Despite his current surge in the South Carolina polls, Newt Gingrich's star is not rising among one group of workers who have been a key talking point on the campaign trail: unionized janitors who the former House speaker says make "an absurd amount of money" and should be fired and replaced with poor schoolchildren.
At a high school in Hudson, N.H., where Gingrich gave a speech last week, the janitors are represented by the Teamsters union. They start off earning $16.86 an hour, or $28,324 a year, according to the local union contract.
Before Gingrich arrived on Jan. 9, several of them were readying the auditorium for his event. The men weren't impressed by his plan for their jobs. Those surveyed began with one basic point: If their jobs are turned over to schoolchildren, they would be out of work. But they quickly moved on to what they see as the more offensive issue: that a man like Gingrich -- who made around $1.6 million offering advice to mortgage giant Freddie Mac -- would claim to know anything about janitorial work.
"If you leave these custodians go, they're going to be out of a job," said Jerry Mishow, head custodian at the school, who earns the top janitorial wage of $25.41 an hour, or $42,688 a year. "Leave well enough alone."
"It just shows how out of touch with reality he is," added Brian McNamara, another custodian.
"I don't think he knows what it feels like to be down in the trenches, actually, you know, with the average everyday guy," said a third custodian, Peter Petrakis.
"He doesn't even know what a custodian job is," Mishow added. "How can he put kids mixing chemicals and everything else?"
"That's so wrong on so many levels," Petrakis agreed.
Janitors are not the only people to disparage Gingrich's controversial strategy to fight both child poverty and the jobs crisis by replacing adult janitors with working kids. Economists who study job creation say it won't improve the economy, academics who study children and poverty say it won't help poor kids, and unions who represent janitors say it's an affront to working people.
"You could take one janitor and hire 30-some kids to work in the school for the price of one janitor," Gingrich said at Monday night's Republican debate in South Carolina. "And those 30 kids would be a lot less likely to drop out. They would actually have money in their pocket."
His remarks were greeted with cheers from the audience.
"It's another absurd statement designed to appeal to the anti-union right-wing base," said Robert Troeller, president of Local 891, International Union of Operating Engineers, which represents New York City custodial engineers. "A man with a million-dollar line of credit at Tiffany's has the audacity to claim janitors are overpaid."
Video by Anne Thompson.