Monday, November 21, 2011

Stranger Than Fiction

Months ago, Democrats – astonished by some of the Republican rhetoric about eliminating government regulation – joked that the next thing Republicans would propose would be repealing the child labor laws. This week, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich actually made that proposal, and he was being serious. He said that schools should save money by firing janitors and making the kids do the janitors' jobs.

Schools in Chicago and elsewhere have been lengthening the time students spend in class, in order to improve their educational performance. Newt thinks kids should spend less time studying in class and more time sweeping. If this proposal was coming from one of the other Republican candidates who have already lost credibility within their own party, it wouldn't be so newsworthy. But Newt is the latest candidate to surge in the polls as a possible challenger to Romney. He is being taken seriously largely because he actually has some experience in government, although people who remember how he behaved when he was in office are probably less likely to vote for him than people who didn't witness his antics.

Newt says that there is nothing wrong with a kid washing cars or selling newspapers to make a few bucks. I agree. I cut a neighbor's grass and shoveled snow and had a lemonade stand. But I did it in my free time – not when I was supposed to be in school. We had school janitors to mop the floors, clean up vomit, clean the toilets, pick up broken glass on the playground, balance on window ledges to wash the windows, and climb ladders to replace light bulbs. They did their jobs while I was in class. Sure, I occasionally washed the blackboards and clapped the chalkboard erasers. Other kids were playground assistants or hall monitors or bell-ringers or supply-room helpers. These were positions that were designed to teach us responsibility, and to give us a feeling of pride and involvement. We weren't just cheap labor brought in to bust the unions. Newt specifically attacked unionized janitors in his comments.

There are plenty of countries where kids still work instead of going to school. They shine shoes, sell gum, run errands, serve coffee, and mine minerals. What they don't do is get an education. They are too busy working to support themselves and their families. That's one of the big reasons we have child labor laws – to make sure kids get educated.

Another reason we have child labor laws is that when kids work, they get injured. They lose eyes and arms and lives – not shoveling snow or selling greeting cards door-to-door – but working on farms and in restaurants and factories, and falling off ladders and window ledges. Kids don't have a lot of power to insist on safe working conditions. It's hard for them to tell an adult supervisor that they don't think they have been given the proper equipment or training. Kids just do what they are told, unlike unionized adult workers.

Newt is actually proposing that adults be fired and replaced by lower paid kids. Newt talks as if this would be good for kids in poor neighborhoods. But will those neighborhoods be better off if adults' jobs are converted to kids' jobs, with lower pay? This degradation of income is one of the things that child labor laws were enacted to prevent. Newt must know this. He used to be a history teacher.

Our country has been attacked a few times, but Newt is one of very few people who can boast that he actually shut down the U.S. government, back when he was in Congress. He rose to power because of his “contract for America,” which was so destructive that it became knows as his “contract on America.” He is chiefly remembered as a guy who told his wife while she was in the hospital for cancer that he was leaving her for another women with whom he was having an affair. When he tells us that our kids should work instead of study in school, I have to wonder why anyone, even the most regressive Republican, would think it was a proposal that should be considered or that he is a candidate who deserved anyone's support.

1 comment:

  1. I worked in our family shoe store when I was a kid, along with my sister, my grandmother and grandfather, and my mom and dad. Some days, especially during the Christmas season, it was even fun. Grandma would pay us, and then Grandpa would pay us again and tell us not to tell Grandma. We put the money toward college and eventually my sister became a CPA and an MBA, and controller of a major Chicago company, and I became an attorney. During the shoe store days, my sister and I worked only on weekends and during breaks, and not in lieu of school. My parents and grandparents wanted my sister and I to each have a good education and a better life than they had, as their parents wanted for them. My great-grandparents went through a heck of a lot of trouble to make sure their kids grew up in the US with its newly minted progressive era labor laws, and not in some ghetto or pale of Eastern Europe where their childhoods would be cut short by low-paid drudgery and their success would be limited by the circumstances of their birth. It seems now, some parents don't want their children to do better than they did. I think that's sad and perhaps shows a bizarre form of jealousy. Things must be really bad if parents are more jealous than supportive of their own children, and it says a lot about these parents. It also says a lot about our country; that an entire political party that usually commands about half the votes in each election, give or take a few percentage points, wants our children to fail and allow other countries to have the competitive advantage. As an aside, I once spoke to a grade school janitor who had cancer. He believed he got sick from his exposure to chemicals spread around the school to combat MRSA. I have no idea whether or not he was correct, but I do know that the chemicals used to kill MRSA are know to cause asthmatic reactions in children according to the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics, and are known to encourage antibiotic-resistant bacteria. As people make their voting decisions, they need to consider whether they want a country full of under-educated kids in low paying, and perhaps dangerous, jobs with no resources for getting out or ahead. They need to consider whether these future low wage adults will be able to support local businesses and keep the economy going and they need to open their eyes and understand that the leaders who support policies that downgrade our kids and communities are living off of international business and simply do not care what happens here at home.