The picture is of elementary-school age girl mopping the hall in front of a row of lockers.

“Dear Jenny,” reads the accompanying text, “I fired your Mom and put you to work to help you ‘rise.’ Love, Newt.”

A postscript adds: “Hope you don’t miss your house, food and health care too much. You’ll thank me in 30 years, if you survive. Promise!”

The new ad campaign from the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees goes to the heart of the matter. Former House Speaker and—at least for this week—Republican presidential front-runner Newt Gingrich really does want to fire school janitors and hire kids to mop the halls, clean the restrooms and fix the boilers. Gingrich claims this switch-up will help elementary and high-school age children “begin the process of rising.”

The real point of the proposal is to destroy public-sector unions. And he is willing to end collective bargaining rights obtained during the New Deal era and in the years since, as well as child labor laws passed during the Progressive Era of a century ago, in order to achieve a political end.

Gingrich and other Republicans, such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, want to eliminate public-sector unions because they remain the most effective defenders of the common good—fighting to protect public services and public education from the privatization schemes favored by Gingrich, Walker and their corporate sponsors. With the Supreme Court’s determination that corporations can spend whatever they choose to buy election results, one of the last remaining barriers to conservative hegemony in many states is the labor movement, which this year has proven to be remarkably adept at countering assaults on middle-class families and the communities where they live.

So Gingrich has gone after the janitors, displaying a classic “elite” view that those who scrub floors and clean toilets are easily replaced by child labor. He’s wrong, of course. Janitors handle hazardous materials, move heavy items and perform major repairs inside the nation’s schools. They also help and protect children. And the incomes they earn—as well as the health benefits—provide working moms and dads with a measure of economic stability. That’s what will allow their children to “rise” up the educational and economic ladders Gingrich is so focused on—not, as AFSCME notes, “doing hard manual labor cleaning up after their more fortunate classmates.”

Gingrich’s proposal is not just outrageous. It is cruel in the extreme. Collective-bargaining protections help to maintain the American middle class. Child-labor laws help to prevent the exploitation of low-income kids. Attacking the two of them in combination, as Gingrich has, should disqualify him for serious consideration as a presidential candidate in 2012.

In fact, his stance would have disqualified him from serious consideration as a presidential candidate in 1912. After all, in 1912, all the major contenders for the presidency—Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Republican William Howard Taft, “Bull Moose” Progressive Theodore Roosevelt and Socialist Eugene Victor Debs—expressed varying measures of respect for unions and concern about child-labor abuses.

Gingrich imagines himself as a “big thinker” of the twenty-first century. In fact, he is regurgitating the small ideas of the nineteenth century.