plants. The children, ranging in age from 13 to 17, were not fluent in English, and they cleaned kill floor bone-cutting saws, grinding machines and electric knives with corrosive cleaning fluids. The DOL reported that some of the children had suffered chemical burns and other injuries… Now in Iowa, Senate File 167 and House File 134 are moving forward in the General Assembly. The bills, as introduced, seek to weaken existing child labor [standards] governed by the Fair Labor Standards Act by proposing multiple changes in Iowa Code Chapter 92…

The bills would change Iowa law to allow children to work in several hazardous jobs.  They would allow children as young as 14 to work in freezers and meat coolers, work prohibited by federal law, and they do not clearly state in what other meatpacking plant areas work would be permitted. They would allow 15-year-olds to load and unload non-power-driven equipment weighing up to 30 pounds, and up to 50 pounds with a waiver from the Labor Commissioner, work now prohibited by federal law. Provisions for youth under 18 could be employed as motor vehicle drivers, clearly hazardous work — also inconsistent with federal regulation. And they would also allow youth under 18 to sell alcoholic beverages, currently prohibited by Iowa law, if approved in writing by a parent or guardian.

What the hell are we doing here? How the hell is this even a discussion right now? And what do these pushes to roll back child labor laws tell us about the economic, political, and frankly moral state of our society today? And what can we do to fight back?

I recently posed these questions to Charlie Wishman, who currently serves as president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. Charlie was appointed unanimously to the role in May of 2020 by the IFL Executive Council, and was elected in August of that same year at the 64th Annual Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, Convention and has served in that role since then.  Charlie became Secretary/Treasurer of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, in January of 2012, and was re-elected to that role many times after initially serving as communications director for the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. Charlie is a member of AFT Local 716, and has also previously been a member of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) as well as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Maximillian Alvarez: Let’s just start by making sure that folks have all the basic info that they need about these bills in Iowa specifically. What would these bills do if signed into law? Who the hell is actually pushing for these rollbacks of child labor laws, and what is their justification for this?

Charlie Wishman: There’s a lot to unpack here. I think it’s important to start with who is pushing this sort of legislation. There are the people who are out front doing it: the restaurant association, the hospitality associations, and things like that. You have the home builders and some folks who are out front, but it’s really interesting… I uncovered in the last Iowa Workforce Development notes that, actually, our governor’s office had helped draft this legislation, as well as the Department of Workforce Development. So it’s not just, “We can’t find enough people to work at McDonald’s or Burger King” or wherever. There’s something much, much larger going on here, and I think you see that reflected in the legislation. I can go over what it currently does.

There have been slight amendments to it, but these are just some of the lowlights—highlights, lowlights, whatever you want to call them—of this legislation: It would allow youth as young as 14 to work six-hour nightly shifts during the school year, and it extends working hours to 9:00PM. And the problem is both of those provisions go beyond federal regulations as they’re currently written in the Fair Labor Standards Act and DOL rules and regulations. But in addition, it also allows employers to recruit teens for a work-based learning program for jobs, and formerly off-limits, hazardous work would be open to 14 to 17 year olds under waivers provided by Iowa Workforce Development or the Department of Education in our state. It would allow 16 and 17 year olds to perform light assembly work in plants, even plants that manufacture or store explosives. Even if you’re not working with explosives yourself, even if that work is performed in shipping areas by machines, if the explosives are in the building, that’s pretty darn dangerous, as you can see in East Palestine, Ohio, or even here recently in Iowa—we had an entire plant explode, and we still don’t even know all the chemicals that were in that plant at the time.

The legislation in Iowa allows 16 and 17 year olds to work in meatpacking plants in shipping and assembly areas. Ask anybody who’s ever worked in a meatpacking house: There is no place for anyone under 18 anywhere inside of a meatpacking plant. It allows 16 and 17 year olds to work in mines. They struck the word “coal” from “mining,” but we’ve got other kinds of mines here. The coal mines have been decommissioned, probably decades and decades ago, but we still have gypsum mining—your drywall comes from somewhere.

One of the more troubling proposals does go back to the restaurant industry, and it would allow 16 and 17 year olds to serve alcohol. I know a lot of people at first blush are like, “Eh, that’s no big deal,” but I don’t know… I asked the majority leader of the Iowa House when we marched on his office, “Do you want your daughter to be bartending at 16 for God-knows-who, someone who’s been drinking for however long, not knowing if they’re a pedophile or not?” And he said, “Well, my daughter works at an ice cream shop.” Well, there’s a big difference between ice cream and alcohol.

So, that’s just some of the stuff that’s out there. But if you go and look at everything that’s in this bill, you’ll see it’s not just the restaurant industry that wants the changes that are being made.

Maximillian Alvarez: And even the example of, “Oh, my daughter works at an ice cream shop,” is so disingenuous. We already know that the people in power who are making these decisions, who are pushing for these bills—it’s not going to be their goddamn kids who are in those mines, it’s not going to be their goddamn kids who are cleaning bone saws in meatpacking plants, it’s not their kids who are going to be cleaning office buildings at midnight when everyone’s gone home, and they know that. And I think that’s one of the big unspoken truths about this whole situation: It’s not just that Republican legislators in states like Arkansas, Ohio, and Iowa are pushing to roll back child labor laws and now we’ve got to worry about child labor coming back.

Child labor is already here, as I said in my introduction. A lot of it is being done by Brown kids, poor kids, Black kids, migrant kids—the most underprotected and underserved populations that we have. And everyone just kind of sits around pretending it’s not happening, even though deep down I think we all know that it is. And the people pushing this legislation damn well know that too. That’s me speaking for myself. I’m not speaking for Charlie or anyone else here—just want to be clear there.

Charlie Wishman: You can, you are right.

Maximillian Alvarez: OK, good. I’m really trying to restrain myself here, but I’m about to lose it, man.

You said something about how the deeper you dig into this, the more you realize that this is part of a bigger issue—I want to focus on that. Let’s put these bills in Iowa in context along with what’s going on in Arkansas and Ohio. I think people may hear about this and they may wonder, “Well, that may just be legislation put out by some fringe elements. It has no hope of passing,” yada, yada, yada. How much is this push to roll back child labor laws in multiple states around the country actually a fringe movement by the most extreme edges of the business class and its political acolytes? And how much is it actually symptomatic of a broader onslaught to further weaken labor protections and workplace standards across the board and, in so doing, to undercut organized labor power and undercut workers who are trying to make a living wage?

Everyone knows we’re in what’s called a “tight labor market” right now. That’s why you’re seeing—or at least partially why you’re seeing—a lot of rank-and-file action. That’s why you’re seeing people quit their jobs in record numbers, because they have more leverage to say, “If you don’t pay me more or treat me better, I’m going to walk.” At the same time, the Boomer generation is aging out of the workforce, a lot of people died or got sick with COVID, and many are still dealing with long-term effects of COVID. This is the kind of labor situation that we’re seeing here, and (this is, again, me editorializing, this is me hypothesizing) it feels like, rather than listen to the concerns of workers, improve your workplace, treat workers better, pay them more, let them have a better work-life balance, make yourself more attractive to job seekers— instead of doing that, what bosses and legislators are doing is saying, “Let’s raise the retirement age and let’s let kids work at these jobs instead.”

Charlie Wishman: I want to go back to something that you said earlier. Let’s be clear: It’s not their kids that we’re talking about here. It’s our kids. There’s nobody named Grassley who’s going to be working in a meatpacking house, I guarantee you. And if there is, they’re not gonna have any relation to the speaker of our house, Pat Grassley.

You hit on something that’s really, really important: While this seems like it’s coming out of the blue, out of left field (this wasn’t on my bingo card, right?), what is going on here in large part is a legalization of bad practices that are already going on. You just saw the Department of Labor uncover hundreds of violations in meatpacking plants with people who are under the legal age doing cleaning services. But that’s just one industry, one section. This is going on all over the place. I think there was a New York Times article earlier that reported on a girl who’s a young Latina, I believe, who’s 15, who’s working past midnight to make our Cheerios. These are multinational corporations, and they’re trying to legalize their already bad practices.

And last year, we saw the big push in a lot of states, including ours, that was like, “Let’s go after unemployment, because, really, the problem is that there are just a bunch of lazy people out there sitting at home watching Judge Judy or whatever.” Well, you just explained how that’s not the case. That’s not where this is coming from. You’ve got a whole bunch of people who are just fed up with it all. We’ve had a number of strikes recently—our most high-profile one here in the Midwest and in Iowa, I think, was the John Deere strike, but there have been so many that you haven’t heard of, and this really has picked up since the pandemic. It’s because people have had enough. It’s because they’ve been called “essential” for three years now, yet they get treated as nothing but expendable. On top of that, go to any picket line, talk to members who are strike, and you’ll hear why they’re fired up (it’s the first thing out of their mouths): They know exactly how much their company made during the pandemic, they know exactly how much their CEO made during the pandemic, and they know exactly how much they’re making.

They know that “trickle down” isn’t trickling down to them from the corporate side. Now we have to help them understand the tax side of it as well, that trickle down isn’t working for the working class of this country. Never has. But this is just part of the bigger picture of what’s going on here. I think you hit so many great points in your editorializing. I wouldn’t call them editorializing or opinions, I’d call them facts.

Maximillian Alvarez: Thanks, man, I appreciate that. And I am begging people out there: Don’t push this under the rug. Don’t just hope that this is going to go away. Because it’s not. This is the most craven crap that you can imagine, but they’re going to keep pushing it if they can get away with it, if we keep buying these BS justifications for it, if we believe the corporate-manufactured narrative that “No one wants to work anymore” and that’s why businesses have to seek 14-year olds to do these jobs. Bull crap! Listen to my show. Listen to the workers I talk to every single week and tell me that people don’t want to work. Then you’ll actually hear directly from the mouths of the people who make our society run, the people delivering our packages, picking our food, delivering our groceries, so on and so forth. These are hardworking people who are being taken advantage of left and right. I beg you to listen to workers, not to overpaid pundits, not to bought-off politicians, and not to Chamber of Commerce bootlickers.

If I may editorialize one more time, I just really want to entreat people to understand that we, as a society, can agree that this is not worth it, this child labor crap needs to stay in the past. We also need to soberly acknowledge the thing that is always in the backs of our minds, but that we, especially here in the West, especially in developed countries, have the luxury of pushing out of our view. You already know what I’m about to say, but it needs to be said: Your phones are made from minerals that are mined by children around the world. A lot of the food that you eat is picked by literal children. A lot of the clothes that we wear are made in sweatshops where children work—sweatshops that are contracted out by some of the biggest brands around the world. We know that this is a problem, but we just allow ourselves to comfortably put it out of sight, out of mind. So, even as we address it here in the United States, we need to understand that this is the direction that the business class, that capital, that the ruling and the order-giving class always want to move. They want to close down industries in the United States and move them across the border where they can pay workers next to nothing. They want to always search for the lowest possible wage they can pay, they’re always looking for the most exploitable workforces they can find, so that they can reduce their operating costs and pocket all the difference.

That is what this is really about, in my opinion. And we’re not going to be able to address the systemic issue there unless we understand that this is not something new. This is not something that is just happening in red states or random parts of the country. It’s happening all over the place, and it is happening, sadly, all over the world. But there are things that we can do to fight against it. And with the remaining time that I have you, Charlie, I just wanted to ask: What can people do to push back against this? What is already being done on the labor side and the legislative side? And how does the Department of Labor factor into all of this?

Charlie Wishman: All very good questions. So, number one, I would say: Always, whether you think you’re being heard or not, you have to contact your legislators. Even if you don’t believe that they’re listening, the last thing that you ever want is to have them come back to you when you complain to them about it later, during election time or whenever, and to hear them say, “Well, I never heard from you about this.” Sometimes that’s a BS deflection, but sometimes it’s true. So, they absolutely, absolutely need to hear from you in whatever form possible. We also need to make sure that, even in states like ours, both inside the capitol and outside the capitol, we need to try to raise hell to make sure that our voices are heard. Some version of this bill is likely to pass… but who knows? I believe in believing. That’s what we do in the labor movement, right? But we have to make sure that our voices are heard in all kinds of different ways. So write letters to the editor, write op-ed pieces.

Even if this isn’t happening in your state, it is coming to your state soon. I promise you. I feel like I’m out here with a lot of other people who are jumping up and down, raising the flag, and saying, “Hey, listen, help us stop this thing. Because if we can stop this in a red farming state like ours (and, by the way, it wasn’t always red, and we can come back from this), if we can do this here, we can stop this from moving all across the country.” But if it hasn’t even gotten there yet, then make sure that this issue is front and center, preemptively make this an issue, and make it so that it’s just deplorable for anyone to even want to bring up. I mean, there’s a reason why you have to dig into the minutes from board meetings and things to find out that our governor and Workforce Development have been working on this, because they wanted it to be a secret, because they know it looks like crap.

One final important point I wanted to make: I think we have a Department of Labor that typically relies on waiting until state legislation has passed before they’ll come in and actually enforce the rules, regulations, and laws that are already on the books, before they tell a state, “Hey, you can’t do that.” And too often progressives forget that the courts are not our friends either and that we can’t rely on them, really, for anything.

Unfortunately, part of the bigger picture here, too, is that this is another attack on the federal government’s ability to be able to enforce on states what is right in terms of federal labor standards. And it’s not just about labor issues. It’s about so many different governmental functions that are being weakened before our eyes. To combat it, we cannot keep pretending like there’s only two branches of government. Progressives need to realize, and take seriously, that there are three branches of government, and that our courts are in big trouble. Not only that, we need to make sure that corporations are forced to do what they are supposed to do, because we already know that, too often, unless it’s at legislative or regulatory gunpoint, they’re not going to do the right thing.