Public First Program


Shane Elson


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+61-4-1349 7828

June 2007 # 2

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Back to Editorials 2007

The Bridge Keeper's Son (Feb '06)

The first time I heard the following story I was told it was true but since then I’ve heard a number of variations on it … so you make up your own mind. 

In a remote part of Scotland in the 1880s there was a bridge keeper. His sole duty was to make sure the draw bridge over the river was closed twice each day so the train from the city could cross the river safely. The rest of the day the bridge was kept raised so that ships could sail unhindered up and down the river. 

One evening as he sat waiting for the train he noticed something moving in the huge and heavy gears that operated the bridge. He looked closer and noticed it was his son playing among the machinery. Just as this realisation hit him, he heard the train whistle. There was no time for him to run to his son. What was he to do? There was only one decision he could make and with a heavy heart he pushed the levers forward and started to lower the bridge. 

The train passed safely that night, as it did every night. Little did the passengers know as they drank their wine and laughed at the frivolity of life that a man had just sacrificed his son so they could remain safe.  

This story is repeated from preacher’s pulpits all over the world. It is used as an example to tell us how much god loved us that he would allow Jesus to die a horrible death for us. It’s very emotional and very powerful but it is obviously a myth and like most myths what it doesn’t say is as important as what it does. What is missing from this story is an examination of the class relations that led to the appalling work practices at that bridge and that led to the child’s death. 

In the modern world we have developing around us many practices that seek to take us back to the days of steam trains and the bridge keeper’s son. These practices are designed not to enlighten us or to give workers at such sites better wages and conditions nor in fact are they designed to give the metaphorical travellers a better ride. They are designed to do what capitalism does best. Return even greater wealth to already wealthy shareholders. 

The latest incarnation of this is can be found in the form of ABC Learning Centres. I’ve been following the rise and rise of this business for the last few years and what I’ve seen does not impress me. The most recent development stems from action being taken by ABC to try and wriggle out of its requirement to provide not only a safe environment for the kiddies but also for their staff. 

Back in 2003 ABC was fined $200, probably less than the cost of a bottle of wine at one of their Director’s dinners, for letting a child escape. Earlier on this month it was fined $5000 for a similar offence at the same centre in Hoppers Crossing. ABC is trying to defend itself by arguing that it is not required to provide more than a safe environment and good management practices and that it is workers who are really responsible for ensuring that the kiddies don’t escape or get hurt. 

If we bring it back to the case of the bridge keeper it could be argued that his employer was only responsible for providing a workspace for the keeper and grease for the gears. It could be argued by them that if the bridge keeper failed to bring the bridge down on time it was solely his fault and the boss had nothing to do with it. Same argument, different century. Lets now run these two stories through the filter of an economic, class analysis. It wont be in depth but it will, hopefully, make my point.

In the case of the bridge keeper his boss would argue that they were in the business of facilitating access for the forward progression of mechanised transportation devices in such a manner as to not hinder the free movement of buoyant delivery contrivances. They would provide their service on a cost per activity basis. That means the only time they earned money was when the bridge keeper lowered the bridge for the train and raised it for the ships. When the bridge was not going up or down they were, in fact, not making any money. 

In the case of ABC Inc. the question that has to be asked is, how much profit is enough? With a raft of ex politicians on their board and the continued push to privatise government schools, why would ABC want to wriggle out of “world’s best” staff and client safety practices? Quite simply because “world’s best practice” bites into the returns of shareholders. ABC is trying to re-write the rule books so that, should one of the littlies hurt themselves, scale the fence or otherwise vacate the premises, the Directors are not liable in any way, shape or form. In short, if a cash claim is made, they don’t want to pay it. They argue it is the workers who should be found at fault. Furthermore, ABC is arguing that if something should go wrong and a tyke ventures beyond the containment walls, they should not have to answer questions from the licensing authority, the Department of Human Services. 

No doubt there are some very high priced lawyers working to ensuring that the ABC cash cow is not hindered from producing the highest quantity returns. But who is looking out for the workers and the billy lids? No-one it seems. In a capitalist world hell bent on accumulating personal wealth, any system that hinders that accumulation is deemed “bad” even when practices are there to ensure safety and some measure of comfort to workers and their clients.   

In the bridge keeper story the moral is offered that it’s better to sacrifice one for the sake of the many but no reason is offered as to why a man would turn against his own instincts and safety of his son. Why would he do such a thing? Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul argues that in order to function most people take “into” themselves the false consciousness of capitalism. That is, they sacrifice their own self interest for the sake of the “corporation”. At the social level this “dumbs” us down to the point where we choose to not recognise that it is our interests that are being steam rolled by capitalism all the while allowing ourselves to be convinced that it is we who are benefiting even as our pockets are emptied and our souls destroyed. I ask again, who is looking out for the children? 

Certainly not the owners of the draw bridge. Certainly not the high priced lawyers who will fight over the ABC case. Certainly not the bureaucrats and politicians, many of whom now work for the corporations that are at the centres of these types of “reforms”. No one is looking out for the kiddies or the workers because in the capitalist paradigm people are no more valuable than the rocks from which the purest gold is taken. People are reduced to primary commodities to be traded and exchanged and discussed as if they were soulless rocks or dirt. 

The story of the bridge keeper and his son is a powerful myth told by preachers to try and scare people into believing that unless they are prepared to sacrifice their children (or be sacrificed if they are children) they are not tuned into god’s will for them. Baloney! Anyone who believes in a god that would allow such a notion is ripe for the picking by the capitalist class. After all, doesn’t the old song say “I surrender all”?  

What is incumbent upon us is to refuse to give in and resist the insidious growth of corporate ‘disresponsibility’. If the Directors of corporations want to be protected behind the false notion that the corporation is a “legal person”, then they must share in the responsibility of that person in providing safe and reasonable workplaces.  If we allow them to continue to ignore the value of even one child we have lost our souls and as a society should hang our collective heads in shame. 

The question for each of us is, when we hear that train whistle will we run to the aid of the defenceless ones we love or provide the means by which the uncaring, unknowing and unfeeling corporation can run freely over them?

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