Is it the 1890s all over again?

“Robber Barons” is a catchy label. At a time not so long ago it was used by Americans to describe powerful, wealthy captains of industry who monopolized the railroads, the steel industry, the tobacco industry, the oil industry and all industries in the U.S. They emerged during the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s and controlled everything. Ultimately their ways brought about totally unacceptable conditions that led to riots, strikes and the emergence of labor unions.

They were noted for their indifference to their workers, forcing workers into 18-hour days in unsafe conditions with wages at a minimum often reduced on whims. Many American families were reduced to begging for food while their children were also forced to work. Meanwhile, poverty and the most deplorable of living conditions destroyed the health and very lives of tens of thousands of American men, women and children. 

Workers formed labor unions to protect themselves. The Robber Barons struck back by bribing police departments to beat them when they refused to work while they hired thugs to hurt and kill the workers when they would not do what the Robber Barons demanded of them. Nevertheless, there were writers and politicians like famous trust-buster President Theodore Roosevelt who used the “bully pulpit” to lead reforms for improved conditions.

As things evolved into the saner working conditions of the 1900s, an American middle class emerged through improvements such as the eight-hour work day, the 40-hour work week and overtime pay, living wages, safer working conditions, even health insurance and pensions. These work conditions commonly enabled the average worker to buy a home, have a family, appreciate a safer work environment, enjoy family vacations and retire in dignity. 

Interesting it is how things can get reversed to what they were a century ago, a matter developing here for the last fifty years. At its prime now, the notorious “one percent” have established themselves. What’s happened is that wealth has become concentrated once more in a few hands and a new Robber Baron class of Americans have risen to dominate everything again. These modern day barons, now CEOs, enjoy excessive salaries and benefits in the multi-millions of dollars while their workers are minimum-wage paid, realize no upward mobility, and are frequently laid off for no reason other than a CEO profit motive.

The Robber Barons of 2019 are destructive to a democratic republic such as ours as they use and abuse U.S. citizens by exploiting them to a point where they are nothing other than servants to business executives who, when workers ask for better wages or benefits are shown the door. The one percenters work against their workers at every turn while acquiring Golden Parachute retirements for themselves and have done away with pensions outside the executive chambers. They have emasculated or eliminated labor unions. They are the epitome of greed and self-centeredness. They significantly contribute to societal demises, including drug addiction, homelessness, gun-related crimes, and a decline in our nation’s ethics and morals. 

Where they will spend big money is with duly-elected office holders in state houses and the national capital to make certain laws are passed so wages are kept low, benefits are non-existent, workplace safety measures are deregulated or removed, and no worker benefits or perks survive underhanded shenanigans by legislators. None of this buying of legislators is being dealt with effectively so it behooves every American to get involved and vote for those who prove themselves as working for the people not working for the Robber Barons.

(Gene H. McIntyre shares his opinion regularly in the Keizertimes.)