Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sixteen Tons

In 1955 Tennessee Ernie Ford’s recording of the song Sixteen Tons hit the top of the charts. Even two generations later this song continues to be included in popular media, so even my children are somewhat familiar with it. I always knew the song was about coal mining, but for years I didn’t understand what was meant by the phrase, “I owe my soul to the company store.”

It turns out that the company store was part of an oppressive system of bondage. Men with fewer prospects (such as new immigrants and people living in chronically poor regions) were enticed into going to work for a large employer who would offer them food and shelter. This system spread through many industries during the industrial age.

Bill Bennett explains in his books America the Last Best Hope Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 that many of the wealthy men at the head of these companies earnestly thought they were part of God’s plan to help the less fortunate. Some even felt they had a divine right to control the lives of others, although, they seemingly were oblivious to the parallels with the European aristocracy that they so disdained. Is it any wonder that this “businessman’s gospel” had a dark side?

Rent was automatically deducted from the workers’ salary. The homes provided for them and their families were often little more than shanties. Men were usually paid in scrip that was only redeemable at the company store. Of course, the store offered only those products permitted by the bosses at prices set by the bosses. This hardscrabble life left workers with no surplus and often perpetually in debt to the company store.

Workers felt trapped. If they were caught looking for other employment, they were fired and they immediately lost their homes and nearly all of their belongings (which were considered company property). With a captive work force that seemed to self perpetuate as workers’ sons came of age, companies had little incentive to ensure worker safety and could compete (for a while) with other firms that implemented newer labor saving technologies. Sufficiently subservient workers were guaranteed a job, food, and a place to live. But at what cost?

It was in these circumstances that the organized labor movement began to develop in order to demand rights for workers. But employers weren’t about to give up their supposedly cheap labor easily. Some labor strikes turned into literal battle zones and some strikes seriously impacted the economy. It was an evolutionary process that took some time. I’ve long appreciated the sidelight view offered of one point along this road that is depicted in the movie October Sky. Within my lifetime the ‘truck system’ and its company store have largely become relics of history.

Strangely, even as the company store was going by the wayside in the U.S., our nation chose to implement a similar feature that finds itself at the center of one of today’s most hotly debated issues. It happened by fluke as the result of government meddling in the economy. It has had a dramatic impact on our nation that I believe is more negative than positive. And yet many workers and politicians are determined to keep this shackle firmly in place until you pry it off of their cold dead bodies.

Next time: Today’s Company Store

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