Industrial Paternalism: the Company Town

Topics: Trade union, United Mine Workers, Sixteen Tons Pages: 7 (2507 words) Published: May 6, 2012
Industrial Paternalism: The Company Town

ABSTRACT: Industrial Paternalism has had an impact on the way that unions are viewed in today’s society. The early 1900’s saw many Company Towns used by companies to control their workers both in their workplace, as well as, their personal lives. This paper reviews the definition of Paternalism and Industrial Paternalism in the early 1900’s mining industry. It reviews notable events that materialized due to these conditions and concludes by examining how this has impacted today’s views on Unions.

“You load 16 tons, what do you get / another day older and deeper in debt / Saint Peter don’t you call me ‘cuz I can’t go / I owe my soul to the Company Store.” (Doyle, 2008) The lyrics made famous by Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons” in late 1955, brought to the forefront of pop culture at the time, the woes of many coal miners of the early 1900’s. The chilling lyric “I owe my soul to the Company Store”, is a direct link to the history of mining and the ability of Company Towns and Industrial Paternalism, to control their workers. From the gold mines of Nevada to the coal mines of West Virginia, Company Towns are buried deep in the history of mining throughout the United States. Some still stand today, while others went down in a blaze of glory with many workers and their families losing their lives all in the name of unionism. Paternalism, according to the Webster Dictionary, is: “a system under which authority undertakes to supply needs or regulate conduct of those under its control in matters affecting them as individuals as well as in their relations to authority and to each other” (Merrian-Webster, 2012). This definition, when applied to the prevalence of company owned and controlled towns of the early mining days, is what can be known as Industrial Paternalism. While these types of towns are also seen in the automobile industry and the early garment industry, for the sake of keeping some order of thought, I will concentrate on the predominance of these in the mining industry of the early 1900’s.

The idea behind a Company Town was simple: Control workers both in their work place, as well as, their personal lives. The paternalistic way in which companies treated their workers; supply the workers with all of lives necessities such as housing, food, luxuries, and, of course, a place to work. (Clark, 2006) From the outside, many of these company towns seemed like an honest answer to certain problematic elements of mining country. First, and foremost, many mines were located far away from towns and, of course, this made commuting to and from the mines very difficult. The seemingly obvious solution would be to bring the town to the mine. In another apparently positive motivation for these towns was the idea that company towns, themselves, would attract workers. With low-income housing, which at the time, seemed to be something people could rarely find, and employment at the town mine, many honest working people simply came to the towns for an opportunity at a better life and, in this case, an “all-inclusive” better life (Clark 2006). All of these factors would seem to be honest and positive reasons behind the creation of Company Towns and this may very well have been the intention, however, as company towns grew in popularity, other “benefits” materialized for companies. As indicated in the Tennessee Ernest Ford, “Sixteen Tons” lyrics, “owe my soul to the company store”, one of the benefits that materialized for these companies was their ability to keep their workers indebted to them. The “Company Store” referred to in the song lyrics is the General Store in these company towns. With no competition for these stores, companies could keep prices high for everyday items, and often time, employees had to pay in credit. This never-ending cycle of debt, in simple terms, kept the employees bound to the company. Another important benefit to...

References: Doyle, Jack. (2008). Sixteen Tons, 1955 – 1956. Retrieved from
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Clark, Judy. (2006). Company Towns in America 1880 to 1930. A Thesis Presented to The Faculty of Humboldt State University. Retrieved from
The Ludlow Massacre. (n.d.). Retrieved from
Kilkeary, D. (2002). Battle of blair mountain. Retrieved from
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