Owe My Soul to the Company Store

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

Some of you may remember Tennessee Ernie Ford’s old song. I do. When I was a kid we spent summers in eastern Kentucky with my Aunt and grandparents, Dad sometimes took us out to an old strip mine to shoot tin cans with his pearl-handled six shooters, and learn some history while we were at it. Back in the day, he told us, the coal barons had a clever scheme to enslave the local populations who worked to dig out the coal from its natural habitat.

The companies built shantytowns adjacent to the mines to house the miners and their families. The heart of those towns was the Company Store, where the miners and their families could purchase food and clothing and other necessities of life at exorbitant prices. These simple mountain folk had traditionally provided all these necessities for themselves, but that was impossible if they were working in the mines 16 hours a day. Inevitably the miners would end up owing the Company Store more money than they could ever expect to earn, often leaving debt to their survivors when they died of black lung or were killed in a cave-in. This served to make slaves of generations, as sons went into the mines hoping to pay off the debts with their own pointless labor.

The conditions under which far too many people labored at the turn of the last century were so dismal that Congress established the Commission on Industrial Relations in 1912, after several previous failed attempts to investigate labor relations in the extraction, agricultural, textile and major manufacturing industries. Per those company towns the Commission observed that they displayed “every aspect of feudalism except the recognition of special duties on the part of the employer.”

The Commission’s conclusions came in 1929 and were stark:

“Where (labor) organization is lacking, dangerous discontent is found on every hand; low wages and long hours prevail; exploitation in every direction is practiced; the people become sullen, have no regard for law and government, and are, in reality, a latent volcano as dangerous to society as are the volcanoes of nature to the landscape surrounding them.”

Hmmm… one might wonder why there was never a true peasant’s revolt, though in fact there were several. Unfortunately these tended to be isolated to given workers for given companies in given industries, never reaching the level where disgruntled wage-slaves got together to plan something larger. Obviously the government was concerned that they someday might, particularly after the “Age of Industrial Violence” from 1910 to 1915…

“We hold that efforts to stay the organization of labor or to restrict the right of employees to organize should not be tolerated, but that the opposite policy should prevail, and the organization of the trade unions and of the employers’ organizations should be promoted… This country is no longer a field for slavery, and where men and women are compelled, in order that they may live, to work under conditions in determining which they have no voice, they are not far removed from a condition existing under feudalism or slavery.”

Unionization helped to bring about the American Middle Class, but the industrialists fought every step of the way. Violence during strikes could be notoriously deadly. The people who do the work in this country are being systematically reduced once again to feudal serfdom after just a few decades of rising standards of living. It didn’t start with G.W. Bush even though he was the only one dumb enough to try and sell us on the idea that working two or three slave jobs just so we may live (while having no health care and losing our homes to pirate bankers anyway) is a good thing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like it’s going to end with him either as our too long ignored concerns one by one fall to the same old same old feudalist status quo.

There is no ‘change we can believe in’ if nothing fundamentally changes. So while Obama’s presidency will go down in history for at least changing the complexion of the White House’s transient residents, that may be the only real change we’re likely to see in the next 4-8 years. Except for the changes planned to cheat us out of not just our working life’s savings, but Social Security and Medicare for our declining years as well. Once again the feudal lords trade our lives for riches in their own pockets, we get to die penniless and unattended, the kids are all slaving in the mines…

…owing their souls to the company store because they were sold before they were even born.


* Note to commenters: I am unable to rate comments for some reason most likely connected to my OS that I can’t update on dial-up. I’ll try to respond to all, consider yourselves ponied!


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    • Joy B. on May 23, 2009 at 18:08

    …add to my growing herd? ยง;o)

  1. in your essay was that miners were paid in company script which could only be used at the company store.

    Excellent essay. Two hooves up  (:o)

  2. now. Johnny Cash sang a great rendition of this also.  

    • scribe on May 23, 2009 at 18:51

    I didn’t always feel I owed my soul to the corporate store. There was a time, decades back, when I loved my profession, (RN)  This was way back in the days when caring for the sick was an honorable calling, and the Patients needs always came first.

    Then someone decided to turn my profession over to big business. The changes came fast and furious after that, and were literally horrific to witness from my position at the bedside of authentic human beings needing my professional care. The actual time I was allowed to actually do hands on nursing was slowly taken away until at the end, I was turned into not much more than  rather expensive cog in the corporate machine that had taken over the long term care field. The patients, once the center of the circle of care, were spun off to the far fringes, while “cost effective policies” became the hub of the circle instead. For those of us genuinely committed to our profession, this was like torture every day, because we were the ones who had to say ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have time to be with you”..to those so frightened, so alone, so weak, so sick, so near death. Too many pills had to be passed instead, so much paperwork to be done that required RN signatures, so many policies to be followed, “I am so sorry, but you will have to do your suffering and dying on your own from here on.”

    But how could I quit? I was raising two kids alone. I had to have hospital insurance, and salary sufficient to support them, Thus, I had no choice but to sell my soul, (and eventually my physical and mental health).. to the “company store” in order for us to survive at all.  

    That’s how ended up on total disability by age 55 and how, after one hellish transition, I finally found my own emancipation,and my own sweet freedom, in what others call ‘poverty” level living. Ha. I am having the time of my life, because now I truly AM “free” to call my life my own.      

    • Alma on May 23, 2009 at 19:09

    that used to get everything at the company store.  He always treated it like it was free. ie: “If I need something I just go pick it up at the company store.”  Now this was in the 50’s I believe so some things would have changed, but I do know it caused a lot of problems for his family.  

  3. The BX, the Commissary, the Class 6 (liquor store) – and AAFES. Corporate feudalism runs rampant especially overseas in countries where English is not the host language. Folks get homesick and will do whatever they can to act like they never left the US.

  4. And the fight goes on. Just try to unionize a Walmart. The retail/service industry is the next front in this fight.

  5. My paternal grandfather died before I was born, but my mother told me stories about him: he ran away from home as a boy, and worked his way up to owning three general stores in western PA.  Although he lost a bundle in the crash of 1929, he still had the stores.

    But his customers didn’t have much money, and some of them were supposed to be shopping at the Company Store.

    They didn’t always, though: they went to Granddad; and apparently my grandfather was pretty cool about letting debts slide during those years.

    He was a Republican, BTW: but given his age, he would have been more a Teddy Roosevelt GOPer than what we’ve seen over the past 30 years.

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