Labor Day’s children – National Consumers League

By Guest Blogger Brigid O’Farrell

Brigid O’Farrell is an independent scholar living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her new book, “She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker,” will be released by Cornell University Press in October. She is affiliated with the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, George Washington University, and a member of UAW Local 1981.

“Labor Day,” wrote First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in her My Day column, “must be one of the most significant days on our calendar. On this day we should think with pride of the growing place which the worker is taking in this country…That is as it should be in a democracy.”

This year, workers don’t have much to celebrate. Unemployment is at a record high, reaching over 12 percent in California. Union membership in the private sector has declined nationwide to just over seven percent, a level not seen since the Great Depression. The most vulnerable workers are children.

Human Rights Watch reports that hundreds of thousands of children continue to work on farms and orchards picking tomatoes, corn, melons, berries–all the fresh fruits and vegetables we enjoy at our Labor Day picnics. Children under 18 work as seasonal and migratory workers, exempt from the laws governing other children. Many work long hours in extreme temperatures, often receiving poverty wages, exposed to hazardous materials and dangerous equipment.  By some estimates their school drop out rate is 50 percent, contributing to future poverty.

At the age of 74, and in failing health, Eleanor Roosevelt, a union member for more than 25 years, joined the National Farm Labor Advisory Committee. She testified before Congress and in her column praised a report recommending that “all farm workers, who are now usually exempted, should be included in Federal and State laws requiring union recognition and collective bargaining, setting fair standards for wages and hours of work and providing for unemployment compensation.”

She told the story of a 12-year-old girl, Christine Hayes, whose “scalp and most of her face were ripped off by a potato-digging machine while she and other child laborers were helping to harvest the potato crop on a farm near Blackfoot, Idaho.” She wrote that the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, a pillar of the New Deal, had exempted children doing agricultural work from its protections. “Therefore, there are legally, hundreds of thousands of children between the ages of 10 and 13,” she wrote, “who are permitted to work, and many, many more—some of them as young a six and seven years old—who are illegally employed. This should be corrected by law immediately.” It was not.

Fifty years later, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis is taking action. The daughter of immigrant farm workers and former Congresswoman from California, she is has initiated an effort to enforce the existing laws by hiring more investigators and increasing employer fines. Congresswoman Lucille Roybal –Allard of California, has introduced the “Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE), to stop 12 and 13 year olds from working in the fields, to limit working hours by 14 and 15 year olds, to keep teenagers out of dangerous jobs, to bring pesticide exposure levels into line with the EPA, and to increase employer penalties.

More farm workers are employed in California than in any other state. As we enjoy our Labor Day picnics and watch our children return to school, let’s remember the children who have helped to feed us, many of whom have been injured, and even more who have dropped out school. Eleanor Roosevelt said that these children “represented the future” just as much as all the other children we know and love.