5 Towns That Are Nothing But An Excuse for Corporate Malfeasance
For a lot of people these days, their work/life balance is severely out of whack, if not non-existent altogether. The internet and cell phones have brought everyone in contact with each other at all times, and unfortunately, that includes your boss. If you’re in a good work situation, you might be able to set some healthy boundaries on how often and when you’re available. At the same time, plenty of even the “coolest” sort of start-up jobs have CEOs whose best and most urgent ideas always seem to come after the stroke of midnight. Sure, you’ve got a ping-pong table, but it’s just going to taunt you every night while you work until 8 p.m., lest you demonstrate a lack of “grindset.”
Those extra hours of unpaid productivity have resulted in a widespread labor movement we’re seeing now across multiple industries. It isn’t the first time something like this has happened, either. It seems like the bigwigs can never resist the creep of harmful labor conditions, attempting to boil a workforce of industrious frogs degree by degree. The cigar-chompers of yesteryear, though, didn’t have access to email or Slack or omnipresent cell service to control their workers. So they had to invent a different way to control their workers 24/7, and what they created were company towns, genuine fake cities that were completely controlled by the employer of the people who lived there.
Here are five such company towns, including a couple from today…
Maybe the most impactful company town in history was Pullman, Illinois, built by George Pullman for employees of his luxury train car company. He spouted, in what is a consistent and still recognizable bit of bullshit, that he was trying to create a “utopia” for his workers. See, wouldn’t it be so much simpler to let him control every aspect of your life? It sounds like the pitch of an evil son trying to get an elderly relative to sign over power of attorney.
Still, the town came into being, and rapidly exposed itself for what it was.
First of all, there was only one church in town, with one religion. When paychecks were delivered, two men came to your door: one to hand you the check, and one to immediately collect the rent that you owed the same company. None of this felt like the American dream, employer-issued white picket fences aside. The real breaking point, though, came when a recession in 1894 forced Pullman to lower wages… but keep rent and store prices the same. This caused the Pullman strike, which turned into a greater railroad workers’ strike that ended with the National Guard breaking the strike with force.
Not that it was a clean win: Pullman himself had to have his grave covered in concrete because he was so hated that there was serious concern that people might dig him up and desecrate his body.
Steinway Village, New York
If you’re at all familiar with pianos, or just have a habit of hanging out in fancy hotel lobbies, you’re probably familiar with Steinway & Sons. They’ve manufactured pianos in New York City since 1853, and they’re still around today, should you have somewhere in the realm of 100 grand to blow on one. Unlike Pullman sleeping cars, they remain a respected, beloved and sought-after brand, and that might be why the slightly dodgy history of Steinway Village in Astoria, Queens is a little harder to get an honest read on.
I can’t explain why, but it feels strange to think that a piano maker would be the same kind of overbearing, union-hating businessman that you’d expect in the steel industry. Pianos are so tinkly and nice! You want them to be made by a 4-foot-tall, kindly, elf-adjacent old man with pince-nez. Someone who would offer your choice of treat out of a tin of cookies when you visit his office. But in 1870, as strikes popped up across the country, Henry Steinway wanted no part of it, and so moved his factory from Manhattan to Astoria, along with all the workers. He provided them housing, which also neatly allowed him to evict anyone who was planning a strike.
Wow, it’s almost like having your boss also be your landlord isn’t ideal!
If the image of a domineering piano artisan was hard to come to terms with, the next entry might be even tougher. That is because, unfortunately, we are dipping our toes into the chocolate business, specifically that of its god-emperor, Milton Hershey. After all, you wouldn’t want to find out that Willy Wonka personally came down to break a strike with strokes of his cane on the backs of Oompa Loompas. To be fair, Hershey and Hershey, Pennsylvania, probably represents the rosiest possible outcome of a company town. This is partly thanks to Hershey’s investments in the continued well-being and future of the town outside of pure profit, even taking losses to provide a healthy living space for workers.
However, the fact that Hershey went about as well as possible and still ended with unpleasant (I refuse to type the phrase “less-than-sweet” anywhere in this entry) repercussions might serve as a final indictment of the idea of a company town. It turns out the reason company towns don’t work might be just as simple as it seems: Having one singular person responsible for every facet of your life also means they become a mental whipping post for everyone’s problems. This led to the chocolate workers unionizing, and after the union organizers were quickly cut loose from the company, to a full-blown strike, that ended in a violent brawl.
Lake Buena Vista, Florida
Now, legally, we should clarify that Lake Buena Vista, Florida is not a company town, because company towns are illegal. Rumors of the demise of company towns in the United States, however, have been greatly exaggerated. Their illegality, it seems, is heavily based around the use of “scrip,” meaning that the occupants basically live on a company-controlled currency like industrious little Neopets. An intellectual property we’re shocked that Disney, the overseers of Lake Buena Vista, haven’t turned into a middling movie yet.
In reality, Disney has an incredible amount of control over the land around their theme parks, known as the “Reedy Creek Improvement District.” They’ve effectively turned the area that their Florida theme parks are in into a strange little nation-state that serves turkey legs and character brunch. Just how weird this whole arrangement is has come into the national spotlight thanks to their public clashes with Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida and a Lego-haired void of a man with the charisma of a white-noise machine. In this case, Disney’s side of the fight is an easy one to get behind, since DeSantis’ motivation is basically to put the collective LGBTQ community in stocks for political clout.
Still, it should make you a little uneasy that corporations can take on our government and it’s basically a fair fight.
Big Tech’s Dreams
History, at this point, should dictate that anyone looking to bring back classic company towns would have to suffer from a firm refusal to learn from mistakes and a deep belief that they are better and smarter than anyone that’s come before them. So, naturally, all manner of modern tech billionaires love the idea. Facebook has pitched a neighborhood called “Willow Village” that includes employee housing. Amazon is rabid about the idea of “factory towns.” Even today, when companies are struggling to get remote workers back in the office, Google somehow thinks the answer is to bring back their version of a company town.
I don’t know how this ends, but hopefully not with the National Guard clubbing the shit out of a bunch of UX designers.