Educating Our Kids About the Labor Movement and What it Means for Children’s Rights

For most kids, Labor Day just marks the beginning of the school year­ ­­– but it really marks the beginning of fair treatment in the workforce.

There’s a commonly told joke about the Labor Movement: “from the folks who brought you the weekend.” History class often neglects to cover this critical time in America where the Industrial Age was full bore and a massive grass roots movement changed the very nature of industry itself. Many of the workplace practices we take for granted can be attributed to this very tumultuous time in our story.

It is a given to us now, but the fact that the average working person has innate protections under the law is a relatively new idea. To paint a more vivid picture, check out these surprising facts that Labor Day is meant to honor.

For starters, kids went to work immediately; there were no laws in place to protect children from dangerous work, and no cultural pressures that reinforced education first. Children were often hired with their parents in coalmines and textile mills because they could perform tasks that bigger people couldn’t do. For example, kids could climb into tight spaces and fix or maintain machinery with their small hands.1

It’s important to note that for the first half of the Industrial Revolution, if any worker young or old got injured on the job, they could be let go with no notice and no recourse. This meant that dangerous conditions in factories and railroads flourished and laborers could easily lose their lives2.

You can imagine that conditions the average employee experienced on a daily basis: estimates put the average workweek between 1830 and 1890 around 60-69 hours with very few meal and bathroom breaks. Most companies had strict rules about talking and attendance, and would freely dock employee pay for any infringement3.

It wasn’t until 1904 that child welfare organizations started to push for reforms to prevent the inhumane treatment of children and make education compulsory. Woodrow Wilson signed legislation into law, but the Supreme Court shot it down initially1.

In 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote a scathing novel exposing the exploitation of workers in the meat packing industry. The Jungle was banned across the country for depicting the cruel conditions in the factories.

It wasn’t until the Great Depression when Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act that limited child labor1. But from the 1830s onward, unions started to form and workers organized strikes, often resulting in bloody struggles.   These conflicts between big business and workers continued and put pressure on lawmakers to respond. Amid these conflicts, discrimination against people of color and women also sprung up. These brave citizens fought hard for the minimum wage, for safety regulations and the eight-hour work day3.

It’s worth noting that the struggle for fair employment is still in process, but we have come a long way from times when it was socially acceptable for kids to work in a mine shaft for 14 hours a day. This Labor Day, consider finding a way for you and your family to commemorate the courageous folks who put their livelihoods and lives on the line so that we could have our basic rights intact. And – enjoy your three-day weekend!





About Susie Almaneih

Susie Almaneih spent several years during her young adulthood teaching children dance at her church group, as well as other cultural-based activities. Susie now spends as much time as she can giving back to the families in her community. Over the years, this love for community has evolved into a deeper love for delivering positive and creative content and awareness to families of all ages.

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