Author Michael Hiltzik reminds us of how bad things got for workers under railroad oligarch George Pullman in the late 1800s in the years leading up to the strike. One witness account describes grown men weeping at the company pay window “because they only got 3 or 4 cents after paying their rent . . . ” to company-owned rental houses.
The railroads had little fear of the June 1894 strike because they had a man on the inside leveraging the might of the federal government. Hiltzik writes, “the outstanding man in the cabinet was Attorney General Richard Olney, who had spent a decade as a director and counsel of the Boston & Maine [railroad line] and almost as long with the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy. The latter kept Olney on its payroll for $10,000 a year even after he assumed his duties as attorney general, which paid only $8,000.” Olney served his better-paying master well by trumping up a federal predicate for crushing the strikes.
The railroads captured most of the major media outlets and wielded, “all sorts of influences, social, moral and political” making railroads, “the most tremendous and far-reaching engine of social change which has ever blessed or cursed mankind.”
At its zenith, the railroad industry could call upon sitting judges like servants to issue injunctions against unions and uncooperative suppliers. When a railroad executive traveled west to visit states, state legislatures would receive them as royalty and bow and scrape to please the powerful oligarchs. It’s almost impossible to exaggerate the power and influence of the railroad oligarchs of the late 1800s.
As bad as it was then, it’s worse now. Today’s tech oligarchs command far more power and wealth than even the robber barons of the late 1800s.
Oligarchs come to mind as news breaks of Amazon workers voting down the proposal to form a collective bargaining unit at an Amazon fulfillment center located in Alabama. The Washington Post, a newspaper wholly owned by Amazon tech oligarch Jeff Bezos, congratulated its overlord hailing the vote as, “a major victory for the e-commerce giant in a high-profile, high-stakes battle that will have ripple effects across the nation for workers and the labor movement.” It’s not very different from a headline the Chicago Tribune might have written congratulating George Pullman after breaking one of the many labor strikes against his companies.
How did America escape from the clutches of the railroad oligarchs, and can we learn any lessons to slip the grasp of our new overlords? In the late 1800s, railroads used trusts, joint ownership agreements, and numerous other devices to coordinate and maintain their power over the exploited American worker and consumer. Then, like now, there were two tiers of justice and the railroad industry made sure they positioned their people to safeguard the privilege of their upper tier.
Today’s predicament seems insurmountable. Even in the face of historical precedent felling the malevolent tycoons of the 1800s, the tech oligarchs seem much bigger quarry. While the railroad barons influenced the media, the tech companies own or dominate practically everything. And, through the example of the censorship of the Hunter Biden laptop story to influence the election, we can see how they brazenly coordinate and collude.
Laws that allowed antitrust interventions by Theodore Roosevelt’s and William Howard Taft’s attorneys general would be available today to a motivated Department of Justice that actually adhered to its mission. But the same woke cult that the tech companies use to divide and subdue opposition has infected the Department of Justice. American discourse has become totally dominated by screaming matches over pronouns and problematic tweets while the consequential issues of the day fester and worsen.
Universities, unions, governments, media, entertainment, and the arts have all fallen under the fevered spell of a phony woke crusade. The consensus of racial equality has been swept away in favor of a never-ending intersectional farce that is part witch trial and part Maoist purge.
In the old days, the uber rich of Bezos’ caliber would have recoiled in anger against the leftist calls for labor rights and higher taxes on the rich. Now such movements are just playthings in his hands to be manipulated and toyed with. The rich now run the Left that once threatened them. The Left, the government, and the uber rich have merged into a single indomitable force which nothing on earth appears capable of challenging.
But coalitions of powerful forces are inherently unstable, particularly in the absence of a Trumpian unifier of their ire. The unions, for example, were supposed to be in that coalition. How long will they tolerate an alliance that so openly abuses them? Between the dilution of their power from the flood of immigrants and tech’s union busting, a big labor defection is inevitable.
The oligarchs know it can’t last which is why the coalition resorts to pursuing increasingly desperate power-preservation methods: rounding up privately owned guns, raising a wall around the Capitol manned by an army, imprisoning political protesters without bail, and making permanent an unaccountable and opaque voting scheme.
The grasp of COVID-19 tyranny is beginning to loosen as Americans long for a return to freedom. It took two decades for a slumbering America to shake loose from the railroad villains. We can do it again.