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Newt's Cruelest Campaign: Replace School Janitors With Child Labor | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Newt's Cruelest Campaign: Replace School Janitors With Child Labor

It has been suggested that the Republicans who would be president are determined to turn the clock back seventy-five years and “rescind the New Deal.”

Now, Newt Gingrich has gone his rivals one better.

The former Speaker of the House, and sudden contender for the 2012 GOP presidential nod, is not about to stop with the New Deal. He wants to turn the clock back 100 years and rescind the progressive era.

This is no small threat. While the New Deal brought a measure of economic security to the American experiment, along with a bolder vision of what government could do to tame the wildest excesses of bankers and speculators, it was the Progressive Era that introduced measures of basic humanity and democratic aspiration to the project.

Gingrich goes to the heart of the matter with his new proposal to attack public-sector collective bargaining rights with a proposal to fire school janitors and replace them with child laborers.

Blaming “the core policies of protecting unionization and bureaucratization” for “crippling” children,” Gingrich told a Harvard Kennedy School of Government seminar that “it is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in, first of all, in child laws, which are truly stupid.”

”I tried for years to have a very simple model,” the former Speaker of the House continued. “Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they’d have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising.”

Even in a party where cruelty is now considered a political virtue, there is something unsettling about a man who collected $30,000 each month to offer an hour of historical counsel to Freddie Mac administrators attacking elementary and secondary school janitors who, according to fresh Bureau of Labor Statistics data, earn a mean wage of $13.74 an hour, or $28,570 per year.

But Gingrich has never been bothered by the human cost of his right-wing social experimentation. So why start now that the Grand Old Party seems to be longing for a return to the Gilded Age.

Attacking the right of workers to organize unions and to speak through those unions in their workplaces and the public sphere assaults the basic underpinnings of the New Deal and the arc of reforms that extended from it into the 1950s and 1960s. Even those who once questioned the wisdom of allowing teachers to organize accepted the right of school janitors, maintenance workers and grounds crews to join unions—often, though not always, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which along with the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers has long been a presence in America’s public schools.

Gingrich would attack blue-collar public employees, men and women who support families and whose incomes help to support main streets in small towns and American’s urban neighborhoods. That does, indeed, represent a rolling back of the New Deal.

But Gingrich is going the next step.

With his assault on child labor laws—and, make no mistake, he is specifically referring to provisions that protect children as young as 9 as “truly stupid” and speaking of eliminating them—Gingrich is assault the underpinnings of the Progressive Era reform movement that sought to end the worst abuses of the robber barons.

Progressive groups such as the National Child Labor Committee fought in the period from 1900 to the 1920s for bans on child labor not merely because they wanted to protect children from harm in dangerous settings. They wanted children to be educated and prepared to participate in a democratic society. The progressive faith, as expressed by political leaders such as Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette and Nebraska Senator George Norris, and by educational reformers such as John Dewey and social reformers such as Jane Addams, held that children should be educated not merely to be workers but to be citizens.

Gingrich is reversing the equation.

He proposes to lay off the father who works as a janitor, the mother who works as a maintenance worker, and to “hire” the 10-year-old son, the 12-year-old daughter, to do the same work—without union protection, without the same pay, benefits or on-the-job protections.

It is a crude calculus that threatens not just the economic security of blue-collar public employees and their families but the stability of communities, the sanctity of childhood and the basic premise that the exploitation of children is a evil that belongs to the nineteenth century—not the twenty-first.

“The US outlawed child labor because it denied children the chance at a real education and allowed employers to exploit children—and because children were often injured or killed on the job. That’s why labor unions fought to pass laws outlawing child labor and protecting all workers,” explains a letter of protest from AFSCME members and supporters. “And the people you want to fire and replace with kids? A lot of them are parents. That job puts a roof over kids’ heads, food on the table, and provides 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.” It is, in fact, the process of falling. It is the process of exploiting and destroying working families. The fact that you don’t get that makes you not only out of touch, but utterly unqualified to serve in any elected position, let alone President of the United States.”

Gingrich has gone to extremes. But he is not exactly an outlier, at least within his own party. Numerous Republican governors, led by Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, are openly at war with the New Deal and collective-bargaining rights. But Maine Governor Paul LePage, a Tea Party Republican elected last fall, has raised the prospect of eliminating child-labor laws. And with their enactment of draconian Voter ID laws—which require citizens to purchase identification in order to vote—Republicans in states across the country appear to be reviving the poll tax—a target of reformers in the New Deal and Progressive eras.

Something fundamental is at stake in the United States today.

There is a genuine debate about the essentials of modern society, and about how far some politicians would take us from them.

Gingrich’s attacks on collective bargaining rights and on child-labor laws are a part of that debate. Other Republican presidential contenders need to be pressed for answers regarding the extent to which Americans agree with the former Speaker of the House.

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