"Nuts, vicious and wrong." That's what the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees thinks of Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich's wacko idea of putting kids to work to clean our schools in place of unionized adult janitors. AFSCME is correct, of course. It's a nutty, vicious and wrong idea.
But, gee, putting the kids to work would save money, notes Gingrich. Sure would. And nothing's more important to politicians like Gingrich. To them, government is not primarily a vehicle to provide essential services to people. It is, as they complain, a vehicle that gobbles up taxpayer money – especially rich taxpayers' money.
Providing services is secondary to them, however needed the services might be. Saving money is their concern, whatever the consequences of the savings might be.
In case you haven't heard the details of Rep Gingrich's outrageous suggestion, let me recap what he's said about it over the past week or so. Honest, this is exactly what he's proposed.
You know those child labor laws that were first enacted in the 19th century to protect children from serious exploitation – laws that limit their working hours, give them time to get a decent education and protect them from workplace dangers that could very well lead to serious harm?
Those laws are still in effect, on the state and federal level. The federal law limits the working hours of children under 16 to no more than three hours a day or 18 hours a week when school is in session or 40 hours a week when school is not in session. Some states limit working hours even more.
Ah, but that's too much for Newt Gingrich. He calls the child labor laws "truly stupid." That's right: "stupid." That surely puts Gingrich right where he belongs, squarely in the 18th century.
Gingrich's 18th century plan calls for schools to "get rid of unionized school janitors "and hire poor school kids to clean the schools in low-income neighborhoods.". That's what the man said. Just think of that. And he wants to be president!
But Gingrich is right on one thing. Yes, as he says, kid janitors "would be dramatically less expensive than unionized janitors." But obviously the difference is well worth paying, although not to Rep. Gingrich.
But don't be too hard on the man. He's only talking about working the kids a mere 20 hours a week. And this, said Gingrich, would empower them to succeed. He actually said that kids in the poorest neighborhoods are trapped by the child labor laws that prevent them from earning money. They also, of course, protect kids from serious exploitation, but that apparently doesn't concern Gingrich.
So what should schools do to carry out Gingrich's 18th century plan? "Get rid of their unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school . . .the kids would actually do work."
Why, that would give them "pride in the schools." And the students "would begin the process of rising."
What next? Have classes in janitoring? Put teachers to work with brooms, too?
AFSCME is currently asking people to add their names to an on-line letter that says Gingrich's idea "is outrageous, dangerous and downright hogwash." (You can add your name to the letter at www.reallynewt.com.)
The letter notes that "doing janitorial work in a school entails sanitizing toilets, handling hazardous cleaning chemicals and scrubbing floors hunched over a mop for hours. It's hard to imagine a nine-year-old doing any of those tasks. Come on."
The union cites another important point that Gingrich ignores: A lot of those unionized janitors he'd replace with kids are parents. And their janitorial jobs "put a roof over kids' heads, food on the table, and provide them with health care and the chance to get an education.
"That job is the only thing between a kid and poverty. Firing someone's mom and hiring the kid for less money, isn't exactly the 'process of rising.'"
Could it possibly be that Newt Gingrich is willing to exploit children 18th century style in order to boost his campaign for president? You make the call.
Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based writer who has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.