In my EconTalk with Russ Roberts on proprietary cities I only mentioned company towns in passing. Even the great Milton Friedman got company towns wrong, however, so it’s worthwhile spending a little time to dispel some myths.
Take company stores. Why did mining companies often own the town store? The standard answer: to squeeze every nickel from the workers so they would “owe their soul to the company store.” But that lyrical argument makes no sense and the truth is actually closer to the opposite.
The mining towns were isolated geographically but they weren’t isolated from the national labor market. The number of workers in these towns moved up and down in response to the price of coal and the workers often traveled long-distances to work in the mines, sometimes from other states or other countries. The company towns were isolated not because the workers couldn’t get out but because few people wanted to live where coal was abundant. As a result, workers had to be enticed to travel to and to live in these towns. Oil rigs are similarly isolated today and once on board the workers have nowhere to go but the company restaurant, the company theater and the company gym but that hardly means that the workers are exploited.
Since the mine workers weren’t isolated from the national labor market they had to be paid wages consistent with wages elsewhere and indeed on an hourly basis wages in mining were higher than in manufacturing (not surprising since these jobs were riskier). Moreover, workers weren’t dumb and so–just like workers today–they would consider the price of housing and the price of goods in these towns so see how far their wages would take them. All of this suggests that workers would not be fooled by high wages and really high prices at the company store that nullified those wages. And indeed, prices at company stores were not especially high and were similar to prices at independent stores in similar locations.
It was possible to find examples of a good at a particular company store which had a markedly higher price than at a particular independent store but this was cherry picking, (I am reminded of the exam question about two rival supermarkets both of which advertise “the average consumer at our store would pay 20% more if they shopped at our competitor.” The question asks how it can be possible that both stores are telling the truth.) Comparing identical baskets, prices at company stores were not higher than at similar independent stores.
I said that the traditional story actually gets things backward. We can see how by asking why the companies owned the stores. First, independent stores had to bear a lot of risk because they would be selling in a local economy that was dependent on a single mine. That risk was better born by the mining firm itself because it knew more about coal and fluctuations in the price of coal, its own plans, the time the mine would be expected to be open and so forth. Thus, it was cheaper for the mines to own the stores than for independents to own the stores.
Second, if an independent store did open they would have a monopoly and would want to charge a monopoly price but–and this is key–the higher the price charged by the independent store the higher the wages the coal mine would have to pay to compensate the workers. Thus monopoly independents would be bad for the workers but they would also be bad for the owners of the mine. If the mine owned the store, however, they would have a greater incentive than the independent store to lower prices because that meant they could save on wages. Overall, both workers and mine owners would be better off with company stores (A classic example of the double marginalization problem).
Similar arguments apply to company owned housing. On the one hand, this did mean that during a lengthy strike the firm could evict the workers from their housing. On the other hand, would you want to buy a house in an isolated town dependent on a single industry? Would you want to own a major asset that was likely to fall in price at the same time that you were likely to lose your job? Probably not. Rental housing meant that workers had the freedom to leave town easily when better work opportunities were available elsewhere – i.e., it meant that the workers were less isolated from the national labor market than they would be if they owned their homes and were tied down to a single place and a single employer. Moreover, the fact that the housing was company owned meant lower prices than if the housing was owned by an independent monopoly developer, the most relevant alternative (again because of the double marginalization problem).
The bottom line is that far from being an example of the abuse of monopoly power, the company town was an effort to constrain monopoly power.
References: The best source for an accurate view of the company towns in the mining industry is Price Fishback’s Soft Coal, Hard Choices: The Economic Welfare of Bituminous Coal Miners, 1890-1930. The book is based on a series of papers (JSTOR).
The company towns built by the mines weren’t especially pretty but some of the other company towns, especially those which employed high-skilled workers, were professionally designed by the leading architects of the day and they came with parks, playgrounds, retail areas, public transportation, churches and a variety of services. In essence, these company towns were doing what Google does today, competing for workers with amenities. Margaret Crawford’s book, Building the Workingman’s Paradise, is an interesting history showing how company towns pioneered a number of architectural and planning innovations that later found there way into many post World War II home developments.