Image: Flickr/OFL Communications Department

Part two of a two-part series. Read part one.

Child labour defended

This callous mistreatment of working people was not only condoned, but even extolled — and not just by the business establishment. The daily newspapers of the time also defended the employers. So did the major religions. In 1888, when labour leader Daniel O’Donaghue proposed a resolution at a public meeting in Toronto calling for the abolition of child labour, all 41 clergymen who attended the meeting voted against it.

In Quebec, for many years, the Catholic Church forbade its members to join a union “under pain of grievous sin” — and many bishops and priests went so far as to deny union members a Christian burial when they died.

Blessed by the clergy, the press, and the politicians, employers considered it their God-given right to treat workers as virtual slaves. Said railroad tycoon George F. Baer, “The interests of the labouring man will be cared for, not by the labour agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God has given control of the property rights of the country.”

In the United States, another robber baron, Frederick Townsend Martin, was even more candid. In an interview he gave to a visiting British journalist, he boasted: “We are the rich. We own this country. And we intend to keep it by throwing all the tremendous weight of our support, our influence, our money, our purchased politicians, our public-speaking demagogues, into the fight against any legislation, any political party or platform or campaign that threatens our vested interests.”

Back to the future

Today’s big business executives are not so outspoken, at least not in public, but privately they could make the same boast. Their basic agenda is not that much different from that of their 19th-century forerunners, whom they envy and seek to emulate. And what’s really scary is that they now have amassed almost as much of the political and economic power they need to recreate the “bad old days” of the industrial robber barons.

A modern descendant of John D. Rockefeller — his great-grandson, banker David Rockefeller — put it plainly in a speech he gave back in the 1990s: “We who run the transnational corporations are now in the driver’s seat of the global economic engine. We are setting government policies instead of watching from the sidelines.”

A longtime proponent of a corporate New World Order, David Rockefeller has also declared that: “The supranational sovereignty of an intellectual elite and world bankers is surely preferable to the national auto-determination practiced in the past.” He also said: “All we need is the right major crisis and the nations will accept the New World Order.”

Whether 9/11 or the 2008 financial crash was the major crisis Roosevelt yearned for, they have both resulted in an upsurge of corporate power. Today’s CEOs are unquestionably calling the shots, having harnessed almost all governments to their regressive agenda. The only thing they aren’t sure about is how long it will take them to obliterate the last vestiges of the hated “welfare state” and establish the neo-Victorian New World Order David Rockefeller predicted would be the ultimate corporate triumph.

Already, in many developing nations, they have brought back child labour. Conditions in most factories operated by or for the transnational corporations in Asia and parts of Latin America are not much better today than they were in North America and Europe in the 1800s. Thousands of boys and girls are being compelled to work 12 hours a day in dirty, unsafe workshops, for 40 or 50 cents an hour.

One 15-year-old girl who started working in a maquila sweatshop in Honduras when she was 13, testifying before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on child labour 20 years ago, told how she and 600 other teenaged girls were compelled to sew cotton sweaters from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., seven days a week. They were beaten by their bosses if they make a mistake, forbidden to speak to co-workers, allowed only half an hour a day for lunch, and just two visits a day to the bathroom. She was paid 38 cents an hour to make sweaters that were sold in the U.S. for $90.

This flinthearted exploitation of child labour may never be repeated in Canada, mainly because there are so many children in poorer nations who can more easily be exploited. But don’t rule out the possibility that much of our adult work force will be driven back into a modern-day version of serfdom. With our labour laws impaired and laxly enforced, with workers’ unions and bargaining rights weakened, with well-paid manufacturing jobs being replaced by low-paid part-time or temporary work, the regression of our labour force into 19th-century-style servitude is far from a dystopian fantasy.

Canadians should take a good hard look back at the age of absolute corporate power that doomed millions to dire poverty and serfdom in the late 1800s. If they did, they might be more concerned about having to relive that blighted and benighted past — and become active in the struggle to avert it.  

Ed Finn was Senior Editor at the CCPA and editor of the CCPA Monitor from 1994-2014. Formerly, as a journalist, he worked at The Montreal Gazette and for 14 years wrote a column on labour relations for The Toronto Star. He also served for three decades as a communications officer for several labour organizations, including the Canadian Labour Congress and the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

Image: Flickr/OFL Communications Department

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Ed Finn

Ed Finn grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he worked as a printer’s apprentice, reporter, columnist, and editor of that city’s daily newspaper, the Western Star. His career as a journalist...