Labor Day, Child Labor Reform, and Vocational Education

Joe Colletti, PhD
September 2017 

It was a 100 years ago that the National Vocational Education Act of 1917
was passed by Congress that helped shape vocational education
in trades and industry including agriculture  

Labor Day, which is celebrated in the United States (U.S.) on the first Monday in September, is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of workers. However, when the first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on September 5, 1882 in New York City, the U.S. was still in need of child labor reform. 

The 1890 census revealed that more than one million children between the ages of 10 and 15 worked in the U.S., which increased to two million by 1910. By this time, various industries employed children as young as five years old to work as many as 18 hours a day. Child labor was increasingly profitable for factories, mills, and mines because children were paid lower wages than adults. 

Like adults, children were also exposed to great harm. Exposure to intense heat, heavy dust, hazardous substances, roaring equipment, and cramped positions for hours each day was part of the work experience. Loss of life or limb was all too common due to work related accidents.  

Photographs of children in factories and mines helped bring about child labor reform. Lewis Hine was one of the social reformers who used photography to change child labor laws in the United States. His “Cotton Mill Girl” photo was one of his more powerful photos that fueled social reform (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pOIvdhmMaOE) as well as his “Breaker Boys” photo of coal-mining boys (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vf_rGAHj9is).  

The National Vocational Education Act of 1917 (also known as the Smith-Hughes Act) was passed 100 years ago. But the Act had its limitations and problems. It separated children in schools by gender, class, and race. Students were steered into vocational educational programs because biased and prejudiced social views concluded that their gender or race made them incapable of certain academic training and certain jobs.  

The Act, however, helped shape subsequent federal laws including the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and subsequent amendments that outlawed “oppressive child labor.” Recent reports by Human Rights Groups have documented child labor today in the U.S. One such report focused on tobacco farming https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/05/13/tobaccos-hidden-children/hazardous-child-labor-united-states-tobacco-farming.  

Celebrating Labor Day in the United States is about celebrating the social and economic achievements of adult workers and older children who are treated fairly in the workforce. This holiday should also be about celebrating outlawed oppressive child labor and the efforts of those social reformers who are helping to eliminate remnants of inappropriate child labor in the U.S. today.

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