Join me for a brief time travel back to the 19th century in America. The carnage of the Civil War is over and the country is trying to find its way as a divided country under one flag. To move forward the Federal government passed some legislation to encourage the building of railroads across the Country.
Railroad barons like, James Hill-Great Northern, Jay and George Gould-Western Pacific (MoPac), Western Maryland, Missouri-Pacific, Cornelius Vanderbilt-New York Central Railroad, Edward Harriman-Union Pacific, and Collis P. Huntington-Central Pacific built huge wealth building and expanding railroads. Interestingly, many of these guys had not completed high school. Despite their lack of education, they knew how to make money.
It is true that some philanthropic endeavors came out of this collection of millionaires. Stanford University and The Johns Hopkins Hospital were begun with railroad money. While some owners did pay a living wage and allowed the formation of labor organizations the majority saw labor as a commodity to be purchased at the lowest cost without regard for the individual laborer. Compounding this attitude was the absence of safety regulations, health laws, workers’ rights legislation or environmental laws to prevent the barons from abusing their workers or polluting the environment. With no regulations, nationally one railroad worker in every 357 died on the job in 1889.
The lack of workers’ rights is evident during the economic depression of the 1870s when the Pennsylvania Railroad and other roads reduced wages by 10 percent while preserving dividend payments. Train and engine crews went on strike in protest, and violence flared as state militias were dispatched to keep the trains running. The workers were so angry that riot damage totaled over $2 million dollars.
Without ‘worker’s rights’ laws discrimination was the practice of the day. Blacks and Latinos could be firemen but not engineers; skilled trades and union membership were open to a select few; sometimes jobs were assigned on the basis of religion; and the most recent immigrants usually held the dirtiest, most hazardous, and lowest-paying jobs. Discrimination was an American practice across the industrial landscape.
Look at the plight of the Chinese immigrants who built the Central Pacific Railroad (European laborers who were paid better and had better benefits never accounted for more than 10% of the labor force.) For the Central Pacific Railroad, hiring Chinese as opposed to whites kept labor costs down by a third, since the company would not pay their board or lodging. Again, this type of steep wage inequality was commonplace everywhere in America.
Discrimination against the Chinese was intense with the white public angered at the presence of the ‘yellow peril’. The Burlingame Treaty in 1868, containing provisions for equal treatment of Chinese immigrants, did not stop the assault on ‘a degraded race and cheap Chines labor’. Sadly, even church leaders denounced the entrance of Chinese aliens into what was regarded as a land for whites only.
Okay, let’s time travel back to the present. What is happening as I sit upright in front of my computer is alarming in its similarity to what was happening in the 19th century.
In our divided Country under one flag billionaires are working rapidly to remove environmental laws protecting our air and water so they can make more profit at the expense of our own health and that of our children.
This concerns me because members of my family have suffered and died with black lung disease and emphysema. Others are battling various repertory conditions related to living and working in bad air quality environments. Others of our family struggle with environmentally caused illnesses. On a larger scale I am concerned because scientist in Antarctica can see the residing ice cap disappear daily.
My concern is exacerbated because those making environmental regulation decisions do not believe the scientists know what they are talking about.
Hate groups and crimes are on the increase against those who are not white with barely whispered condemnation of such actions coming from The Whitehouse, Speaker of the House or Senate Majority Leader. This up-tick in hate crimes concerns me because I come from a mixed-race family which includes, African, European and Asian family members. Religiously our family includes, followers of Jesus, agnostics, atheists and some who defy definition. Sexually my family is a mix of male, female and gay members.
Congress is attempting to remove the healthcare we have for the poor and elderly and those who cannot afford healthcare insurance. This backward movement concerns me because members of my family needed the Affordable Care Act when they had no other health insurance.
Efforts are underway to put more money in the pockets of the wealthy (healthcare and taxes) while programs intended to help the middle and lower class are being defunded. This attitude concerns me because members in my family are working in near minimum wage jobs and using ‘helping agencies’ to supplement their income.
Hmm! Are the barons of today treating the rest of us much like the barons of the 19th century treated their labor? I am more than concerned about the current attitude toward the middle class and poor coming out of our governing bodies because I see us moving back to the future. These events concern me more than I can express!
See you next time.