The 2010 mid-term elections were marked by a string of victories for Tea Party candidates in the House and Senate. But many in the grassroots, right-wing movement take their philosophy of "smaller government" to the extreme, including the claim that even basic labor protections like the minimum wage and child labor laws are unconstitutional. So what will the rise of the tea party mean for child labor laws in the U.S.? Many of the far right candidates who won seats last night and the people who voted them into office embrace a tea party-supported philosophy known as tentherism. Tenthers generally believe that anything not explicitly spelled out in the first nine amendments of the Constitution is a matter entirely for states to decide, a la the tenth amendment. So because the Constitution doesn't explicitly mention health care, Medicare would be unconstitutional. And because the founding fathers didn't delineate exactly how worker protection policies should break down, federal laws preventing child labor and severe workplace abuses should be repealed. By that logic, a state which had no problem allowing massive agricultural companies to pull 10-year-olds out of school and put them to work in the cotton fields could do so. Under tentherism, parts of the U.S. could look very much like Uzbekistan.
Even with the current legal protections against child labor, the problem is widespread enough in America that we've been criticized for not meeting our international obligations to fight the exploitation of children in U.S. industries. On large factory farms especially, children are often forced to work long hours under dangerous conditions. To effectively fight child labor, we need to increase protections for children, not roll them back. A relaxation of federal labor protections, like the one many Tea Party candidates have embraced, will mean more and more American children are pulled out of school and made to work in dangerous conditions.
Those of us who support fair working conditions and an end to child labor in the U.S. cannot afford to sit back while some of the most basic protections of workers' rights are threatened. We need to organize and vote for representatives who will keep children in school and out of the fields of America. One way to stop child labor in the U.S. is to tell Congress to pass the CARE Act. The CARE Act would protect thousands of children who are currently working in the agricultural industry from exploitation and slavery. And of course, there's always the action at the ballot box to ensure the next round of elected officials want to keep child labor illegal.
Will the recent tea party victories put child labor and minimum wage legislation at risk? Or will America continue to overwhelmingly support the provision of basic workplace protections against serious human rights abuses? We have at least until the next election cycle to find out.