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Philanthropy … at what cost?

Guess who built this library?
"Nine-year-old Bobby was a new boy in the breaker. As first, the work did not seem hard to him. But as hours passed, his back began to ache from sitting in one position. His eyes hurt from straining and from the dust that was everywhere. His fingers were bruised and cut and sometimes almost mashed by the rough, sharp-edged coal. No one could wear mittens or gloves since they made fast work impossible.

As days passed, Bobby became an experienced breaker boy. He seldom let a piece of slate escape him. To do his job well, however, he had to crouch over the chute to see the fast-moving coal. Boys who had worked in the breaker for a long time did not seem able to walk right. Hunched over the coal chute day after day, with no chance for exercise, the young breaker boys found themselves growing with crooked backbones."

This passage came from a book I was reading about child labor, called, "No Time for School, No Time for Play: The Story of Child Labor in America" by Rhoda Cahn. It describes the working conditions of a young boy in the coal mines of Pennsylvania in the late 1800s. As a breaker, Bobby had to pick out pieces of slate as they quickly passed him on chutes to the railroad cars below. Think about it - bruised fingers, hunched backs, crooked backbones! Sounds horrific, doesn't it?

But wait -- I'm supposed to be writing a dispatch on the philanthropy practiced by the Carnegies and Rockefellers of the last century. (Philanthropy, by the way, means the act of giving money to charities for the benefit of the people.) What does that have to do with Bobby in the coal mines?

Well, here's the way I see it: Carnegie made his fortune through steel (which is made using coal). Because he made a lot of money, he gave a lot of it to charity. But the way he made a lot of money was by paying his workers very little and by using child labor whenever possible. Bobby, then, symbolizes the kind of working conditions that made Carnegie a multi-millionaire.


Did you know…? / Forty percent of our body heat is lost through our heads!

Of course, when the names Carnegie and Rockefeller are mentioned, most people don't think of children like Bobby. They think of the foundations that bear their names, of the universities they endowed, and of the scholarships they awarded. Rockefeller, for instance, gave away $550 million during his lifetime. He founded Rockefeller University, and financed the University of Chicago and Spelman College. His foundation gave a lot of money to medical research and is credited with finding a treatment for meningitis, a vaccine for yellow fever, and a cure for 500,000 cases of hookworm in the South.

Carnegie, for his part, gave away $350 million while alive. Since then, his charitable donations have totaled more than $2 billion to several organizations, including the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Carnegie Institute of Washington, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and the Carnegie Hero Funds. Through his corporation, 2,509 libraries were built throughout the English-speaking world, and 7,689 church organs were purchased.

The philanthropy practiced by these two men has been, without a doubt, overwhelmingly positive. I could go on and on about the wonderful things their money bought: books, vaccines, scholarships, research, libraries. But at what cost? How should we feel knowing that the way they made their money was by exploiting workers? By forcing men, women, and children to toil in unsafe mills and factories? By keeping them barely above the level of absolute poverty? Was it worth it? Can their philanthropic activities buy them absolution from their crimes against their workers?

Trekkers love Carnegie's free libraries and Internet access - should we?
These are tough questions to answer and I don't claim to be able to. In fact, I am having a hard time figuring them out myself. On the one hand, I applaud the fact that these men gave away most of their fortunes by the time of their deaths. Carnegie especially was very committed to the notion of philanthropy. He once stated publicly that the wealthy had a moral obligation to give away their fortunes. In his book, "Gospel of Wealth," written in 1889, he said that all personal wealth beyond that required to supply the needs for one's family should be regarded as a trust fund to be administered for the benefit of the community.

On the other hand, I can't help but remember the Homestead Strikes and Carnegie's refusal to fire or condemn the ruthless Henry Frick. How could he have allowed that to go on? For that matter, how could he have allowed his workers to labor at his mills for 12-hour shifts, seven days a week? How could he, the man who claimed that education was life's key, allow boys as young as 10 and 12 -- boys who should have been in school getting an education -- to work in his mills? It's almost as though Carnegie had a split personality! One was the kind philanthropist who built libraries, while the other was the ruthless businessman who tried to make as much money as possible (some of which he'd later give to his "kind" half for charity). I don't get it!!

Daphne stares at Carnegie's portrait and wonders about his split personality
Now, another question: does any of this matter? Surely the kind of inhumane working conditions that I've described don't exist anymore in the United States. Over the years, workers (through unions) demanded -- and got -- their rights. They no longer have to work 12-hour days. They don't have to work on the weekends. And nine-year-olds are definitely not being forced into backbreaking work. Times have changed, right?

Not quite. As American workers became more highly paid and more educated, American companies moved to foreign countries where they could continue to pay meager wages, hire children, and work them for longer hours without overtime. And -- here's the dilemma -- continue philanthropic work.

Thanks to unions, these men can take a lunch break during the day
Take Nike, for example. Like Carnegie's Steel Company, the shoe giant pays its workers (who are in China, Vietnam, and Indonesia) poverty wages. Like Carnegie, it does not let them organize independent unions. And like Carnegie, it subjects them to health and safety hazards.

Nike: friend or foe?
But here's the flip side. Like Carnegie, Nike gives away millions to charities and community partners. In 1998, it contributed more than $34 million to organizations such as Boys and Girls Club of America, INROADS, National Head Start Association, and the YWCA of the USA. Its programs are very important and have definitely helped thousands of kids, both in the U.S. and abroad.

A mural portrays a greedy capitalist…but they don't all have to be like this guy!
What gets my goat is that many companies continue to make money (including the money they give to charity) by exploiting workers. Nike isn't the only one, of course, but it's certainly one of the best known on the list (Gap is on the list, too, by the way). It's as though the business ethic of the Carnegies and Rockefellers got passed down to these companies. Except that now, instead of exploiting American workers, they exploit the Vietnamese, the Chinese and others. Is that fair?

Nike would do better to follow the example of someone else. There are companies out there who give lots of money to charity AND treat their workers well. Ben & Jerry's, the ice-cream maker from Vermont, is one of them. Ben & Jerry's certainly doesn't rake in the big bucks like Nike. Maybe it could have bigger profits if it hired, say, Cambodians instead of Americans. Or it could save costs if it cut benefits such as health care. Thankfully, though, it doesn't think like that, which, for us, means there's hope for the rest of corporate America.

I hope that in the next hundred years, people studying the business practices of Carnegie and his fellow "robber barons" think, "Hmm…here's a man who preached one thing and practiced the other. Good thing our companies don't do that anymore!" Philanthropy was important to him. His workers should have been too.


Please email me at: daphne@ustrek.org


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