Sixteen Tons

Anyone with an Appalachian background understands the references in the old Merle Travis song (made popular by Tennessee Ernie Ford) “Sixteen Tons”:

You load sixteen tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt;
Saint Peter, don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go:
I owe my soul to the company store

Until the triumph of the unions (though maybe it’s not so different, today), the mountains, like much of the southeast, were controlled by big companies… and not just coal-mining firms. Agriculture, cotton and furniture milling… if there was money to be made from it through the use of cheap labor, it was made.

The companies expanded. It wasn’t enough to simply under-pay workers, but new ways of making profits off of them were found. Towns were built for them to live in, Kannapolis, NC being one of the best known and, perhaps, one of the best.

Though occasional companies towns were comfortable and made to improve worker life, most were neither. To make matters worse, many of the companies which owned the land and everything around, found they could make even more money by making it impossible for their workers to buy anything but that offered in company-owned stores. They could do this in a number of ways (included credit on harsh terms), but the most common was through payment via ‘script,’ company-issued notes redeemable only through company outlets and for company goods. Sometimes companies even ‘did good’ by this, offering items at reduced prices to their workers. Often, however, it did not work this way.

Appalachian literature is permeated by tales of lives warped by the systems of what amounted to bondage–and it is not too much of a stretch to blame at least a part of mountain poverty on it. The system, even though it could sometimes work well, wasn’t tailored by and for the worker but for and by the company. This weakness ultimately led to its misuse (if “misuse” were ever not a part of it) and, ultimately, to its destruction. As time goes on, putative goals and real goals become increasingly separate and their differences more and more apparent. As time passed, no longer was it possible to convince the workers that the towns were established for their own good by those who knew best.

I was reminded of this when I woke this morning and clicked on a Diane Ravitch blog post. One of her readers, in a comment to an earlier post, had referenced “Sixteen Tons.” Ravitch then makes an oblique comparison between the ‘company store’ and charter schools:

in the case of charters, now the fad du jour, it hands children over to wealthy benefactors or corporate interests. I don’t mean to suggest that either wealthy benefactors or corporate interests have evil intent, but that their interests may not coincide with those of parents and the community. Public schools are an instrument of democracy to the extent that they maintain a vital connection with families and their community.

This is exactly what happened with the company towns of the mountains and elsewhere. When the interests are not those of the people, eventually something will come about that does not coincide with the interests of the people. Democracy did not exist in company towns, and it will never be found in company (I mean ‘charter’) schools.

And democracy, we all would agree, is the only thing that can sustain us over the long haul.

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