Trade unionists were natural opponents of the child labor system, even if they often had no choice but to send their children to work. John Golden, a leader of the United Textile Workers put it this way: "Child labor is employed simply because it is cheap and unresisting. There is never any danger of the child worker organizing, either among themselves or as a trade union, for the purpose of securing better conditions or a higher wage. There are many occupations in a textile factory wherein it is cheaper to have two children working for three dollars or less per week than to employ one full grown man or woman at a decent wage.”

As early as the 1830s, newly-organized labor associations spoke out against child labor. The New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics and Other Workers, which organized in 1831, condemned a factory system that kept children at work from sunrise to sunset. The National Trades' Union, which organized in 1834, called on called on state legislatures to establish minimum age requirements for factory work. Although a few states, including Massachusetts, did limit the hours of young factory workers to ten hours a day (by the 1850s), and limited employment to children no younger than 12 (by the 1880s), even these low standards were difficult to enforce.

From the time the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions first met in 1881, child labor was on the agenda. Samuel Gompers, a leader of FOTLU and its successor, the American Federation of Labor, wanted to get children out of the workplace and into school.

In New York City, he investigated the role that children played in the cigar-making industry and published his reports in the local labor press. Gompers also testified at government hearings describing conditions that children faced as shop girls in department stores, tobacco strippers, newsboys, and messengers. He lobbied state legislators to support reform. He even persuaded the AFL to hire an outside investigator to publicize the dismal and dangerous conditions child workers faced in the South. And he supported the National Child Labor Committee's efforts to change public opinion.

Perhaps because he had been a child worker himself, Gompers believed that the younger generation had a right to be educated. And because he knew first hand how cheap child labor pulled down wages for the working-class as a whole, he and the AFL took the issue seriously.

More Gompers and labor-related documents on child labor

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