Start Sweating

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St. Louis Jewish Light, Feb 23 2011

Childhood is a terrible thing to waste. But Jane Cunningham would beg to differ.

The state senator from Chesterfield has proposed a bill to remove restrictions on child labor, thus setting Missouri back oh, about nine decades. In the meantime, Cunningham has set up Missouri as a national laughingstock. Jay Leno mocked her efforts on his NBC program (""Well, yeah, I mean, why should the 10-year-olds in China be getting all the good factory jobs?").

Cunningham defends the bill by suggesting that it's just a housekeeping measure, since we don't really prosecute kids for mowing lawns, having paper routes, and the like. This from the Post-Dispatch: "Because children regularly babysit, wash cars and walk dogs for profit, Cunningham said, the state's regulations on child labor no longer make sense. ‘Right now the present law puts a government official in charge of our children. I think it's important for us to make sure that parents are in charge.'"

Is her real worry that there will suddenly be a rash of rabid circuit attorneys going after your fourth graders for selling lemonade? Here's part of the official summary of the bill, you decide:

SB 222 - This act modifies the child labor laws. It eliminates the prohibition on employment of children under age 14. Restrictions on the number of hours and restrictions on when a child may work during the day are also removed. It also repeals the requirement that a child ages 14 or 15 obtain a work certificate or work permit in order to be employed. Children under 16 will also be allowed to work in any capacity in a motel, resort or hotel where sleeping accommodations are furnished.

At the risk of being perceived as glib, we think the words pretty much speak for themselves.

We know from past experience that Cunningham has no problem with interjecting government in other aspects of family life, most notably in a woman's consideration of whether to have an abortion. But keeping kids from potentially working in sweat shops apparently doesn't rise to that level of concern.

Of course, Cunningham is hardly alone in her efforts to gut protective labor laws in Missouri. Senate Bill 110 and House Bill 61 would prevent Missouri's minimum wage from exceeding the federal minimum wage. The annual cost of living adjustment (COLA) in the current law - approved in 2006's Proposition B by 76.4 percent of Missouri voters - would disappear if these bills became law.

The efforts in Missouri to eviscerate labor laws are being replicated around the country. In the past week, legislators in Wisconsin have left the state to prevent a vote on Governor Scott Walker's plan to eliminate collective bargaining by public employees and impose sharp increases in their insurance and benefit payments. Similar efforts are underfoot in Missouri as well.

It is ironic in the most malevolent way that as we suffer from a recession caused largely by a lack of regulation in financial markets, certain legislators believe that removing tried and true regulation will somehow be a boon to the nation's economy.

If Cunningham truly thinks her bill is pro-business, she should think again, as it is dramatically contrary to the best interests of Missouri's economy. When adult unemployment is rampant, her idea of getting breadwinners back to work is to make it easier to hire and take advantage of minors? Even her own internal logic is fraught with serious shortcomings.

The same is true of the minimum wage bills. As the 21st century requires a stable, educated, savvy workforce, the majority in Jefferson City seems to think the same formula that heaped profits on business in 1917 works today - unlimited hours, horrid working conditions, people as chattel. Maybe they haven't been reading anything about global trends for the past decade? Come to think of it, since the same leadership supports a variety of challenges to public education, perhaps they haven't been reading anything at all.

Those who think the Tea Party movement was a call to arms to damage or dismantle workers' rights to negotiate collectively are gravely mistaken. The Tea Party movement was a loose morass of disparate frustrated constituencies, fueled by the anger of the economic downturn. And much of its success was dependent on behind the scenes well-monied interests. The labor movement in the United States gained steam as a result of poor working conditions and gross underpayment. If the likes of Cunningham and Walker keep it up, they'll be handing worker advocates their biggest pro-labor campaign in ages.