Wednesday, November 23, 2011

It's a hard knock life

15 year old sweeper, Berkshire Cotton Mills, Adams, MA, July, 1916
Speaking at the Harvard Kennedy Business School last week, Newt Gingrich, Republican presidential hopeful said, "First of all, in child [labor] laws, which are truly stupid...Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they’d have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising."

Madeline Causey, 10 years old, worker at Merrimack Mills, Huntsville, Alabama, November, 1913
In 1981, Seattle's Fifth Avenue Theatre re-opened to present live theatre shows. The opening show was a touring production of the big Broadway hit, "Annie" - which was based on the comic strip "Little Orphan Annie."  I was lucky enough, as a junior low-on-the-dispatch-list stagehand with Local #15, to make the show call as a deck electrician for the 10 week run.

Funny thing about a show about kids. Our cast included a dozen or so kids, playing impoverished orphans. But because they were represented by a labor union - Actors Equity Association - their working conditions were strictly protected. They could only work so many hours per week; so many consecutive hours, and the employer had to provide for their education.

On the other hand, the characters in the show were the perfect embodiment of Mr. Gingrich's idea - institutionalized kids forced to work for their own keep. These kids' labor cleaning and cooking offset their room and board. 

In the 19th century, it wasn't unusual to see kids working. On family farms, in agribusiness, in coal mines, and in factories, many of the workers were children. In Britain and in the United States, children sometimes worked twelve or more hours a day.  Children were paid a fraction of the wages adults would get, and because of their size, could be sent into confined spaces where they were often exposed to dangerous machinery.

Frank, aged 14, has been working alongside his father in a coal mine for three years. Spent one year in a hospital when his leg was crushed by a coal car. 1911.
 In 1900, according to the census, almost 1 in every 6 children aged five to 10 were listed as employed in "gainful occupations."

This so alarmed some activists that they formed the National Child Labor Committee in 1904, and hired sociologist Lewis W. Hines to document child labor with photographs. The collection can be viewed at the Library of Congress.

John Dempsey, 12 years old, Jackson Mill, Fiskeville, Rhode Island, April 1909
At one Maryland bean-packing factory, the caption states that there was "plenty of work for even the tiniest of hands."

 But in the era the show was set - the Depression of the 1930s - things were about to change for kids.

In 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law the Fair Labor Standards Act, which protected the rights of U.S. workers, and effectively prohibited child labor in the United States. This didn't happen simply because lawmakers felt sentimental about kids. It was also because the nation had weathered an economic crisis, and the law helped make sure jobs went to adult breadwinners at competitive wages.

The FLSA  - originally and as amended over the years - also mandated minimum wage for workers, overtime at time-and-a-half,equitable wages, and pay equity for men and women. This is the law workers organized and fought over.
Coal miners, Pennsylvania Coal Company, Dupont, PA, 1911
Now the current Republican presidential "front-runner" wants to overthrow it, and put children back to work.

Music by Charles Strouse, Lyrics by Martin Charnin

It's the hard-knock life for us! It's the hard-knock life for us!
Steada treated,
We get tricked!
'Steada kisses,
We get kicked! 

Spinner girls, Lincolnton, N.C. 1908. Girl on the left is 10 years old, girl on the right is 12

It's the hard-knock life!  
Got no folks to speak of, so, It's the hard-knock row we hoe!
Cotton blankets,
'Steada of wool!

15 year old "carrying-in boy" at the Grafton, W. VA glassworks, October 1908
Empty Bellies
'Steada of full!
It's the hard-knock life!

Tipple boy, Turkey Knob Mine, Macdonald W. VA, August 1908
Don't if feel like the wind is always howl'n?
Don't it seem like there's never any light!
Once a day, don't you wanna throw the towel in?
It's easier than puttin' up a fight.

Young Mexican boy cutting spinach, La Pryor, Texas, March 1939
No one's there when your dreams at night get creepy!  
No one cares if you grow...of if you shrink!  
No one dries when your eyes get wet an' weepy!
From all the cryin' you would think this place's a sink! 

Young girl spoolers, Lincoln Cotton Mills, Indiana, October 1908

Empty belly life! Rotten smelly life!  
Full of sorrow life! No tomorrow life!
Santa Claus we never see
Santa Claus, what's that? Who's he?
No one cares for you a smidge When you're in an orphanage!
It's the hard-knock life.

5 year old Francis Lance, newsboy, St. Louis, MO, 1910
In "Annie", the heroine is rescued by rich Daddy Warbucks, who adopts her and improves the lot of her and her fellow orphans. Also, in a fine example of how big money influences politicians, he intercedes with the President of the United States to promote legislation - the New Deal, in this case.

Angelo Ross, claims to be 13 years old, working at a Pittston, PA coal mine, 1911
 In the touring company of "Annie," even though children were working, their conditions were protected by laws and by their labor union. Heck, even the dog playing Sandy was protected by rules and regulations. The current crop of politicians running to be the Republican party's candidate for president advocate doing away with regulations that offer protections to workers, consumers, and the environment. Of these, Newt Gingrich has gone farther than most, advocating an end to child labor laws.

Photos from the Library of Congress, National Child Labor Committee Collection.  Just go to the link and browse the photos. Then think about Mr. Gingrich's proposal, and what it says about him.


Max Sartin said...

Freaky pictures, with several of them I thought "Whoa, that looks just like [insert name of current or past student]. Then I thought about child labor laws and a 15 year old student I had a few years ago.
He was always tired in school and one day after class I asked him about it. He told me that he was working 30 hours a week, and going to school full time. I was a little shocked, but tried to see the silver lining and said something about how great it must be to have all that money.
"What money, I have to pay the rent."
Broke my heart to think that when I was 15 my biggest worry was where I was going to get the money for that new camera and this kid was providing a roof over his family's head.

Lynda said...

Excellent, thank you for this. Gingrich is an idiot. I wonder if his brain is attached to his mouth. Seems like none of the Republicans running for Prez have adult reasoning abilities.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Gingrich is a pandering, evil person who does know better, but doesn't care.

It's no wonder he's so popular with the GOP base right now. Family values, my ass.

Susan B said...

Gingrich is a lame excuse for a human being. "Are there no workhouses?"

Sheila said...

I don't think he was going to force small children to work.
Personally, I could hardly wait until I was 16 so that I could work and have some money of my own. I also worked before that selling wall plaques door-to-door from a company that advertised in the back of a magazine. And before and during that time I rode my bicycle all over town looking for soda bottles to turn in for the deposit. Some kids are entrepreneurial, energertic, and want to work because they want some money. And there must be even more to it than that because before that I couldn't wait to be 14 to be able to be a candystriper, something you didn't even get paid for doing.
No, I don't think he was talking about small children. There must still be some teenagers out there who would like to have a job, probably mostly some of those who aren't showered with money and phones, and gadgets on a daily basis by their parents.
Don't put the paperboys in that category, either, because it used to be a way young boys could make money if they were industrious and wanted to do so. Many famous, successful men were once paperboys. Now adults have taken over that opportunity because with a car they can deliver so many more houses and they have removed one level of the supply chain. Well, good for them, but it took an opportunity away from the kids.
Yes, there are teens who still want to work. Stop making it into something it isn't.
Thank you.

Glennis said...

The things Sheila mentions - selling door-to-door, newspaper delivery, even candystriper - are currently permitted for children over 14 under the FSLA.570.34

Mr. Gingrich was talking about suspending the laws that protect children from dangerous conditions and occupations.

Honestly, I think Mr. Gingrich was trying to be deliberately provocative to suggest that adult school janitors be replaced with poor children. But even so, the work of a school janitor - and the hours of the job - is not appropriate for children. Mr. Gingrich doesn't't know his carpet extractor from his floor buffer, obviously.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

Also, Gingrich was using the idea as a lever to destroy the janitor's unions. A twofer!

Look at that 15 year old sweeper, couldn't even afford shoes. In a factory environment. THAT is the past Gingrich wants to return us to.

"Process of rising" what a repulsive, condescending thing to say.

Anonymous said...

To perhaps add to your point and quote from another musical: "Please, Sir, I want some more."

I'm worried that the ones who have been in public service have forgotten all about the public they supposedly serve.

cactus petunia said...

Repeal child labor laws!
Bust the Unions! Who needs 'em?
Cut those entitlement programs and bring back the bread lines!
Let the churches feed the poor!

And while we're at it, don't forget to vote all those idiots like Newt out of office.