- Company Towns in the Americas: Landscape, Power, and Working-Class Communities ed. by Oliver J. Dinius and Angela Vergara
To many, the phrase "company town" has immediately negative connotations. One might think of the classic and much covered American country song by Merle Travis, "Sixteen Tons": "You load sixteen tons, and what do you get? / Another day older and deeper in debt / St. Peter, don't you call me, 'cause I can't go / I owe my soul to the company store." Internationally, one might recall recent reports about the spate of worker suicides at the corporate complex owned by Foxconn in Shenzhen, China, where Apple's iPhone (among other consumer [End Page 264] electronics devices) is manufactured. Regardless of where they imagine the company town to be, many academics hearing "company town" are motivated to envision worker exploitation in settings where industrialists influence all aspects of daily life, on and off the job. There certainly have been many examples around the world fitting these images, from the electronics factories of contemporary China back to George Pullman's failed paternalistic experiment near Chicago in the 1890s. And yet, as this excellent book demonstrates, the concept of the "company town" is in fact far more difficult to characterize, both practically and morally. In Company Towns in the Americas, Oliver Dinius, Angela Vergara, and the authors of a theoretical essay and eight case studies across the Americas demonstrate that the "company town" has a much richer and more complicated history than we often think.
The two opening essays - one by Oliver Dinius and Angela Vergara, the other by Andrew Herod - nicely lay out some of the theoretical and conceptual issues involved in studying company towns. As Herod points out, the company town is in many respects the evolutionary product of companies engaging in "shaping social relations through spatial engineering" (33). Done first on the more focused scale of the workshop and the factory, the organization of space for the purposes of industrial production eventually was applied to a much broader environment, and the factory itself became one part of a landscape that included stores, hospitals, houses, schools, churches, and other sorts of community facilities. This organization of space, Herod argues, was both coercive - it was a clear attempt to structure many aspects of worker's lives outside of work - and consistent with reformist welfare capitalist programs to improve workers' well-being. Spatial paternalism, like many kinds of paternalism, was a method of both social control and of uplift.
In their introductory essay, Dinius and Vergara put some of Andrew Herod's theoretical points into a historical and empirical framework, in the process making two broad points that in various ways run through the subsequent case studies. First and foremost is the idea that the "company town" is a highly variable entity. Traditionally, the concept has been defined essentially as an area in which one or more companies in the same industry dominate the economic life of local workers while also owning all of the homes, retail establishments, and municipal facilities. In contrast, Dinius and Vergara argue, the "company town" form encompassed a variety of settings that do not fit this definition with equal firmness. Different industries, for example, motivated different ways of thinking about the degree to which towns should be planned, built, and managed. Towns built around extractive industries, for example, could differ a great deal from those built around industrial production. In the former case, many such company towns were never designed to be permanent, but instead only to house and sustain workers while resources were available. In the latter case, corporations sinking a large amount of capital into a factory had a different set of concerns about maintaining a stable workforce, and thus they approached [End Page 265] the building and maintenance of the town in fundamentally different ways. In order to think more expansively about the company town in the Americas, Dinius and Vergara thus adopt a broader guiding definition: "Key is the combination of a single dominant...