In a March 14 report, we documented how states across the country are attempting to weaken child labor protections, just as violations of these standards are on the rise. The trend reflects a coordinated multi-industry push to expand employer access to low-wage labor and weaken state child labor laws in ways that contradict federal protections. And the recent uptick in state legislative activity is linked to longer-term industry-backed goals to rewrite federal child labor laws and other worker protections for the whole country. Last Friday, this concerted attack on child labor safeguards further expanded. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed an expansive bill enacting numerous changes to the state’s child labor laws.
Gloria Ortiz’s parents spotted a sign one day looming over the fields of strawberries in California’s Central Coast. It was announcing $11-an-hour wages for meatpacking in Iowa. They had been picking strawberries for $35 a day. “So we came from Santa Maria, California, to this town, for Tyson,” Ortiz says. Her parents took jobs at the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, in 1994, just as the meatpacking industry was in a race to the bottom. In the 1980s, meatpacking companies had begun vertically integrating their operations to control the whole supply chain, from the farmers who raise the animals to the workers who kill them and package the meat.
Many assume that child labor in the US is a remnant of the past. In reality, child labor is a hidden crisis. Children of the working class are frequently exploited with devastating consequences, including injury and death. Child labor violations are on the uptick, with migrant children at special risk of being put into dangerous occupations at a young age. At the same time, lawmakers across the country, sponsored by industry giants, are trying to worsen the existing tragedy. In Iowa, the State Senate just passed one of the most extreme pro-child labor bills in recent times. SF 167, introduced by State Senator Jason Schultz, lifts restrictions on hazardous work, extends work hours, and lowers the age for child workers serving alcohol to adults.
While we Americans like to believe that child labor is a thing of the past, an antiquated detail of a dark history that is safely in our rearview mirror, the sad reality is that, even today, in the year of our Lord 2023, the exploitation of children and their labor continues to be a dismal feature throughout the production and supply chains behind many of our favorite brands and companies, including Lucky Charms, Cheetos, Walmart, Target, Whole Foods, Fruit of the Loom, Ben and Jerry’s, etc. There are kids farming the produce that we buy in the supermarket, kids making the parts that end up in our cars, kids cleaning industrial bone saws, office buildings, and houses, kids on construction sites and in the backs of restaurants.
Shannon and Eve Mingalone avow that their farmers market booth is “very gay.” They hang strings of pride flags and sell rainbow stickers to help pay for gender-affirming care, like hormone replacement therapy, for Eve. Sometimes, when parents and their teenagers pass the booth, the adults glance, then speed ahead. The kids pause for a second look. Shannon, 34, hopes it means something for them to see LGBTQ professionals out and succeeding. People often share stories. The middle-aged woman who confided that her daughter is transgender. The teen who stood in the middle of the Mingalones’ booth and said, “This makes me feel safe.” “That means everything to me,” Shannon said.
Des Moines, Iowa - Wearing bright yellow Crocs, carrying a backpack and holding a clipboard stacked with papers, Ahmed Musa listens intently to a student. You would be forgiven for thinking Mr. Musa was a student himself; it is “staff dress like a student” day during spirit week at Theodore Roosevelt High School, and Mr. Musa looks the part. Then again, Mr. Musa, 24, was a Roosevelt student not too long ago. He graduated in 2017. He is talking with senior Jackie in a second floor hallway. She is animated, her purple and white braids falling across her baby blue N95 mask as she explains a problem. She is the president of the K-Club and there was an incident among members.
Iowa City, Iowa - On a chilly Friday morning In Iowa City, a handful of graduate students and members of UE Local 896 enter their union office and prepare to call as many fellow workers as they can. Most calls go to voice mail, but those who answer will hear something like this: “Hi there, this is Caleb from our labor union. We’re just checking in with folks to see if you’ve had a chance to vote in our recertification election?” We briefly explain the importance of the election to those who don’t know. We need a majority of all 1,932 TAs and RAs, not just members, to vote yes to keep the union legally recognized. If you don’t vote, you are counted as a no against the union. And this is all because of a 2017 law change here in Iowa. Currently, we are in the second week of the recertification election process, and we’re not alone.
Eleven hundred workers who manufacture agricultural and construction equipment for CNH Industrial in Burlington, Iowa, and Racine, Wisconsin, have been on strike since May 2. At the core of the strike is the company’s three-tier pay system. Workers hired before 1996 make $6 to $8 more per hour than those hired after 2004; those hired between 1996 and 2004 earn somewhere in between. Workers want to see at least the bottom tier abolished. Workers are also fired up that their counterparts at CNH’s non-union plants make an estimated $5.50 more per hour than the average union worker, according to UAW Local 807 President Nick Guernsey. “We're wanting parity between us and non-union plants,” Guernsey told the Hawk Eye.
Grinnell, Iowa - On April 26, student workers at Iowa’s Grinnell College elected to create the first wall-to-wall undergraduate student union in the country, expanding their Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW) to include all hourly student workers. On March 4, UGSDW and Grinnell College signed “a first-of-its-kind neutrality and election agreement,” which, members of the union explained in Labor Notes, “legally binds the College to respect the results of an election.” On the night of the 26th — delayed from April 21, the original ballot-count date, after a toxic gas leak at the local National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) offices — the UGSDW voted to expand, with 327 voting for the expansion and 6 voting against.
Johnston, Iowa - In light of recent education bills at the Iowa Legislature, whether it’s promoting vouchers for private schools or restricting what teachers are allowed to mention in class, many Iowa students are getting fed up. And they’re standing up. Friday afternoon in Johnston, a group of close to 100 students walked out of class and stood on school grounds to talk about those bills, explain how they’re impacting Iowa students and teachers, and encourage their peers to register to vote and to elect different legislators. “I think the biggest thing now is putting people in positions of power that actually will do the work and will care and represent the student voices that are speaking out about this,” said Waverly Zhao, a junior at Johnston High School who helped lead the walkout.
Iowa - One might see children playing around the installation, like the boy in this photograph, admiring the bee made from a Rubik’s cube – he thinks it’s such an inventive idea! He, his younger sister, and their cousin made their bees from plastic bottles and tape and added them to the installation a few weeks earlier. Now they are often checking on their own and other people’s creations: there is an enormous bee made from two biking helmets, there is a tiny one from the nail polish bottle, there is a bee crocheted from yellow and black yarn, there is one made from old plastic toy and used kitchen mixing bowl! Furthermore, it’s a great place to hang out with friends! And there is more to come. Starting this April, two more public works by Russian American multimedia artist Elena Smyrniotis will be installed in Iowa.
An Iowa judge upheld one of the state’s “ag-gag” laws in a case brought against an animal rights activist, hours before dismissing all charges. In Iowa, a person may be criminalized for “food operation trespass” if they enter or remain on the property of a factory farm “without the consent of a person who has real or apparent authority to allow the person to enter or remain on the property.” Matt Johnson, an investigator with the grassroots animal rights network Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), was charged with violating the ag-gag law after he exposed the extermination of pigs by Iowa Select Farms. He argued the law is “actually intended to punish individuals for expressing viewpoints disfavored by the Iowa legislature” and reminded the court that a similar Iowa ag-gag law was previously ruled unconstitutional by a federal court.
I’m currently facing a felony prosecution in Wright County after exposing Iowa Select Farms killing thousands of pigs via “ventilation shutdown," which involves shutting down a building’s vents as heat and steam are pumped in. The practice was so egregious that employees at the company sought the support of Direct Action Everywhere, the animal rights group I organize with, in exposing and ultimately stopping it. As recently reported by the Intercept, a high-level executive at the company was fired for raising his concerns, and FBI agents were called in to try to flip a whistleblower into becoming an informant against us. It’s all part of a long-term pattern: government support for an abusive and environmentally destructive industry, even to the point of intimidating and silencing its critics.
There were 27 farm bankruptcies in Iowa in 2019 — more than double the 13 bankruptcies in 2018, the American Farm Bureau Federation reported. This was despite the $1.58 billion the federal government paid Iowa farmers in Market Facilitation Program payments to ease losses because of the trade dispute with China. Later this month, we’ll know how many Iowa farms went bankrupt in 2020, but Iowa State University economics professor and crop markets specialist Chad Hart said to expect another increase. “The government has provided a lot of short-term funding to help farmers get through the year,” Hart said, referring to market facilitation and coronavirus food assistance programs, which funneled two rounds of aid to farmers in 2020.
Iowa City, IA — Nick Klein knew the man wasn’t going to make it through the night. So the 31-year-old nurse at the University of Iowa ICU put on his gown, his gloves, his mask, and his face shield. He went into the patient’s room, held a phone to his ear, and tried hard not to cry while he listened to the man’s loved ones take turns saying goodbye. When they were finished, Klein put on some music, a muted melody like you might hear in an elevator. He pulled up a chair and took the man’s hand. For two hours that summer night, there were no sounds but soft piano and the gentle beep beep beep of the monitors.