The Story of Carl - On Workers Memorial Day

Carl loved books and loved history and, after spending two years in the army as part of the American occupation forces in Japan immediately after World War II, was hoping to graduate from college and teach history, perhaps even at the university level if he could hang on to the GI Bill and his day job in a camera store long enough to get his Ph.D. It was 1950, and he'd been married just a few months, when the surprise came that forced him to drop out of college: his wife was pregnant with their first child.

This was an era when husbands worked, wives tended the home, and being a good father and provider was one of the highest callings to which a man could aspire. Carl dropped out of school, kept his day job from 9 to 5 at the camera shop, and got a second job at a metal fabricating plant, working with molten hot metal from 7 pm to 4 am. For much of his wife's pregnancy and his newborn son's first year, he slept 3 hours a night and caught up on weekends, but in the process earned enough to get them an apartment and to be prepared for the costs of starting a family. Over the next 45 years, he continued to work in the steel and machine industry, in the later years as a bookkeeper/manager for a Michigan tool-and-die company, as three more sons were born.

Carl knew he was doing the right thing when he took that job in the factory, and did it enthusiastically. He considered himself fortunate to be able to find not just one but two good jobs in an era when the economy was still recovering from the Great Depression and the job market was flooded with returned GIs.

Working with molten metal could be dangerous, but the dangers were apparent, and Carl took every precaution to protect himself so he could return home safe to his family. What he didn't realize, however, was that the asbestos used at the casting operation was an insidious poison. He didn't realize that the asbestos industry had known for decades that the stuff could kill, but would continue to profitably market it for another twenty years, while actively using their financial muscle to keep the general public in the dark and prevent governments from stopping them.

Last month, Carl injured himself tripping on the stairs and ended up in the hospital with a compression fracture of his spine: what he thought was causing the terrible pain he'd been experiencing in his abdomen. The doctors, however, discovered that his lungs were filled with a rare form of lung cancer - mesothelioma - that is almost always caused by exposure to asbestos. Last week his doctor told him he had six months to live, and he lives daily with excruciating pain. All because he wanted to do right by his family.

I'm writing this note from Stadtsteinach, Germany, where today I walked along the "Prophet's Way" path with my old friend and mentor, Gottfried Mueller, who's still going strong in his 90s. We went to a sacred place in the forest to say a prayer for Carl and his wife, Jean, who is understandably terrified by the prospect of losing her husband so suddenly to such a hideous disease, and aches at his pain.

On the way back from our walk, Herr Mueller asked me, "How is it that companies could sell asbestos when they knew it would kill people? Why do they poison our food with pesticides when we know that organic agriculture produces better yields and healthier soil?" He swept his arm in an arc encompassing the Bavarian forest around us, many of the trees browning from acid rain. "And why is our air so toxic that it's killing the forests?"

It was, of course, a rhetorical question. We both knew that the answer was that democracy - the idea of government of, by, and for the people - has been twisted and perverted and essentially taken over by entities driven by a single value: profit. And it's happening all over the world.

Which is not to say that profit is a bad thing. Carl, for example, was happy that the company he worked for made enough profit that its owners would keep it in business and pay him a salary. Profit can drive healthy economies, and has its rightful place in the halls of business.

But profit has no place in the halls of governments, which were created by and for living humans. When corporations took over writing the rules that "we, the people" originally put in place to regulate and control profit-driven enterprises, then a sickness known as corporatism seized control of governments, and their people were the first ones to suffer for it. Virtually all legislation in nations that still call themselves democracies now passes through the filters of corporate lobbyists and corporate-funded think-tanks: democracy itself is at risk.

The main engine of corporatism - the chink in governmental law that makes it possible for corporations to so corrupt governmental processes - is an obscure legal doctrine first embraced in 1886 by the Reporter of the U.S. Supreme Court called "corporate personhood." This doctrine suggests that non-living, non-breathing entities called corporations should have the same rights the Founders of democracy defined (in the US in the "Bill of Rights") first for white men, and were extended after the U.S. Civil War to freed slaves, and to women and more fully to people of color in the 1960s via several different anti-discrimination laws.

It turns out that this doctrine of corporations as "persons" was a mistake from the beginning: while the reporter wrote that the Court had agreed with corporate personhood, the court itself, and its chief justice, had specifically and repeatedly ruled against it. (You'll find a photograph of the actual handwritten letter from Morrison R. Waite, the U.S. Supreme Court's Chief Justice, on my website: he said: "we avoided meeting the constitutional question [of corporate personhood] in the decision.")

But because of the words of the reporter, and the promotion of those words by corporations in the decades following 1886, corporations have seized so many "human rights" that they can now prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from performing inspections of their factories by claiming 4th Amendment "privacy rights." They claim they can give unlimited money to politicians - a process that before 1886 was called bribery and was criminal behavior for corporations in virtually all states - by claiming that they are entitled to 1st Amendment free speech rights. They claim that if the majority of the citizens of a local community do not want them to do business in that community, then they are the victims of "discrimination" and can sue that community and its elected officials.

Even though corporations are not alive and cannot vote, they claim the right to influence elections. Even though they do not need fresh water to drink or clean air to breathe, they claim the right to influence the government agencies that were created to regulate them. Even though they have no color or creed or religion, they claim that human people who speak against them are violating their civil rights. Even though they can live for hundreds of years and are not harmed by asbestos, arsenic, tobacco, or other toxins, they claim the human right of privacy to not disclose to governments or to workers and consumers the dangers they know about their own products.

So we now face a crisis that is at once environmental, political, and spiritual/moral. According to the AFL-CIO in a report released for April 28ths Workers Memorial Day, "On an average day in 2004, 152 workers lost their lives as a result of workplace injuries and diseases and another 11,780 were injured." The rate of death and disability among workers has been climbing since Bush became president for the first time in decades, in large part because funding for OSHA and mine safety have been cut. At the same time, Bill Frist and Senate and House Republicans want to wipe out asbestos victim's right to sue for damages (they promote it as "helping asbestos victims"), to protect companies like Halliburton that have huge asbestos liabilities.

How can we best return to our governments the essential values of protecting the "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness" of their people, and separate from our governments contamination by the profit motive, which rightly should remain in the realm of business and not politics? How do we awaken our voters from the spiritual malaise of consumerism run amok? And what are the most appropriate and practical and positive steps we can take now to remedy the damage already done to our air, food, water, and other commons by the recent insinuation of corporatism into our legislatures and high political offices?

The first part of the answer is for us to awaken to the very real moral and spiritual dilemma we face. This a moral and spiritual dilemma because it transcends politics: it literally means life or death for our citizens and our planet.

Next, we must show up at the ballot box and send clear messages to our elected officials to correct this illness in our body politic. And, then (or perhaps concurrently), we must convince our governments to use their powers of persuasion (through policies like tax breaks and other incentives) to promote renewable and non-toxic forms of energy, agriculture, and medicine, and re-empower our regulatory agencies which have been so badly infiltrated and taken over by the very corporations they were put in place to constrain.

If we do this, and do it soon, our children may still inherit a world that can is just and decent and healthy.

And if you'd like to say a prayer for Carl, I know him well enough to believe that he'd appreciate it. I was his first child.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.