As conservatives resurrect what our founder Felix Adler called the “evil of child labor,” writer Sam Pizzigati looked back for lessons in Adler’s work as “the first grand champion of America’s kids”:
Over a century ago, in the initial push against child labor, no American did more to protect kids from [pro-child labor] sophistry like that than the noted educator and philosopher Felix Adler, the founder of the Ethical Culture Society. In 1887, under that society’s auspices, Adler sounded the child labor alarm before a packed house at Manhattan’s famed Chickering Hall.
The “evil of child labor,” Adler related to some 1,500 onlookers, “is growing to an alarming extent.” In New York City alone, some 9,000 children as young as eight were working in factories. The entire state of New York had only two inspectors looking out for the welfare of working kids. Many of those kids, as a result, “could not read or write” or even knew “the state they lived in.”
By the end of 1904, as the founding chair of the National Child Labor Committee, Adler had helped broaden the battle against exploiting kids. He railed against the “new kind of slavery” that had some 60,000 children under 14 working in Southern textile mills up to 14 hours a day, up from “only 24,000” just five years earlier.
Adler put full responsibility for this child-unfriendly state of affairs on those he called America’s “money kings.”
“Child labor is cheap labor,” Adler would explain. “That thought never enters the mind of the cheap labor employer. Business is business.”
But Felix Adler didn’t just campaign for laws to limit child labor. Lawmakers must also, he believed, limit the incentives that drive employers to exploit kids. They must refuse to let the rich keep as much as they could grab…