The Rebirth of the Company Town

By Rowan Wolf of Uncommon Thought Journal

I grew up thinking that the company town was dead. It went out with worker protections and unions. By “company town” I don’t mean that there was one major company that employs most of the workforce, but that the company owns the housing, owns the stores, may own the utility companies etc. In short, workers’ survival are not just tied to their wage, but that the company controls access to the necessities of life. This is happening across the company, and across the world, for a variety of reasons and with a variety of intents, but happening it is.

In its worst form – the coal mining towns of the United States for example – the cost of housing, school, medical care, hardware, and food, were all issued on credits which were deducted against a worker’s pay. Invariably, it cost more to live than workers were paid, so the workers were continuously in debt to the company. Workers could not leave until the books were balanced, and so they were effectively the property of the company.

Today’s company towns are taking on an array of faces and functions, but whether sparkling with high tech “amenities,” or covered in the dust of construction, they are company towns all the same.

  • High tech and big business has reinvented the company town inside its own walls or large “campuses.”
  • Relatively remote areas where housing and other necessities simply don’t exist.
  • Lack of available housing – such as along the Gulf Coast after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
  • Housing costs exceed the wages of workers (vacation resorts for example)
  • Company town as big business itself.

There are those situations where employers must provide housing and other accommodations for their workers. In those cases, the work sites are so remote that other options are not available. Generally, one expects these accommodations to be temporary. Workers go to the work site. They work for some pre-specified period, then they rotate “home” until their next shift.

The situation of some workers in the Gulf is different from the above scenario in important ways. Workers are needed, but the funds for rebuilding the infrastructure of the Gulf have variously gone astray. Those who can afford to move back have far more economic resources than the general workforce has. Even at $18 an hour, workers cannot find affordable housing (Newshour). So it is little surprise that an Mexican immigrant workforce earning $8 an hour are either housed in sheds behind company fences, or left sleeping on the streets (New Standard, and Pacific News Service). Now workers are being brought from even further away – India – to join the the Mexicans inside the fence – accommodations which they pay for (Newshour).

The Company Town of the future?
Then you have the companies like Tata Steel who see company towns as a business opportunity. According to Tata’s sources, their town of Jamshedpur is the best town in India. They look forward to building at least one more in India, and then “a few of them around the world.” Tata, is now focusing on providing utility companies, health care services, and the like. Each of these services will become their own subsidiaries so that Tata Steel can sustain its focus.

Tata Steel takes care of the road maintenance, electricity supply, streetlights, healthcare, sanitation, and vector control, making any municipality redundant. Delineating the company’s responsibility, Chief of town services Kanwal Midha points out, “More than 15,500 acres of land are with us. The plot on which the works are located belongs to us permanently. The rest includes area used by us directly or indirectly for production purposes, company housing, land leased to other organisations or individuals, and civic amenities like schools, hospitals, parks, roads and sub stations.”

Another model is that of Nike, Microsoft, Intel (and others) with large campuses that can extend the work day (and week) of employees by allowing them to essentially live at work. This model, does not accommodate family well, and it sets an expectation on workers to spend much of their time working.

At the dusty end of the spectrum are the fenced sheds with few amenities that companies like Northrup Grummond and Halliburton are providing for their immigrant labor force in the Gulf.

What does this trend reflect about our society and our world? The situation in the Gulf is not tremendously different than that faced in Colorado, and at base is an issue of affordable housing. The housing market in both these areas is beyond the reach of the workforce. This trend reflects all too clearly the growing gap between those at the top and the rest of the society. “They” need “us.” The bifurcation of society spreads, but there is a different concern that the company town raises.

The Tata model runs head on into the issue of the ultimate privatization of civic life. We are being told on both a national and global level that the corporate model is the best model. We are told it is the most “efficient” model. We are told that the “market” will meet all needs and challenges. However, there are significant issues with that world view. The “model” is not working well in Aspen, or in the Gulf. Efficiency is not the first goal of the corporate world view – profit is. That is the big rub. If civic needs are profitable, they become increasingly beyond the reach of the average (much less the poor) citizen.

Likewise, a profitable model is not necessarily the best. Biotechnology and cloning will ultimately be profitable as it will place the corporation clearly between the population and our next meal. However, it will not necessarily make for better food supply. In fact, cloning fixes traits permanently and does not allow ongoing selection of the best traits for reproduction.

In the old company town, the company frequently allowed people to purchase homes; however, those homes did not include the land they were on. The land was leased from the company and it could end that lease at any point for any reason. Across the country many in mobile and modular home communities are finding the fault of this model, as owners (frequently corporations) sell or choose to develop the land those homes are on for more profitable purposes.

A book titled “Jennifer Government” by Max Berry points towards a merger of the company town and the big business model. In the book, the world has devolved into a shrinking array of corporate and government entities with employees branded to their employer. The unaffiliated struggle to survive. One vision, but likely not one that most of us would like to see become reality.

Life was not meant for a corporate model and we rebelled against it once.The Commission on Industrial Relations appointed by Taft ultimately concluded that the company town was feudalism at its worst. We may have to repeat that history again before people see the new feudalism that seems to be increasingly encroaching on our lives.

Sources “Company Town.”

Wikipedia. “Commission on Industrial Relations.”

Lawrence Boyd. “The Company Town.”

Tata. “An Idea Called Jamshedpur.”

Newshour. PBS. 2/07/2007. “Worker Shortages Post-Katrina Send Businesses out of Mississippi”

Terrie Albano. The Peoples Weekly. “Battered by Katrina, Gulf Coast workers stand up”

Roberto Lovato. 11/17/2005. Pacific News Service. “Gulf Coast Slaves: Halliburton Exploits Katrina Latino Workers”

Kari Lydersen. 11/03/2005. The New Standard. “Immigrants Rebuilding Gulf Coast Suffer ‘Third World’ Conditions.”

Jim Robbins. 2/17/2007. NY Times. “Boom in the Mountains Creates a Housing Shortage”

Janet Urquhart. 9/11/2006. The Aspen Times. “Skico looks downvalley for employee housing.”

Anne Hull. 1/22/2006. Washington Post. “A Company Town on The Mississippi”

Sequoia, Inc.

Furnace Creek.

Published in: on 02/20/2007 at 10:58 am  Leave a Comment  

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