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Labor and Labor Practices

The Struggle For Federal Child Labor Legislation

While state laws remained lax, poorly enforced, and in some cases nonexistent, action on a federal level did not really begin until the twentieth century. A group of social reformers created the National Child Labor Committee in 1904, which was instrumental in pressing for national child labor regulation.

The first Congressional bill to regulate child labor was introduced in 1906 by Sen. Albert J. Beveridge of Indiana, but the bill did not pass. After the release of a Congressional study of child labor in 1912, the Federal Children's Bureau was created as a fact-gathering agency and clearinghouse for information on child labor. Although the agency had no power to regulate, its investigations into labor conditions nationwide aided reformers greatly by providing them with information they would otherwise have had to gather themselves, thus freeing more of their time for political efforts.

Reformers were elated two years later when Congress passed the Keating- Owen Federal Child Labor Act. The act established a minimum working age of 14 and regulated hours of work for children from 14 to 16 years old in certain establishments, including mines, factories, and mills, and banned the interstate shipment of goods produced in violation of these standards.

Backed by the Executive Committee of Southern Cotton Manufacturers, Roland Dagenhart, father of two children who worked in a North Carolina cotton mill contested the validity of the law. In 1918 the case went to the Supreme Court, which struck down the act as an unconstitutional regulation of matters purely local (Hammer v. Dagenhart.)

In February 1919, less than a year later, Congress enacted the same standards codified by Keating-Owen in a revenue bill. This time, violation of the law subjected producers to a 10 percent tax on their net profits. The Supreme Court struck down the law in Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Co. The case before us cannot be distinguished from that of Hammer v. Dagenhart.

Child labor opponents now decided that a constitutional amendment would be necessary to effect national regulations that could not be invalidated by the Court. In 1924 Congress adopted a proposal for a constitutional amendment that would not by itself regulate child labor but would enable Congress to do so legally. The amendment was vigorously opposed by the National Association of Manufacturers, the Southern Textiles Association, and other industry groups: according to its opponents, the subversive amendment was favored by Bolshevists and Communists. Catholic groups such as the National Council of Catholic Women worked with the National Child Labor Committee in support of the bill, but much of the Catholic hierarchy, particularly in Massachusetts and New York, opposed the bill as a possible threat to parochial education and the authority of parents.

After each attempt to eradicate child labor failed, conditions grew worse. Finally the onset of the Great Depression began to change people's thinking: Why worry about employers, rights to hire children when one out of four adults was without a job? By 1932 only six states had ratified the amendment, but in 1933 alone fourteen more endorsed it.

The next legislation affecting child labor was the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, the purpose of which was to coordinate business practices in order to deal with the worsening depression generally, rather than to solve the child labor problem alone. It prescribed codes for fair competition and fixed wages and hours, and also established minimum age rules. In 1935 the act was declared unconstitutional in A.L.A. Schecter Poultry Corporation v. United States.

Congress passed two laws that were not invalidated by the Court, since they dealt expressly with federal action. The Jones-Costigan Act of 1934 regulated child labor on farms receiving federal assistance, and the Walsh- Healey Public Contracts Act of 1936 forbade boys under 16 and girls under 18 from employment in work under federal contracts worth more than $10,000.

Twenty-eight states had ratified the child-labor amendment by 1938, but it became largely moot and action on it lapsed when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act. Perhaps convinced it was necessary to change its view in light of Roosevelt's 1937 attempt to add six more justices to the Supreme Court in order to create a Court more amenable to the New Deal and by widespread social upheaval, including the increasing popularity of socialism as a cure for the country's troubles, the Court performed its famous switch in time that saved nine and began supporting Roosevelt's New Deal programs. Three years later the Court upheld the legality of the act in United States v. Darby.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA) covered all firms producing goods for interstate commerce. It established minimum wages, maximum hours, and overtime pay for covered employees. It established age requirements for children, particularly for hazardous jobs. The act was later strengthened in 1949 to ban oppressive child labor in interstate commerce, and coverage was broadened to include all firms engaged in interstate commerce, not merely those producing goods for interstate commerce, which brought more industries under the act. The Fair Labor Standards Act remains the primary law regulating child labor today.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationGreat American Court CasesLabor and Labor Practices - Introduction, The Wagner Act, The Taft-hartley Act, An Overview Of Labor Law