I just started watching a show that takes place in a turn-of-the-century coal mining town in Canada. It’s a Hallmark show that’s clearly shaping up to be a romance, so it’s rather saccharin, but it’s pretty cute nonetheless.
The show is about a silver-spoon sort of city girl who takes a position as a teacher out in this coal mining town. The mothers of the town had hired her to give their children the sort of education that would keep them from having to go into the mines themselves when they grew up. As if that weren’t challenge enough- three months before the teacher arrived, there had been an explosion in the mine, leaving a large chunk of her students suddenly without fathers. They only found the last of the bodies when she got there. This, of course, left a lot of widows in company housing without husbands to work in the mines to pay for the company housing.
This is a Hallmark show, so it does its best to gloss over much of the reality of working and living in a company town. However, by episode two, the notices had gone out to evict the widows and children from the company housing to make room for the miners the boss was looking to bring in. The teacher is working with the widows to try and figure out how they can stay in their own homes. She comes up with a solution that has a legal precedent and goes about setting it in motion. It’s thwarted because the supplies she needs would be from the company store and are suddenly unavailable for her to purchase.
If you aren’t familiar with what a company store was, they were a brilliant (devious, terrible) way for the boss to keep both the profits and the workers within the company. Mining towns were notorious for them. I believe railroad towns also frequently used them. It was an option for basically any business model that took their workers and isolated them away from any other store options. If the company store is the only place that you can buy your food, clothes, and other necessities, then that’s what you did. You paid the outrageous prices, you took on debt if you couldn’t pay cash, and, as the song says, you owe your soul to the company store. It wasn’t uncommon to work for the company until you died, trying to pay the debts you couldn’t avoid racking up.
What does this long-winded report on a slightly silly tv show have to do with anything? After all, we don’t have company stores anymore. There’s almost no way to isolate workers away from any and all forms of purchasing power. We all drive past Walmarts, Targets, and malls and have the right to stop in and spend our money in any or all of them as we see fit (or can afford). Sure we have debt, but it’s not to our employer. It’s to a bank or a credit card company. Totally different than that coal mining town.
Or is it? Look at America. The bulk of us work for anything from lousy to crap wages. Maybe an iPhone isn’t quite the necessity that a ribbed wash-board was in the coal town, but the advertising that we are immersed in sure wants us to think it is. So we pay out all of our cash for things that we need. Then we take on debt for things that we need but can’t afford. Then how do we pay this debt? We keep going to the soulless job with the crap wages because we don’t have/can’t see any other options. But between the things we still need and the money we aren’t making, our debt only gets worse.
Maybe we think company stores don’t exist because we have nothing to compare them to. Can’t see the forest for the trees and all that. I have been trying to think of companies that I know that are, say, 80% free from the corporate world. I think I came up with a small handful, but most of them are tiny, struggling, and unlikely to be noticed outside of niche communities in their town. There are few to no viable options outside of what has become normal. Normal, of course, being items that we are told we need produced in massive amounts with the absolute minimal inputs and created to be worn out in no time flat.
I’m not saying there’s a conspiracy, here. I’ve gotten over that. What I am saying is that the bosses are still more than able to keep the profits and the workers exactly where they want them. Has America become the company town for the wealthy elite? Have we all become workers in a coal town with no prospects and no future away from what is right in front of us? I don’t want to be right about this, but I’m also having a hard time seeing where this logic train could have gone wrong.
So . . . now what?