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Last Friday, during an event at Harvard, Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich offered up a modest plan for alleviating poverty in the United States. It was time, he said, to relax our "truly stupid" child labor laws. In particular, schools should fire their unionized janitors, and hire children as young as nine to do the work instead. Per The New York Times:
"You say to somebody, you shouldn't go to work before you're what, 14, 16 years of age, fine," Mr. Gingrich said. "You're totally poor. You're in a school that is failing with a teacher that is failing. I've tried for years to have a very simple model. 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 would have pride in the schools, they'd begin the process of rising."
This suggestion is, on its face, insane. It sounds like a bad Stephen Colbert joke. But if you stop and consider its merits for a minute or two...well no, it's still quite insane. And if you spend an evening researching the nitty gritty of what public school custodians actually do for a living, it turns out to be downright cruel.
It's not really worth engaging Gingrich's idea as a serious policy suggestion. I just don't see the buckets-and-books plan getting much traction in Congress. But his comments are worth dwelling on for a moment, because they're a jarring illustration of Gingrich's casual disdain for American workers.
My assumption is that Gingrich disagrees with the critics who quickly called his plan "Dickensian." Instead, he probably believes that janitorial work is a relatively safe, mindless occupation on par a paper route or neighborhood car wash. Otherwise, there's no reason to think a child could handle it.
So what do janitors actually do? It's a lot more than mopping. To get a sense, look over this job description for a New York City public school custodial engineer--a "master janitor," as Gingrich would put it. He and his team of cleaners and handymen are responsible for cleaning, yes. That part involves hazardous chemicals like hydrochloric acid. They also operate the school's heating system, do electrical repairs, maintain the school grounds, take care of the HVAC equipment, and handle basic plumbing fixes, among other assorted jobs. I ask: What parent wants a nine-year-old, or even a thirteen-year-old, toying with the HVAC in her school?
None. Because this is hard. It's adult work. It can also be brutal on your health. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, janitors miss work due to on-the-job injuries more often than almost any other occupation. They rank in the top seven on that statistic, along police officers and construction workers. Janitors get splashed with corrosive chemicals. They injure their backs bending over mops and toilets all day. These aren't concerns you take lightly.
It would be easy to chalk Gingrich's comments up simply to his well-known animus towards unions. But I don't think that quite explains it. Rational people can argue about how much someone should be paid to clean. An average school janitor makes $12.45 an hour. It's not an extravagant amount, but it approaches a living wage for a single person living in some areas. In some places, the unionized janitors may well be making too much. There are plenty of school districts that outsource their cleaning to private firms. But that decision starts from the respectful assumption that maintaining a school is something worthwhile for an adult to spend their lives on.
That's not the case in Gingrich's worldview. Forget that an adult might need that job to put food on the table for their own children. Forget that he's suggesting we flood an ailing job market with part time, minimum-wage-earning students. This isn't about labor economics. It's about respect, and the fact that the leading Republican presidential candidate doesn't have a spit's worth of it for manual labor. In his eyes, a janitor's job just doesn't mean much. It's so easy, a child could do it.