Academic journal article Monthly Labor Review

History of Child Labor in the United States-Part 2: The Reform Movement

Academic journal article Monthly Labor Review

History of Child Labor in the United States-Part 2: The Reform Movement

Article excerpt

As progressive child labor reformers gained traction during the last quarter of the 19th century, efforts expanded at the state level to outlaw the employment of small children. The move toward state-level reforms proved challenging. Many states, particularly in the South, resisted the effort. Frequently, child labor law opponents denied the problem existed and aggressively extolled the virtues of children in the workplace. This foiled the goal of achieving uniform laws across the country through state action. The failures at the state level caused many reformers by the early 1900s to believe that a federal law might be the best option. The limited role of the federal government under the Constitution, however, made such a prospect difficult. Many constitutional experts, Congressmen, and Presidents believed such a law was unconstitutional. In the face of widespread public support for curtailing child labor, a law based on the Commerce Clause of the Constitution--giving Congress the authority to regulate commerce between states or with foreign nations--was passed in 1916. This article concentrates on the reform movement up through the passage of that law.

I am glad to see there is going to be a meeting here for child labor. I
am really tired of seeing so many big children ten years old playing in
the streets. (1)--Prominent lady citizen

Don't take these boys away from us! We have just bought these uniforms,
and they were made to order. (2)--Shopkeeper in Cleveland, Ohio

There is a street in Lawrence, MA, named Camella Teoli Way. To know the story of how that street came to be named is to know the story of a struggle. The struggle of Camella Teoli is one of a young Italian immigrant who started work in a mill and ultimately spoke before Congress. (3) Teoli's struggle is a battle against child labor. (4)

The public story of Camella Teoli begins and ends with the 14-year-old's testimony to Congress in March 1912. There, in front of an audience including Helen Taft, the wife of President William Howard Taft, Teoli told her story. (5) Teoli was an employee of the American Woolen Company in Lawrence, MA. As a result of a new state law, the maximum working hours in the mill were reduced from 56 to 54 per week for women and children.6 Mill owners sped up the machines in order to make up for the shorter workweek.7 In protest over the faster rate of production and the commensurate reduction in pay, mill workers--adults and children--walked out on strike. Violence between strikers, replacement workers, police, and soldiers grew as the strike, which became known as the Lawrence Textile Strike, went on. To create publicity for their cause and to ensure the safety of their children, many strikers sent their children out of town. While the children were accepted with open arms in cities like New York, embarrassed Lawrence officials demanded parents keep their children in Lawrence. When the next group of children prepared to depart the train station, they were met by police and soldiers. The police refused to let them board the trains and launched an attack on the group. A 7-year-old was given a black eye when she was picked up and thrown into a paddy wagon by police. Another witness testified to children being thrown around like rags. Citizens across the country were horrified by the events. (8)

As a result of the outcry over the confrontation in Lawrence, a federal investigation into the strike began at once. A delegation of adult and child strikers was sent to Washington, DC. President Taft asked to see the children. The strikers testified before a House of Representatives committee looking into the events. (9) While the testimony focused on the origins of the strike and subsequent violence, the most lasting impression was made by Camella Teoli.

Teoli explained to the committee that over a year earlier, a man came up to the house and spoke to her father. She had been attending school and the man asked her father why she didn't work. …

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