The Conservative Astroturf Organization Rolling Back Child Labor Protections

This article is a joint publication of Workday Magazine and The American Prospect.

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) presents itself as the nonpartisan “voice of small business.” Yet it has a track record of overwhelmingly supporting conservative causes, and has taken millions from right-wing groups. Over the past year, the trade association has teamed up with a bevy of companies to lobby for state-level bills to erode child labor protections, citing the “labor shortage” as justification.

The bills—in Wisconsin, Ohio, and New Jersey—have all been aimed at expanding the number of hours teenagers are allowed to work, despite evidence that too many hours can harm children. A 2011 study published in the journal Child Development found that teenagers who work more than 20 hours per week during the school year may, as a result, face poorer school performance and loss of interest in class, alongside behavioral problems.

While NFIB is not the only entity pushing for these bills, its involvement is eye-catching, given the trade association’s reputation. NFIB, whose sticker you can see displayed in numerous small-business establishments, uses its mom-and-pop image to advocate for policies that benefit corporate America. “They have a long history of manipulating data to push a far-right, anti-regulatory agenda,” Rick Perlstein, historian and author of a book about the United States’ right turn in the 1970s, told Workday Magazine and the Prospect.

In October 2021, Ohio lawmakers from both parties introduced a bill to allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work until 9:00 p.m. on a school night, if they receive permission from a parent or legal guardian.

If passed, the legislation will apply to employers who are not covered by the federal labor law known as the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), a list that includes certain small businesses that don’t engage in interstate commerce. The FLSA says that children under 16 must stop working at 7:00 p.m. during the school year, two hours earlier than the proposed Ohio law. Where state labor law conflicts with federal labor law, whichever is more protective of workers reigns.

However, Ohio lawmakers are attempting to use the proposed state law to roll back child labor protections for the entire country. A concurrent resolution that is tied to the legislation calls on the U.S. Congress to bring the FLSA in line with the looser rules proposed for Ohio.

On December 15, 2021, NFIB submitted testimony in support of the effort, arguing that the proposed change “well positions Ohio if and when Congress makes a change to the Fair Labor Standards Act.”

NFIB cited the labor shortage as justification for the changes. “Our members’ inability to fill workplace vacancies has catapulted to the top concern currently facing the success of their businesses.”

Yet NFIB’s agitation against labor protections far predates the present-day labor market reality. The organization, for example, was a supporter of the effort to use the Supreme Court to gut public-sector unions, resulting in the 2018 Janus ruling.

According to Perlstein, NFIB “masquerades as this organization of small businesses, but it grew into an organization that used the illusion they represent all American small businesses to create this battering ram.” Two laws were in NFIB’s crosshairs specifically: the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. “Between 1970 and 1979,” Perlstein said, “the members of NFIB grew from 300 to 600,000, because they became this kind of vector for pushing back against regulations and labor protections.”

Along with NFIB, the effort in Ohio has significant support from the business community. In testimony submitted on December 15, 2021, Todd Bowen, representing the Ohio Restaurant Association, made the case that working longer hours is good for teenagers because it saves them from screen time. “Employment opportunities, especially in sectors like foodservice and retail, where young people learn the incredibly important skill of customer service and interaction with the public will benefit them in their schooling and in their future career.”

In reality, these industries are rife with abuse and wage theft. A September 2021 report by One Fair Wage and the Food Labor Research Center of UC Berkeley found that more than one-third of tipped workers make below their state’s minimum wage, and tipped workers say harassment and customer hostility have worsened during the pandemic.

The Ohio bill is strikingly similar to one that recently passed the state legislature in Wisconsin, though the Wisconsin measure was vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers in February. It would have permitted 14- and 15-year-olds to work as late as 9:30 p.m. on a school night, and until 11:00 p.m. when they don’t have class the following day. The legislation also would have applied to employers who are not covered by the FLSA.

Instead of expanding labor hours for children, labor activists argue that employers have other options for attracting workers—for example, raising wages and improving conditions.

NFIB was among the Wisconsin legislation’s powerful supporters. State lobbying records show that the organization registered its support for the bill on September 27, 2021, alongside entities like the Wisconsin Hotel and Lodging Association and the Association of Wisconsin Tourism Attractions.

The Wisconsin AFL-CIO opposed the measure, with Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Stephanie Bloomingdale saying last year that “if this bill affects one child—that is one child too many.”

Laura Dresser, a labor economist and associate director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, a progressive policy organization, told Workday Magazine and the Prospect that the push to erode child labor protections is “less about getting people to pack groceries at 9:00 at night, and more about using every chance you have to use the labor shortage to make an argument to take away regulation.”

“The floor is about wage standards, protecting child labor, protecting health and safety,” she added. “It strikes me that these coordinated approaches are about tearing down the standards that we have.”

While the Wisconsin governor’s veto has blocked the bill for now, Evers is up for re-election in November, and a new governor could permit such a bill to sail through. Evers’s opponent, Tim Michels, is endorsed by former President Trump.

An effort to pass similar legislation in New Jersey was successful on July 5, when Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law a measure that permits 16- and 17-year-olds to work as much as 50 hours a week when they are not in school, and allows 14- and 15-year-olds to work as many as 40 hours during the summer months. The bill makes permanent a more temporary extension that expired last year, and also makes it easier for teenagers to obtain work permits.

Unlike the laws in Wisconsin and Ohio, the New Jersey bill does not go beyond what’s permitted in the FLSA. Rather, it rolls back New Jersey’s youth employment laws, which had previously been more protective.

As in the other states, NFIB lobbied for the measure, with the organization’s state director, Eileen Kean, testifying “in favor of the bill because it may provide some relief to members struggling to hire for the summer months,” according to a June statement from the group.

NFIB was joined by powerful business interests, like the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, and the amusement park company Six Flags Great Adventure.

It is not immediately clear what, if any, role NFIB is playing coordinating, or promoting communication between, these state-level efforts, and the group did not reply to a request for comment. But the involvement of a national trade association, alongside a spate of companies, raises questions about a broader campaign, particularly in light of NFIB’s conservative history.

NFIB was established in 1943. It claims to represent “hundreds of thousands of small and independent business owners across America,” and is active in all 50 states. The research organization Open Secrets found that, for the 2022 cycle, 98.2 percent of congressional candidates who received money from NFIB were Republicans, while just 1.8 percent were Democrats. This places NFIB to the right of the U.S. small-business owners it claims to represent.

NFIB has taken up a number of causes célèbres for conservatives, including opposition to the Affordable Care Act. In 2012, the organization waged a lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services seeking to overturn the legislation. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which took the side of the Obama administration on one aspect, but which also led to states having to opt in to the Medicaid expansion, something which 12 states have still refused to do, leaving millions of Americans without an affordable option for health insurance.

The organization was a strong supporter of conservative Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, and claims credit for helping ensure that Democratic Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland never got so much as a hearing. It has pushed for a host of tax cuts for the wealthy, and lobbied against increases to corporate tax rates. Former President Donald Trump spoke at NFIB’s 75th Anniversary and Fly-In in 2018, proclaiming, “For many years, Washington tried to hold you back.”

“Contributions to the NFIB network of nonprofits over the last 6 years are difficult to track because the organizations do not disclose their funding sources or, in the case of the trade association NFIB, its members,” David Armiak, the research director for the Center for Media and Democracy, told Workday Magazine and the Prospect over email. “And the contributors that are identifiable, like The 85 Fund and DonorsTrust, are conduits for donors who wish to remain anonymous.”

The trade association declined to answer requests for information about where it gets its money. The organization does take dues from members, though it does not publicly provide a full list of who these members are.

In the past, however, some donations have been unearthed. Roughly a decade ago, it was revealed that NFIB had received $3.7 million from Crossroads GPS, which was co-founded by the conservative consultant and lobbyist Karl Rove. Around the same time, NFIB also received $2.5 million from groups affiliated with the Koch network, The Washington Post reported.

There are signs, meanwhile, that NFIB continues to move within this ecosystem of conservative organizations. As recently as September of 2019, NFIB co-hosted a roundtable on “Business Tax Relief” with the New Hampshire branch of Americans for Prosperity, a central player in the Koch network. AFP has engaged in extensive political advocacy aimed at gutting public programs, including Medicaid, and was one of the organizations that agitated against the temporary work closures that were aimed at protecting public health during the early phases of the pandemic.

NFIB is not the only conservative organization to push back against child labor protections in recent years. The Acton Institute, a think tank that has received funding from billionaire Betsy DeVos, the education secretary under former President Trump, garnered headlines in 2016 when it published a blog post headlined “Work is a gift our kids can handle.” DeVos served on the board of the organization from 1995 to 2005.

NFIB’s present-day anti-regulatory push threatens some of the most vulnerable U.S. workers.

The negative health consequences of child labor are well established. In one 2019 paper published in the Journal of Public Health, researchers found that, in lower- and middle-income countries, child labor (defined as 18 or younger) is associated with “poor growth, malnutrition, higher incidence of infectious and system-specific diseases, behavioral and emotional disorders, and decreased coping efficacy.”

“The general purposes behind child labor laws—to keep children safe, to provide children with time for meaningful educational opportunities, and to promote children’s well-being—must not be forgotten,” Kate Griffith, professor at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, told Workday Magazine and the Prospect over email. “They were important a hundred years ago when these laws started to proliferate, and they are still important today.”

State legislators are pushing to loosen child labor laws at a time when a key federal anti-poverty program for children has dried up. The Child Tax Credit, in which the Internal Revenue Service disbursed payments of $250 to $300 per child to 36 million homes, stopped at the end of 2021, and Congress declined to renew it. The expiration threw 3.7 million children into poverty, according to a study from Columbia University, spiking the child poverty rate from 12.1 percent in December 2021 to 17 percent in January 2022.

There are signs that more teenagers are working. The summer of 2021 saw the highest level of teen employment since 2008, at a rate of 32 percent. And as Indigo Olivier pointed out in The Conversationalist, some businesses, like McDonald’s, have been aggressively recruiting 14- and 15-year-olds.

Instead of expanding labor hours for children, labor activists argue that employers have other options for attracting workers—for example, raising wages and improving conditions.

Toward this end, Peter Rickman, president of the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization, said that politicians should withstand pressures from groups like NFIB and pursue policies that strengthen, rather than erode, labor standards.

“Policymakers should skip doing the bidding of the boss class, and employers who’ve failed to provide good, family-supporting employment,” he said. “And they should focus on making this labor market work to support good, living-wage, union jobs.”

Photo courtesy of William Real/flickr/Creative Commons.

Sarah is the Editor for Workday Magazine.

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