SOUTH PORTLAND – By now it’s fairly obvious what Gov. LePage means when he declares that his administration is trying to create a more “business friendly” Maine.

While states like Indiana work to stabilize pensions and balance the budget through income taxes, LePage takes his orders from the Legislative Exchange Council moving in lock step to reduce the pensions of teachers and state workers, overturn environmental protection laws, eliminate the right of states to sue large corporations, and, most recently, provide employers with cheaper labor, especially our kids.

No wonder the governor moved Frances Perkins from the wall of Labor on the same day Mainers commemorated the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, an event Perkins witnessed firsthand and cemented her commitment to improving working conditions, especially among the nations wage-earning children.

At least 1.7 million children under 16 legally earned wages in the years just before World War I, although these figures fail to take into account the many children who had to lie about their ages in order to help supplement their parents’ low wages.

While 1 percent of American families owned nearly seven-eights of the national wealth, 10 percent of American girls between 10 and 15, and 20 percent of boys, worked 10 hours a day in canneries, textile mills and other industries while in the fields, they worked an average of 12 hours a day. Conditions went mostly unregulated.

Joining forces with organized labor in the early 20th century, female activists like Perkins passed the first federal laws regulating how long children could work and in what kinds of conditions. Despite congressional approval in 1916, the law was declared unconstitutional by a conservative, dare I say activist, U.S. Supreme Court that argued that the law “violated a child’s right to contract his or her own labor.”

Stunned by the resistance, Congress went on to pass a constitutional amendment in 1924. It, too, was blocked, although in Maine, both Republicans and Democrats gave it the thumbs up in 1935. It would not be until 1938, however, when Perkins served as secretary of labor, that federal laws protecting children at work finally passed, establishing minimum wages, standards for overtime and restrictions on the number of hours they could work.

Hardly partisan, the movement to protect children at work had the support of most organizations and political parties as early as 1832, when the New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics, and Other Workingmen issued a resolve that “Children should not be allowed to labor in the factories from morning till night, without time for healthy recreation and mental culture” — for it “endangers their well-being and health.”

Now thanks to new legislation introduced by Republican David Burns of Whiting, “An Act to Enhance Access to Workplace for Minors,” kids can experience history firsthand. If L.D. 1346 passes, not only can they work longer hours every day — Burns would like to remove limits altogether for those 16 and over — but they can do so for even less pay, what the act calls “training pay” and employers of fast food and hospitality businesses call a savings of $2.25 per hour!

The minimum wage of $7.50, it seems, should apply only to workers over 20. You might call it a new form of living history, except that kids in the earlier part of the century were required by state laws to actually go to school, since home schooling back then was often just another word for sweatshop.

So here we are in Maine trying to prepare students for the 21st century when so many in the state government can’t come to grips with the 20th. Recent studies show that among students today, time spent studying in both high school and college is starting to drop, with many students hitting the books only between one and five hours a week.

Globally, American students rank in the bottom third for reading and science. Across the nation, corporate and civic leaders are desperately aware of the negative impact this will have on American competition and innovation in the future.

Who then benefits from L.D. 1346? One obvious winner is the fast food industry. “No other industry in the United States has a work force so dominated by adolescents,” notes Eric Schlosser, author of “Fast Food Nation.”

In the nation’s fast food kitchens, almost two-thirds of the workers are under the age of 20. Instead of working to promote a stable, well-paid, well-trained, and secure work orce in Maine, L.D. 1346 will produce the exact opposite.

It will force students to work more hours, study less, and work later, more dangerous hours at night. L.D. 1346 takes us back to a future Maine can’t afford and kids shouldn’t have to pay for.

– Special to the Press Herald