Republican voters seem quite taken with the idea factory that is Newt Gingrich. But, as conjurer of “moon colonies and space mirrors” and “invented people,” the idea Gingrich seems most taken with is the reinstatement of child labor. Believing child labor protection laws are “tragic” and “truly stupid,” Gingrich wants to replace “unionized janitors” with poor children who can learn legal work habits by cleaning the bathroom, or better yet, as “apprenti” for attention-seeking tycoon Donald Trump.
While it is now somehow politically advantageous for Gingrich to push for child laborers, it was — at one time — politically advantageous for him to rebuke them. As USA Today reports, in a 1996 ad called “Cookie,” Gingrich accused his congressional opponent of “unscrupulous” business practices for hiring children under the age of 18:
But in a 1996 ad titled “Cookie,” Gingrich slammed his then-congressional opponent, Michael Coles, former CEO of Great American Cookie Co., as an “unscrupulous businessman” partly because of a 1993 violation of child labor laws and accused him of using children “for hazardous labor,” according to a transcript of the ad in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Coles fired back with his own ad that said the 1993 incident involved two teenagers and that the company was cited for “violating safety codes that prohibit workers under 18 from operating freight elevators” when the teenagers were taking out the trash at a suburban Atlanta mall.
Indeed, it turns out that Gingrich has a long history of using child labor policy to opportunistically score political points. Lambasting then-President Bill Clinton’s idea for a summer youth jobs program in the public sector, Gingrich said, “if what you want to do is employ 700,000 kids, you would get much more ban for your buck by having a tax credit” for small businesses that hire them. As the Washington Monthly’s Paul Glastris notes, Gingrich’s main objection here is that “Clinton’s program would hire kids to work in the public rather than the private sector, the difference being that the latter represents ‘real work’ that is ‘incredibly more demanding than the work habits of a public bureaucracy.’”
But now, Gingrich is pushing to replace unionized janitors in schools (aka the public sector). The change of heart towards the public sector is more likely reflective of the political winds rather than long-standing principle. As Glastris muses, “[c]ould it be that he opposes [jobs programs for poor teens] only when they’re offered up by Democrats, and supports them only when they involve firing unionized workers?”
While the reasons behind Gingrich support for child labor are unclear, there is no doubt that his latest policy is severely misguided. Coles, now the CEO of an onboard airline advertising company, noted that Gingrich’s current proposal not only would employ children under 18 but would take away jobs from the number of adults today who need them: “There are so many unfortunate people who would fill those jobs.”