When one thinks of company towns- towns and cities owned mostly by corporations- they tend to picture something along the lines of the textile mill towns of the Industrial Revolution. But soon, we may be seeing a new kind of company town. Megacorporations Facebook and Amazon have expressed interest in building expansive warehouses and campuses in certain cities. Their plans give rise to an important question: what will this mean for their workers?
To gain a better understanding of this issue, let’s review two of this country’s earliest company towns. America’s first company town, Lowell, Massachusetts, was founded around a collection of textile mills owned by the Merrimack Manufacturing Company. The Lowell Mills, like other textile mills, often had poor working conditions, which employees retaliated against with strikes. Enter Steinway and Sons, a piano manufacturing company in what is now Queens, New York City. Steinway and Sons began to expand their complex in 1870, adding a foundry and a sawmill as well as amenities such as churches, a firehouse, and housing for its employees- all under company management. With this level of control over their employees, they could halt unrest among their workers by evicting strike leaders.
The heightened control over a corporation’s employees that came with the formation of a company town became a major factor in their creation. This may be the case in regards to Amazon. The online shopping giant has a negative track record when it comes to the safety and rights of their employees: an exposé published by the New York Times stated that workers were almost constantly surveilled, had to endure a hazardous work environment, and were given timed bathroom breaks. Amazon has also been shown to hold a great deal of anti-union sentiment, and they have shut down any attempt at unionization by their employees. With the greater level of control over its workforce it provides, the formation of a company town would allow Amazon to increase their profits, further degrade working conditions, and keep a hand in nearly every aspect of their workers’ lives.
And what happens when a company changes? Historically, the towns they have built decline into ghost towns. Eagle Mountain, California, and Table Rock, Wyoming, are examples of company towns that fell by the wayside due to a shifting economic landscape. While Facebook and Amazon are known to be economic superpowers, both companies have come under scrutiny for their questionable methods: Amazon was the subject of the aforementioned exposé, and a former Facebook data scientist has come forward with evidence-backed claims that Facebook prioritizes profits over ethics and user safety. If further incidents damage the financial growth of these corporations, their company towns and the residents thereof would be in desperate straits.
Ultimately, company towns are made to benefit corporations rather than their workers. If corporations like Facebook and Amazon are allowed to form company towns, they will gain a level of control over their employees’ lives that borders on an abuse of their rights. Company towns are a thing of the past. For the sake of worker’s rights, they should stay that way.
Senior Erin Wilkinson is a staff writer for the 2021-2022 yearbook. When she isn’t drawing or writing, she enjoys listening to music and spending time with her friends.