By Alan I., Red Phoenix correspondent, Ohio.
Child labor laws are being repealed in the United States in order to preserve profits, loosening previous restrictions in order to allow younger minors to work in dangerous settings. In a span of only five weeks this summer, three teens have died in industrial workplace accidents: Duvan Tomas Perez, 16, of Mississippi; Michael Schuls, 16, of Wisconsin; and Will Hampton, 16, of Missouri. Capitalist news outlets have discussed at length the so-called “labor shortage” in the world economy and particularly in the United States. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, there are 9.8 million job openings and 5.9 million unemployed workers, which would usually result in a situation where workers would have more power to demand better pay, a marginal victory in the class war. Indeed, this was the case among lower-income workers who won a modest rise in pay between March 2020 to March 2022. But even such a small gain is unacceptable to the capitalist class, who are now attempting to undercut the workers by exploiting children at an increasing rate by normalizing and legalizing dangerous child labor. There are currently seven states where legislation lowering the alcohol serving age has passed, and two more where it has been proposed, which places minors in jobs where they interact directly with intoxicated adults. Six bills have been introduced this year that would extend working hours for those under 18 years old. Most shockingly of all, Iowa has recently enacted a bill that would allow 14-year-olds to work in meat freezers and on assembly lines.
Despite the nearly 90-year history of federal regulations restricting child labor, beginning with the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, such abuses have continued illegally even before these recent legislative rollbacks. Children as young as 14 are permitted to work in “allowed occupations,” including many service and non-agricultural industry positions, but between October 2022 and July 2023 the number of cases of illegally employed children rose by 44% compared to the previous year. Minors in general – and especially those under 16 – are engaged in longer hours in more dangerous industrial jobs, such as in garment factories, tobacco farms, meat packing plants, sawmills, and landfills. Now, the capitalists are working to make this the legal status quo.
Amid depressed wages and rising inflation, working-class families are struggling to survive under the looming threats of hunger and homelessness, and are susceptible to permitting their teenage children to work wherever they can legally earn a paycheck. Keeping that threat held above the heads of workers is how capitalists keep our wages low and their profits high. With the growing labor movement in the United States, and their greater bargaining power in this crisis, workers are finding it easier to demand what is due to them. This “labor shortage” is more a shortage of the capitalists’ will to pay a living wage. The capitalists refuse to accept that the crisis would be resolved by simply raising wages and scaling back their enterprises.
These terrible bills must be campaigned against and repealed where necessary. Any attempt to bring back child labor must be met by coordinated political and economic action. This will take considerable effort but is absolutely vital, not only to advance the interests of the proletariat, but also to simply protect youths, imperiled as they are in a world deep in the throes of a climate crisis, rising reaction, growing gun violence, and other twisted machinations of the capitalist system. As Frederick Engels once said, “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.” So let there be no mistake, when working parents have to decide between their child’s safety, health, and happiness over putting food on the table, what can this be but barbarism? The communist movement that won the working class these precious reforms in the New Deal does not exist at present; its reforms have failed, as reforms always will. It stands to us, revolutionaries and progressive allies, to recover a movement that will finish the job. We have no time to spare, no promises to hide behind. The future foretells the most grotesque depravity not only for ourselves but for our children. The workers cannot afford to fail them. For the workers and our children, we WILL have socialism.