A Side of Rat Feces? (A History Lesson)
Government as a Guardian “… of the people, by the people, [and] for the people”
Guest post by Kelly A. Mandia, Lecturer of History, St. Joseph’s College, NY.
The reason there are little to no rat feces and vermin parts in the food you are putting into your mouth every day is due to government oversight. Do you think the food packing industry is looking out for you? Those who bemoan government regulation as the antithesis to capitalism (e.g. carbon emission reductions) have failed to understand the history and full scope of this issue. Historically there’s been a failure on the part of business to provide their goods and services for the good of the people and for its employees, while in the late 19th century, justifying their unethical practices with such “social theories” as the Iron Law of Wages and Social Darwinism. There are many instances, a few which I will outline, where government has stepped in to serve as a “guardian of the people” in order to stop businesses from hurting – and in some cases killing – members of its citizenry.
We are all familiar with Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, an exposé of the unsafe, unsanitary, filthy conditions as well as the illegal practices and corruption within the meatpacking plants of Chicago. Sinclair thus was elevated to the rank of “muckraker”; an investigative reporter who enlightens the public about the ills of the second industrial revolution (i.e. political corruption, trusts, unsafe living and working conditions, public safety issues, child labor, environmental concerns, et. al.). The Jungle came upon the heels of the little-known “United States Army Beef Scandal” during the Spanish-American war:
“.. most of the meat arriving in Cuba was found to be so poorly preserved, chemically adulterated and/or spoiled that it was toxic and dangerous to consume. The meat caused an unrecorded number of illnesses and death from dysentery and food poisoning, having an especially deadly effect on the thousands already weakened by the epidemics of malaria and yellow fever which were ravaging the unprotected American troops and would eventually kill twice as many men as the bullets of the Spanish.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Army_beef_scandal)
The Lobby vs. Pure Food and Drug Act
A well-funded lobbying association composed of the meat trusts and drug companies quickly organized. Sound familiar? (The drug companies were gaining addicted consumption communities since they laced their patent medicines with substantial doses of alcohol, cocaine, heroin, cannabis, and morphine while making false, unsubstantiated claims that these concoctions healed all kinds of ills. Poisons in some medicines were actually killing consumers). These lobbyists pressured Congress to abandon legislation, crying it was unconstitutional and the antithesis to laissez-faire capitalism. These lobbyists garnered the support of several southern congressmen. Nevertheless, due to public pressure, the work of social activists, scientific support by the chief chemist to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, and pressure by President Theodore Roosevelt, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act on June 30, 1906. This was the first of numerous pieces of legislation to protect consumers from unscrupulous businesses who viewed the “bottom line” as paramount to the safety of their products.
Provisions of the Pure Food and Drug Act include the following:
- Creation of the Food and Drug Administration, which was entrusted with the responsibility of testing all foods and drugs destined for human consumption;
- The requirement for prescriptions from licensed physicians before a patient could purchase certain drugs;
- The requirement of label warnings on habit-forming drugs. (http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h917.html)
Present Day Foodborne Illnesses
Currently, illness from contaminated food, ranging from minor stomachaches and queasiness to life-threatening E. coli infections, are a serious public-health threat in the U.S., resulting in 5,000 deaths and 325,000 hospitalizations each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1969259,00.html#ixzz0hAgMGxWZ). A new study by a former U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) economist estimates the total economic impact of foodborne illness across the nation to be a combined $152 billion annually (http://www.physorg.com/news186816532.html). This substantial risk to public health has further validated the Senate’s pending food safety legislation, in addition to legislation that has increased the scope of the FDA’s regulation in the past year. “This report makes it clear that the gaps in our food-safety system are causing significant health and economic impacts,” says Erik Olson, director of food and consumer product safety with the Pew Health Group (http://www.physorg.com/news186816532.html).
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire
Five years after the publication of Sinclair’s The Jungle, a New York City garment company, The Triangle Shirtwaist Company, witnessed one of the worst industrial tragedies in its “sweatshop”. This tragedy contributed to states and the federal government enacting safety laws and providing guidelines for employers to protect their workers. “In 1911 workplace deaths were common and increasing as the United States industrialized. For example, 13,228 miners were killed in U.S. coal mines between 1906-1911” (http://www.asse.org/about/history.php).
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company employed around 500 workers; most of them were expendable unskilled immigrant women who could be paid a fraction of what employers would pay white, native males at the turn of the 20th century. In order to protect their “bottom line”, the company would lock its doors during the workday in order to prevent decreased productivity; i.e. workers taking self-imposed breaks or the possibility of worker theft. With no working fire escape, a mere 46 buckets of water, locked doors, and doors that only opened inward, a deadly fire claimed the lives of 146 of the 500 workers (6 unidentified as the bodies were burned beyond recognition). Loss of life was attributed to smoke inhalation, burns, and to the fatal injuries incurred from jumping out of 9th story windows and down elevator shafts in an attempt to escape.
The fire symbolized the helplessness of industrial workers in the face of dangers over which they had little control and to which the law had hitherto, for the most part, simply abandoned them. It made clear in a new and powerful way that industrial accidents had causes whose roots lay in employers’ near-total power over the workplace environment; causes which government had the capacity and the responsibility to address (McEvoy, 1995). Because businesses did not take it upon themselves to protect the health and safety of the very workers responsible for their profits, pressure by unions, politicians, and worker advocates instigated government involvement.
Department of Labor
In 1913, the Department of Labor (DOL) became a cabinet-level department in the federal government. The DOL administers a variety of federal labor laws including those that guarantee workers’ rights to safe and healthful working conditions. “Frances Perkins, later to become Secretary of Labor under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, watched the Asch Building burn, an event that influenced her decision to become a lifelong advocate for workers. Perkins assisted in the factory investigation from her position as executive secretary of the New York Committee on Safety.” (http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/narrative6.html)
A division of the DOL, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), is the first comprehensive federally legislated organization in the United States to inspect, cite, and penalize employers for infringements of the right of workers to labor under safe and healthy conditions (Donnelly, 1982).
With their main goal of maximizing profits, it is not surprising that 19th century factory owners sought to decrease the incidences of unionization and labor strikes; to offer the lowest pay possible; and to create a more “manageable” and subservient work force. To meet these ends, factory owners hired children and paid them a fraction of what adults would be salaried. Even orphans were employed as slave labor. By the early decades of the twentieth century, the numbers of child laborers in the U.S. peaked (http://www.continuetolearn.uiowa.edu/laborctr/child_labor/about/us_history.html). Working class families needed their children to help support their families and thus education was considered a luxury. Nevertheless, although only a handful of states passed legislation to limit the workday, set the minimum age of child laborers, and to require even a few hours of compulsory education, children were exploited and forced to endure unsafe and oppressive working conditions.
The National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), established in 1904, worked at the state and national levels to eradicate child labor. The Committee believed that with enough evidence, rational Americans would make rational decisions, and they did not believe that allowing children to be worked to illness, and often times death, was rational. The public was exposed to the plight of child labor through the efforts of various labor organizations as well as the muckrakers who used the media to call attention to the abuses of big business upon the nation’s youth. In 1906, the NCLC hired Lewis Hine, a teacher, photographer, and social activist, to help them in their struggle to implement laws prohibiting child labor. The idea was to use Hines’ photography as a tool for social reform. Hines took more than 5,000 photographs while documenting multiple abuses of many children throughout the United States.
It was at least partially due to his work with the NCLC that laws protecting children were enacted. He photographed children in fisheries, factories, and farms that included short descriptions of the subjects about their difficult working conditions to ensure that there was no ambiguity about the horrors of child labor (Smith-Shank, 2003).
The United States Children’s Bureau has been absorbed into the United States Department of Health and Human Services. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 prohibits the employment of minors in “excessive child labor.” The FLSA’s child labor provisions are designed to protect the educational opportunities of minors and prohibit their employment in jobs and under conditions detrimental to their health or well-being (http://www.stopchildlabor.org/USchildlabor/fact1.htm).
Toyota Brake Scandal
Presently, federal safety officials have now raised the number of deaths due to sudden acceleration in Toyotas to 52 (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/03/02/business/main6258603.shtml). It is suggested that Toyota knew of the issues with their sticky brakes but did nothing; requiring Toyota executives to testify before a Senate hearing committee. This is not a new issue; there have been complaints about this issue within the past decade. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Tuesday his agency may recommend that every new vehicle sold in the U.S. be equipped with brakes that can override the gas pedal. “We will not rest until these cars are safe,” LaHood told the Senate Commerce Committee. (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/03/02/business/main6257664.shtml). It is likely that the Big Three automakers were aware of this safety issue from their top competitor for quite some time and yet nothing was done to ensure it could not happen to their own cars. Furthermore, now that the safety issue has been publicly outed and a fix has been found, why are the Big Three automakers not immediately making this a standard feature and promoting such in mass media?
There are numerous other examples of where business’ bottom line drove the decision- making even when those decisions were harming the public. Businesses today are repeating history by continuing to release massive amounts of greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere even though there is overwhelming evidence of the harmful effects of increased GHGs. It is foolish to think that these businesses will see the error of their ways and make the corrective changes. Once again, government will have to step in to protect us before it is too late. The solutions include: Carbon Fee & Dividend, Emission Trading (a.k.a. Cap and Trade), or Carbon Tax.
Business leaders, lobbyists, and politicians are reluctant to accept any of these choices and would prefer a business as usual approach with regard to GHG emissions claiming that any other course of action will hurt their bottom line and “wreck the US economy”. These claims are without merit and the costs of doing nothing certainly outweigh the costs of doing something.
Please see: The Copenhagen That Matters by Thomas L. Friedman in the NY Times
Although it still generates the majority of its electricity from coal, since 1990, Denmark has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 14 percent. Over the same time frame, Danish energy consumption has stayed constant and Denmark’s gross domestic product has grown by more than 40 percent. Denmark is the most energy efficient country in the E.U.; due to carbon pricing, through energy taxes, carbon taxes, the ‘cap and trade’ system, strict building codes and energy labeling programs. Renewable resources currently supply almost 30 percent of Denmark’s electricity. Wind power is the largest source of renewable electricity, followed by biomass. … Today, Copenhagen puts only 3 percent of its waste into landfills and incinerates 39 percent to generate electricity for thousands of households.
Surely if Denmark can do the right thing and still be profitable, so can the United States, Canada, and others!
Cap and trade has also worked in the US with regard to sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions. SO2 emissions lead to acid rain and during the 1980s, acid rain was devastating lakes and forests in the east.
In 1988, Congress passed a cap and trade scheme to reduce these emissions by 50%. By 2004, regulated polluters reduced their emissions by 40% more than required! The Dept. of Energy estimates that the cost to limit emissions ended up being a mere 0.6 percent of the polluters operating expenses.
Your comments are greatly appreciated.
Donnelly, Patrick G. “The Origins of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.” Social Problems, Vol. 30, No. 1, Thematic Issue on Health and Illness (University of California Press: Oct., 1982), pp. 13-25. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/800181> Accessed: 28/02/2010.
McEvoy, Arthur. “The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911: Social Change, Industrial Accidents, and the Evolution of Common-Sense Causality.” Law & Social Inquiry, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Blackwell Publishing: Spring, 1995), pp. 621-651. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/828955> Accessed: 28/02/2010.
Smith-Shank, Deborah L. “Lewis Hine and His Photo Stories: Visual Culture and Social Reform.” Art Education, Vol. 56, No. 2, Why Not Visual Culture? (National Art Education Association: Mar., 2003), pp. 33-37. < http://www.jstor.org/stable/3194019> Accessed: 28/02/2010.
The History Place: Child Labor in America (1908-1912)
Photographs by Lewis W. Hine
The Triangle Factor Fire