Since its beginning, the National Consumers League (NCL) has cared deeply about the conditions under which consumer products are produced. In the early 1900s, NCL helped pass landmark state and federal laws that protected children from the ravages of child labor.
In 1989, in NCL’s 90th year, it helped launch the Child Labor Coalition (CLC) to ameliorate the worst forms of child labor and to protect teen workers from health and safety hazards. This fall, the CLC, co-chaired today by NCL and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), marks its 20th anniversary, still going strong. The Coalition brings together 22 groups, including several of America’s largest labor unions, committed to reducing exploitative child labor and child trafficking.
“The CLC’s unique mission is what has made it successful for two decades,” said NCL’s Executive Director Sally Greenberg, who serves as co-chair of the CLC. “By bringing together both domestic and internationally-focused groups, our collective voice carries significant weight and attracts some of the nation’s leading human rights organizations.”
The idea for a coalition of nonprofits, unions, and other advocacy groups to fight child labor emerged rather suddenly in 1989. Several Washington, DC groups had participated in a Capitol Hill child labor forum organized by Bill Goold, a Congressional aide. The energizing forum prompted attendees including NCL’s then-President Linda Golodner and Pharis Harvey, the executive director of what was then called the International Labor Rights Fund (now the International Labor Rights Forum), who immediately saw a need for a collaborative approach to end child labor. A coalition of such groups, they believed, could leverage the resources of its members and speak with a stronger voice than each individual could alone.
Bill Treanor, the founder of the American Youth Work Center, along with Harvey and Golodner, became the original three chairs of the coalition. The AFL-CIO provided $10,000 in seed money, and the CLC was born. Attempts to fund the Coalition over the years have been difficult, noted Golodner, a co-chair of the coalition for 18 years. “It was hard then, and it’s hard today,” she explained, adding that for the most part, the foundation world has turned a “blind eye” to the child labor issue.
Over the last two decades, the CLC has enjoyed a number of successes. Coalition members wrote a model state child labor law that several states used in part. The CLC also worked to eliminate “timed delivery” within the fast food industry, successfully ending Domino Pizza’s 30-Minute Guaranteed Delivery, preventing driver deaths and injuries.
The CLC has hosted child labor forums and meetings, providing an opportunity for nonprofit advocacy groups and the federal officials charged with reducing child labor to coordinate their work and learn from one another. In its 20 years, the CLC has also issued a number of major reports, on such issues as trafficking, to draw the public’s attention toward the child labor issue and guide policy.
The CLC helped organize Global March Against Child Labor activities in North America, bringing much attention to the issue. Fifteen years ago, the CLC helped launch RugMark, the innovative, highly successful child-labor-free certification program for handmade carpets in South Asia.
“We became the voice for child labor advocacy from the United States,” said Darlene Adkins, a former NCL Vice President and the CLC Coordinator for 17 years. “In the early years, our focus internationally was on the consumer: ‘We don’t want products coming into the U.S. made by child labor.’ As the years went by, we got more involved in the global discussion of child labor—‘let’s end child labor globally…let’s make sure children have access to free basic education’.”
In 1999, NCL and the CLC joined the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs to launch the “Children in the Fields” Campaign to reduce child labor among migrant and seasonal farmworker children, who work long hours in the fields legally through exemptions in U.S. child labor law. Today, that campaign has several fulltime staff people; farmworker advocates are optimistic that a legislative remedy will be passed under the new Administration.
In many industries, it takes the bright light of public scrutiny to bring about action on a problem like child labor. The CLC focuses that light. “The League has been one of the central voices for child labor for 110 years, and that is significant,” added Adkins. “It’s been a core, central part of our mission since the League was established. We are one of just a handful of groups that have had that concern, and I think that’s remarkable.”
In September 2008, Sally Greenberg testified in the United States House of Representatives on behalf of the CLC, urging the Department of Labor to greatly expand its number of child labor investigators. When Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis took office this year, adding labor inspectors was one of the first things she did. To learn more about the ongoing work of the CLC, visit www.stopchildlabor.org.