The Corner

Law & the Courts

Why One Texas Hair Braider Became a Workers’-Rights Activist

The White House workers’ summit today is focusing on declining union membership. It ignores a much larger problem facing many workers: they need a government permission slip to work. Without one they can go to jail. This happened to Isis Brantley, a Dallas hair braider.

In 1997 police arrested her for operating without a cosmetology license. Undercover officers came into Brantley’s salon and “carted [her] off to jail like a common criminal.” The mother of five went to jail for not having a license that required over 1,500 hours of training (including four exams)– none of which covered African hair braiding.

The arrest left Brantley homeless, jobless, and a passionate advocate for the rights to practice her craft.

Ten years later, the Texas legislature “fixed” the problem by creating a 35-hour hair-braiding license inserted under the barbering statute. Although free to braid hair, Brantley was still bound by burdensome barbering laws. She wanted to teach other women how to braid hair. To do that, she had to become a licensed barber instructor and create a barber college — again filled with requirements that had nothing to do with hair braiding.

Why should the government stop people who are willing and able to work? Why force them into poverty? Thankfully, Brantley’s story had a happy ending. On June 10, 2015, with the help of the Institute for Justice, Texas governor Greg Abbott signed a bill fully deregulating the practice of natural hair-braiding in the state.

Brantley’s hard work and advocacy paid off. However, Brantley’s situation is not an isolated one. Nearly one-third of all jobs in the economy require some sort of license.

Many of these licenses are equally unnecessary: florists, interior designers, and barbers. Too many Americans like Brantley cannot get ahead because they lack pointless government permission slips. This is a much greater issue for most workers than organized labor’s organizing difficulties. 

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