Want to Manufacture Explosives? Soon You Can Hire Teenagers to Do It.

Want to Manufacture Explosives? Soon You Can Hire Teenagers to Do It.

Want to Manufacture Explosives? Soon You Can Hire Teenagers to Do It.

The Iowa state Senate recently ratified a bill that would lower age minimums for workers and reduce liability for companies with unsafe working conditions.


This week, Iowa added to its bulging dossier of legislative infamy with a new bill to loosen restrictions on child labor in the state. The Iowa state Senate ratified SB 542, a wide-ranging measure that lowered age minimums and increased permissible hours for teen workers in most of the state’s labor-intensive enterprises, from meatpacking and manufacturing plants to restaurants and hotels to agriculture. The House is expected to endorse a modified version of the legislation soon, and Republican Governor Kim Reynolds is expected to sign it into law.

The bill is the most extreme entry in a wave of recent bills to make child labor—formerly viewed as a relic of the worst excesses of industrial-age capitalism—the new American normal. After an initial outcry over the Senate bill’s rollbacks on child-labor regulation, some of the most outlandish provisions—such as lowering the age for workers in notoriously unsafe meatpacking facilities to 14—were excised. But the underlying logic of the bill—granting employers carte blanche to create an underpaid, benefit-deprived, and casualized workforce in which many employees aren’t old enough to vote, let alone unionize—is very much intact.

“When I saw a leaked draft of this legislation before it wound up getting a sponsor, I was kind of shocked,” says Charlie Wishman, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. “I did not have child labor on my bingo card for the weird shit they’d come up with.”

But the quest for an adolescent industrial reserve army has long been on the wish list of employers and industry lobbyists—and Iowa, which is now in a race to the bottom with Florida to serve as a showcase for the most reactionary lawmaking in the country, has taken up the bosses’ charge with gusto. Like other recent lurches into exploitation and corporate impunity, the child labor bill has been marketed as a display of solicitude for the well-being of the young: a wholesome, pedagogic foray into the workforce for eager kids wanting to learn how to dismember livestock or operate a machine lathe on six-hour night shifts.

Backers of the bill originally claimed “that this is going to give kids work opportunities, and open their eyes to industries they hadn’t known about,” Wishman says. “But when you look at the legislation, there’s no liability whatsoever for anybody if someone gets hurt. This is about putting kids to work in really dangerous places. They can work in factories where they make explosives, as long as they’re not in the building where the explosives are made.” That’s cold—or rather, scorching—consolation in the event of an actual explosion such as the one that happened last December at an alternative-fuel plant in Marengo, and still has yet to be assigned a formal cause.

The Iowa bill also goes much further than its recent predecessors in states like Arkansas, New Hampshire, and Ohio in its abdication of regulatory powers, putting them in the hands of political appointees—a provision that, in practice, is all too likely to render even the most modest curbs on the Senate measure’s excess something of a dead letter. “Frankly, the most troubling thing about this bill is that it really builds in complete discretion for state agencies to exempt any employer from any violation of labor law,” says Jennifer Sherer, senior state policy coordinator for the Economic Policy Institute. “The underlying premise of the bill is longer hours, more hazardous work, and a kind of blank permission slip that the state can fill in for any employer that requires an exemption for any hazardous work orders.”

This marks a complete inversion of the traditional logic of workplace regulation; it seeks to secure maximum impunity and minimal liability for bosses. The insidious character of the bill’s provisions also likely accounts for the sub rosa course of its progress toward passage. “I sit on the Iowa Workforce Development (IWD) Board; they still have a labor person or two there,” Wishman says. He explains that he missed an initial meeting that discussed the child labor issue—and then, before he knew it, the bill cropped up in the Senate. “I tried to ask the IWD Board, ‘What the heck is this all about? Why didn’t anyone on the board give us a draft beforehand? Why didn’t we vote on this?’ I didn’t understand why this was being done so secretively, but it was. And then in the minutes on the draft legislation discussions, it says, ‘Thank you to the governor’s office and the Workforce Development Board for helping us draft this bill.’”

The mood of corporate-sponsored intrigue continued during deliberations over the Senate bill, Wishman notes. “All the legislators, as far as their intent goes, they wouldn’t yield the question…. They wouldn’t even answer any questions about the bill; they didn’t want to talk a lot about it. But when they did talk about it, they said this is about opportunities for kids, and tried to turn it into a workforces issue…. It never occurs to them that we should pay people decent wages, that they should have security and good benefits—the things adults on the job tend to need.” True to form, the state Senate voted to approve its child labor bill in a predawn vote—the lawmakers’ equivalent of a walk of shame.

Sherer has closely tracked the present wave of child-labor deregulation in the states, and observes that it represents a deliberate flood-the-zone strategy for bosses and business lobbyists. “The question here is how much confusion does it sow for workers and employers, in terms of the political and legal issues? It’s a direct throwing [down] of the gauntlet to the federal Department of Labor, to see whether they’ll keep enforcing federal standards that still apply in multiple states—or whether the employers can step over these federal lines. Their longer game or their hope is to set up a ratcheting down of labor standards everywhere.”

That might have a familiar ring to followers of the regressive right-wing assault on public education under a similar kitchen-sink mobilization of moral panics. Scherer sees the same parallel: “During the pandemic, you had as many states as possible pass voucher expansions in a short period of time to get a bunch of challenges to public education in place. It’s the same sort of logic here.” She argues that it’s important to stress “the connection between the attack on public education, and the deregulation of child labor in our country. These issues go hand in hand, as we saw the move toward a consensus that every child, no matter their background or economic status, should have some equitable shot in our country. So you had state and local 19th-century pushes to establish some boundaries on how much time children under 18 should be spending in the workforce. Those things have been universally coupled—and that’s why you’re seeing outright defunding of public education in states that are concomitantly suggesting kids should spend more time in the workplace.”

You might say, indeed, that the school privatizers and corporate freebooters rushing teens onto the assembly line are building a bridge to the 19th century. “This was supposed to be one of those things that we as a society said was really bad, that we’re never going to do it again,” Wishman says. “This goes to show that nothing is ever really settled under capitalism.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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