Bad Takes: Child labor laws are under attack from business interests. Time to push back.

Some 250,000 migrant children have arrived in our country unaccompanied, and thousands have been exploited in grueling jobs.

click to enlarge San Antonio labor leader Emma Tenayuca’s efforts helped usher in U.S. child labor rules. We should honor her by fighting to keep them in place. - Anne Lewis
Anne Lewis
San Antonio labor leader Emma Tenayuca’s efforts helped usher in U.S. child labor rules. We should honor her by fighting to keep them in place.

Editor's Note: Bad Takes is a column of opinion and analysis.

Earlier this year, San Antonio's newly elected and proudly middle-of-the-road Mayor Ron Nirenberg dedicated a street to a card-carrying communist.

Comrade Emma Tenayuca led San Antonio's pecan shellers strike in 1938, when some 10,000 workers left dozens of plants idle for nearly three months to protest starvation wages. She was promptly imprisoned.

"The Tenayuca woman is a paid agitator sent here to stir up trouble," Police Chief Owen Kilday testified at her trial.

Still, thanks to a January vote by city council, Cevallos Street from Interstate 35 to Probandt Street is now designated Emma Tenayuca Memorial Way. This for a blacklisted radical who ran on the Communist Party ticket for the U.S. House and won 76 votes of the 56,000 cast.

Ironic how we name holidays and thoroughfares after those whose example we would rather not follow. As if we memorialize to forget.

In contrast to her run for office, Tenayuca's strike was a success, and a year later, it proved instrumental in Congress' passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which, at long last, banned child labor in the United States. That came exactly 90 years after another radical labor organizer demanded the worldwide "abolition of children's factory labor" in plank 10 of a political pamphlet known as the Communist Manifesto.

Sadly, we have yet to turn the page on the best-worst times of Marx and Dickens. Last week, 60 Minutes investigated a slaughterhouse company that employed more than 100 minors across eight states.

"These weren't close calls," Shannon Rebolledo, a career Labor Department compliance officer, told CBS News. "In some cases, these were 13-year-olds working and they were identified by Packers Sanitation Services Inc. as being in their 30s."

Over the past two years, more than 250,000 migrant children have arrived on our country's doorstep unaccompanied and, as the New York Times recently exposed, thousands have been exploited in grueling jobs, from working overnight cleaning animal guts off the floors of abattoirs to replacing roofs under the sweltering sun to operating heavy machinery. All in flagrant violation of the child labor laws we thought settled.

"In the 1790s, factory owners liked kids because they're extraordinarily cheap, extraordinarily intimidatible, and in many cases, coerced to be there," historian Joshua Freeman, author of Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World, told Book TV in 2018. "What the factories don't want is craftworkers who have a sense of their own autonomy. They want someone who has no knowledge that they can simply control."

Fast forward two centuries and change, and in the flagship capitalist economy, we're recommitting the same crimes, this time compelled by a labor shortage.

"We have decided to let Central American kids enter our country, work illegally at brutal jobs, then send remittances home if — and only if — they embark on a roughly 2,000-mile journey to the US border without a parent or guardian," NY Mag Intelligencer columnist Eric Levitz wrote in February.

It's indentured servitude without the courtesy of a free boat ride. And confronted with a civilization predicated on child abuse, the GOP has offered an ingenious solution: rather than scale up the capacity to adequately process asylum seekers, politicians including U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, propose detaining and deporting even more migrant kids so foreign-born children won't take jobs from native-born children.

You read that right. So far, 10 states have rolled back child labor laws, Texas Public Radio reported this month, noting that those changes extend the working hours for kids and lower the minimum age required to work in risky places.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders kicked off the race to the bottom in March by voiding requirements to verify the ages of workers under 16.

"These are kids who are in meatpacking plants, working nearly full-time hours at fast food places, on assembly lines," Washington Post reporter Jacob Bogage recently told PBS. "It's not the kid in the suburbs who's picking up a job so he can take his date to the movies."

All while the Labor Department documented a 70% increase in child labor violations over the past half decade. For instance, this May, understaffed federal investigators discovered some 300 minors — including 10-year-olds — working illegally at McDonald's franchises in Kentucky, some without pay.

And do we have to ask what's behind this? "Big donations by big corporations," to cite pro-worker nonprofit a More Perfect Union. Surprise, surprise.

Considering the culture war clickbait that floods our social media timelines, which do you believe might hurt a 15-year-old kid more — reading a library book about growing up transgender or suffering cooking oil burns from manning the deep fryer?

The latter isn't hypothetical, and a McDonald's in Tennessee where just such an injury occurred paid a civil penalty of $3,258. Yet the vast majority of voters in San Antonio apparently believe that that same 15-year-old, caught graffitiing an underpass or smoking a joint, deserves instantaneous arrest and a permanent criminal record. 

We dine on the fruits of child labor daily. We connect to the world thanks to cobalt in our smartphones mined by children in the Congo, to choose another horrendous detail of modern life.

The so-called conservatives who feign concern for protecting childhood innocence while legalizing their exploitation and neglect, the so-called liberals who stand by while idealistic young activists get red-baited and vilified for struggling to build a more humane society, are two sides of the same gilded coin.

Politicians like Nirenberg may win the popularity contests, but if "honoring Emma Tenayuca's legacy" isn't to remain empty rhetoric, we must take on the right-wing lobbyists and reactionary political action committees and remember who our allies are.

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