Chatting with Chapey
by Dr. Geraldine M. Chapey, Democratic District Leader
Mother Jones: The Crusade for Child Labor Laws
In June 1903, Mary Harris Jones (at the age of 73) organized a march from Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt’s home in Oyster Bay, to underscore the urgent need to reform child labor laws.
Newsday, on June 25, 2003, in an article written by Lawrence Striegel entitled "100 Years Ago: The March of the Mill Children" highlights Mother Jones’ Crusade. The article presents many interesting points, which I will share with you.
Today, everyone is looking forward to the summer months so that they can go on vacation. One hundred years ago when Mother Jones began her crusade many children were working long hours every day and never experienced a summer vacation. Most of these children never attended school so they never learned the basic skills of reading and writing. Even worse was the fact that many of the children’s jobs were hazardous and dangerous. Mother Jones found that children were dying in the mines or losing hands or limbs in the machinery in the factories. In 1903, there were 1.75 million children younger than 16 employed in the United States in factories and mines. Mother Jones was a labor activist and decided that the plight of children in these conditions needed to be highlighted.
In June 1903, Mother Jones went to Philadelphia to support the 100,000 cloth mill employees who were striking to decrease their workweek from 60 hours to 55 hours per week. Approximately 15% of these workers were children.
From this, Mother Jones organized her 100-mile march to New York from Philadelphia, which began on July 7, 1903. The march proved to be a difficult one because of the weather conditions. However, Mother Jones was a fiery speaker who attracted large crowds in the towns and cities they went through. The children on the march would collect money from the people who attended the speeches and would send money back to the strikers. The march was the big news of the day so many newspapers across the country sent their correspondents. This was one of the earliest demonstrations in the U. S. against child labor.
During the 100 mile march, Mother Jones sent several letters to President Teddy Roosevelt requesting a meeting in Oyster Bay to discuss this child labor issue. However, although the actual meeting never took place, the march and the publicity did heighten public awareness of the child labor is-sue. Historians report that Pre-sident Teddy Roosevelt was sympathetic to the child labor issue but he knew that if he supported it, he would face heavy opposition in his Republican party.
It took Teddy Roosevelt’s fifth cousin, President Franklin Roosevelt, to pass the first significant law regulating the employment of children younger than 16. It was called the Fair Labor Standards Act, which was passed in 1938.
The initial protests in the late 18th century against child labor took the form of regulating the hours of work. As workers made the transition from farm worker to factories and industry, the major issue was to shorten the work day from the traditional sun up to sun down day. The earliest protests looked for shorter hours for women and children because of their hazardous working conditions.
The earliest unions looked to accomplish the shorter workday through the passage of legislation or through collective bargaining. However, the legislation often proved inadequate be-cause the law would contain a proviso that individual workers could contract with their employers to work longer hours. In other instances employers simply ignored the law or if it was found that the law was violated there was no significant enforcement provision.
Today, in 2003, it seems hard to believe but in the early 19th Century there was significant opposition to shorten the work day to 10 hours. Em-ployers and the populace in general saw nothing wrong with urban workers following the traditional agricultural working day. It was a prevailing (almost religious) conviction of the day that there was virtue in hard work. While employers continued to hold this view, the courts relied more on the arguments that such regulations (of long working hours) abridged individual freedoms.
Today we are fortunate that most people work an eight-hour day. These benefits called for significant sacrifices on the part of men and women who achieved these goals for us.
As we celebrate the July 4 weekend, we should be grateful to the brave men and women who have served in our Armed Forces of the U. S. so that we may continue to enjoy our precious freedom. We also need to be appreciative of our families and our fellow Americans who have worked hard to make our lives better.