Corporate Benevolence and Corporate Despotism

When we worry about the influence of big business on our existence these days, we generally think about a variety of companies: our employer, the financial institutions that handle our money, the drug companies that treat our ailments, the agribusiness firms that feed us, the telecoms that allow us to communicate, etc.

Yet there have been many situations in American history in which everyday life was dominated by a single corporation. This occurred when people found themselves residing in what were known as company towns.

The Company Town, an engaging new book by Hardy Green, is apparently the first general history of the efforts by a variety of capitalists in the United States to create communities in which they could control both the working life and the private life of their employees and their families. Green follows the evolution of this special form of urban planning from the textile towns of New England in the early 19th Century to the communities hastily erected by military contractors at the onset of World War II. He also finds modern analogues in amenity-laden corporate campuses such as the Googleplex in California.

Along the way he looks at communities across the country involved in industries such as mining, steel, petroleum, railcars, shipbuilding, meatpacking and logging. The corporate sponsors of these towns included the likes of U.S. Steel, Cannon Mills, Phelps Dodge, Hormel, Maytag, Kaiser Industries and even the federal government (in connection with Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the site of the Manhattan Project).

Green is careful to distinguish between company towns such as Hershey, Pennsylvania that were experiments in corporate paternalism and the harsh communities set up by coal companies to house their miners. The first type represented a form of industrial utopianism, while Green dubs the latter model “exploitationville,” reflecting not only workplace conditions but also substandard housing and overpriced company stores.

Green does a great job in weaving together the biographies of the entrepreneurs responsible for creating many of the company towns with the histories of their firms and industries, putting it all in the context of the tumultuous labor relations of the past two centuries. (Full disclosure: Green is a friend of mine.)

While some of the company towns were created to put manufacturing operations close to the sources of raw materials (e.g. meatpacking plants sited near livestock producers), many were set up to isolate workers from the influences of union organizers and radical agitators. Yet, as Green shows in numerous cases, those influences managed to infiltrate both the paternalistic and the unabashedly exploitative company towns.

He recounts a series of labor disputes beginning with the work stoppages at the Lowell mills and continuing through to the Pullman railcar workers strike in 1894, the Phelps Dodge miners organizing drive in 1917, the Cannon Mills walkout in 1921, the Hershey workers strike in 1937, and the Hormel meatpackers strike in the 1980s.

The willingness of these workers to confront management was all the more amazing in that their employers were also their landlords, meaning that a decision to go out on strike could quickly lead to eviction from one’s home. The will to fight did not always translate into an ability to win, and Green points out that in most cases strikes and organizing drives were crushed by company-town employers – whether they were of the paternalistic or exploitative variety.

Given this oppressive history, it is surprising that when it comes time to analyze the overall lesson of company towns, Green adopts an approach that is far from condemnatory. He suggests that employers who chose the more exploitative approach may not have had a choice, given low profit margins, low skill requirements and other factors in their industries. And he argues that the more paternalistic company towns have something to teach today’s employers.

Some of the features of the best benevolent company towns – affordable housing, day care, good schools, impressive libraries and recreational facilities – certainly have their appeal, especially in today’s climate of cutbacks in public services. Yet those benefits came at a steep price: a loss of freedom, especially in connection with the right to organize for a voice at work.

I would have liked Green to provide more analysis of what the paternalistic and exploitative employers had in common and how the two approaches were simply different ways of achieving the same objective: dominating the workforce while maximizing productivity and profits.

More than the company towns themselves, the struggles of workers in those difficult circumstances provide lessons in dealing with excessive corporate power, whether it comes from one company or many.