Labor Day/Child Labor

Labor Day, once conceived as a celebration of American workers has become a Day for Sales. This should not obscure the Day’s opportunity to reflect on the state of American labor.

A report titled “The State of Working America, 1992-93, by the Economic Policy Institute adds to the previous data showing that, adjusted for inflation, wages have declined since 1973. This new study asserts that “even before the recent recession, the economy was failing nearly all American workers because of falling wages and widespread labor market distress, resulting in declining living standards and rising poverty.”

Now the study concludes, even white-collar and college-educated workers are falling behind. Real wages have fallen 3.1% for college-educated labor between 1987 and 1991 while overall white-collar wages fell 4.4%.

Other indicators are disturbing. The proportion of families owning their own homes fell over the decade. The average American family pays close to 12% of its income on health care, compared to 9% in 1980. Families headed by someone between the age of 25 to 34 in 1989 had incomes $1,715 less than their counterparts did in 1979.

Along with the rise in the number of children in poverty (now one in five American children) comes a document from the National Safe Workplace Institute in Chicago regarding child labor and government indifference.

The Institute contends that 5.5 million children — ages 12 to17 — in the U.S. work. About 676,000 children labor in the underground economy largely unregulated by the government. Joseph Kinney, the report’s author, contends that many of these children suffer injuries, 139 of these working children died from job-related injuries in 1990 and 71,660 job-related injuries to children were reported that year.

Kinney goes further than the statistics, deploring the adverse effect of much, commercial child labor that leads to dropouts, and poor school performance. “Abusive employment practices can contribute to psychological problems including substance abuse, fatigue, insomnia, and depression,” he adds.

What about the child labor laws? Weak and sporadic enforcement charges Kinney. There are 30 fish and game inspectors for every child labor inspector at the state and federal level. What is worse, Kinney says, is that the U.S. Department of Labor is “readying plans to loosen child labor regulations on 14 and 15 years old.” Industry lobbyists, led by the fast food companies, are behind this move.

Kinney has a number of recommendations and wants to enlist the help of interested citizens. His address is The National Safe Workplace Institute, 122 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60603.

Add the foregoing to the decline of the trade union movement, which is down to 16% of the entire labor force, the Reagan/Bush assault on worker safety regulations and the White House’s penchant for new global trade agreements that imperil existing American work standards and it does not take a seer to conclude that workers face a troubling decade.

How will labor arouse itself against these dismal trends? A just published book, The New Labor Press, (ILR Press, Ithaca, NY), contains essays on the history of trade union newspapers, magazines and newsletters. Even in the moribund condition that all too many of these publications are in, they reach tens of millions of workers and their families. The contributors to this interesting volume provide many ideas on how to reassert the vigor and excitement of the early labor press and provide many trunklines of information uncensored by advertisers and corporate moguls.

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