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Reviewed by:
  • Company Towns: Corporate Order and Community by Neil White
  • Duff Sutherland
Company Towns: Corporate Order and Community. Neil White. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012. Pp. 256, $55.00

In Company Towns: Corporate Order and Community, Neil White compares the histories of Corner Brook, a pulp and paper mill town in western Newfoundland, with Mount Isa, an outback mining community in Queensland, Australia. White, who grew up in Corner Brook, reveals the limitations of the traditional “structuralist” approach to company towns, which asserts an unvarying pattern of capitalist expansion onto resource frontiers, company development and control of planned communities, and worker and resident dependence on company-provided jobs, houses, and services. Although foreign capital developed both Corner Brook and Mount Isa from the 1920s as company towns, White shows how human agency, including organization, resistance, negotiation, and adaptation, affected the way that the companies developed their towns and wielded their power.

The result was company towns with distinctive histories. In Corner Brook workers and other residents, “who didn’t want for anything” (100), favoured accommodation with corporate hegemony, expressing their differences with the company as “local” or community issues. In Mount Isa, on the other hand, the pattern of social and economic development contributed to overt and ongoing class conflict bluntly expressed in the workers’ demand for “fair dinkum” (108). Along with chapters on the company development of industry and town, on the workers and their unions, and on daily life, White also shows the important role that “fringe” communities played in shaping the distinctive history of each company town.

Although foreign capital developed both Corner Brook and Mount Isa after the First World War, White shows how each company town followed a different path. The large British arms manufacturer Armstrong, Whitworth & Company, sought new opportunities after the war by investing heavily in a modern pulp and paper mill, along with an attractive company “Townsite” in Corner Brook. However, expensive planning mistakes, high construction costs, and collapsing newsprint prices led to the local company’s financial ruin and the sale of the operation to International Paper. ip also struggled during the Depression, eventually selling out to the British firm Bowater in 1938. [End Page 629]

Despite a history of corporate instability, White argues that mill workers in Corner Brook recognized that they enjoyed relative economic security compared to the island’s impoverished loggers and fishing families. International unions represented the workers, the company provided houses and services, the region offered opportunities to follow traditional outport subsistence strategies, and “fringe” towns provided freedom from company domination. The result, White argues, was that Corner Brook workers came to view themselves as residents of a comfortable town rather than as members of an oppressed working class. If anything, a desire to “work with” rather than to oppose the company permeated the social relations of the town. The 1950s saw this feeling of accommodation strengthen as Bowater shed the Townsite, which amalgamated with the surrounding communities into a single municipality.

By contrast, class conflict permeated life in the mining and processing community of Mount Isa in outback Queensland. As in Corner Brook, British capital rapidly developed Mineside in Mount Isa to support an integrated mine and smelting operation. And, like the Newfoundland company, the Russo-Asiatic company that owned the Mount Isa operation, was poorly run, encountered serious financial problems, and eventually sold its assets to the American Smelting and Refining Company. In Mount Isa, however, corporate problems contributed to class-based tensions as the boom-and-bust operation experienced high rates of worker turnover, exacerbating community instability. The “fringe” community of Townside witnessed this tension, as alienated miners and labourers existed in tents and crude “humpies,” purchased goods from local stores, and blew off steam by “shouting rounds” and fighting their mates in the “bullring” of the local saloon (175–6).

Not surprisingly this dynamic also contributed to an antagonistic relationship between bosses and workers on the mining field. On the one hand, managers used mechanization, the speed-up, scientific management techniques, and lockouts to discipline their workforce. On the other hand, militant workers, mostly members of the Australian Workers’ Union, responded with slow-downs, wildcat strikes, and a bitter standoff...


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pp. 629-631
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