16 Tons and bricks without straw: Christianity Today wants to bring back the company town

Christianity Today is required by law to provide every member of its staff access to booze and porn.

Most of us don’t think of it that way. We would just say that Christianity Today is required by law to pay its workers for the work that they do. The wages paid to their workers then belong to those workers, and since that money no longer belongs to Christianity Today, it has no say in how those wages are spent. The compensation has changed hands. It no longer belongs to the employer, but to the employees, and it’s up to them what to do with it.

But CT says this isn’t fair. It is, after all, a religious company with religious values, and it seems to them to be a violation of their religious values if the pay they pay their workers can be spent on things like alcohol and pornography. Labor law, they say, restricts their religious liberty to ensure that wages they pay are not later spent on anything that would contradict their core religious convictions.

This is their argument.

It’s an astonishing claim.

An armed guard patrols a mining company town in Alabama in the early 20th century, making sure no miners try to escape into the free economy to purchase contraception.

Accepting this claim would fundamentally redefine the concepts of wages and of free labor — so much so that we would no longer even have language to name or to describe the payments employers make to their employees. We could no longer call them “wages,” because wages are the workers’ due, belonging to the workers and no longer under the control of the bosses. Nor could we any longer refer to “compensation,” because that also describes payment in exchange for the product of workers’ labor, and if employers still control the use of that payment, then such an exchange has not actually occurred.

We can find one historical model for the “religious exception” that CT is advocating, an economic structure once widespread in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many aspects of this model are no longer legal, and it has been universally condemned as an immoral, unjust and exploitative system. But perhaps CT can succeed in rewriting American law to make this model legal once again. (It’s not likely they can also successfully rewrite morality to accommodate its use, but that does not seem to bother them.)

The model in question — the closest historical model for what CT is endorsing — is that of the company town and the company store or “truck system.”

Our history classes tend to skim quickly past the darker days of industrial American capitalism, but even if you didn’t learn about this system in school, you probably at least remember the sketch of it provided by Tennessee Ernie Ford’s classic song “Sixteen Tons”:

You load sixteen tons, 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 …

At their very best, company towns exerted a kind of benevolent paternalism over workers — controlling and dictating how they were able to spend their wages in ways that the company considered those workers’ best interest. Those workers weren’t free, but they were, in theory, cared for.

The premise of this arrangement was that power could be concentrated in a single set of hands, with benevolence and good intentions being a sufficient safeguard against exploitation. Yeah. That never turns out well. Unsurprisingly, companies that possessed complete power over the economic lives of their workers exploited that power in just the unjust ways that Ford sang about.

In a company town, workers were isolated from the rest of the world and the rest of the economy. They had no option but to rent company housing from their employer, from whom they were also forced to purchase their daily bread, clothing, equipment for work and everything else. The company was the only seller from which they could buy anything — any service, product, utility or necessity. And because the company thus had an uncontested monopoly, it was able to set its prices as high as the market could bear — meaning it ensured that every penny of workers’ wages would be returned to the company.

Every penny and then some, actually, since company towns were also creative pioneers in the exploitative art of payday lending. Hence “another day older and deeper in debt.”

In many cases, the company would abandon any pretense that its workers still belonged to the larger economy of free labor. Instead of paying workers in government currency, they would issue company scrip — a kind of privatized currency that could only be spent with the company itself.  (Imagine Walmart paying its employees with Walmart gift cards instead of cash — gift cards that included an automated employee surcharge rather than an employee discount.)

The use of such company scrip dispelled any illusion that workers owned or controlled their wages. Those wages still belonged to the company, just as the workers themselves did.

This is the model that Christianity Today is endorsing.

Not for everyone everywhere, of course, but only as a “religious exception” for devoutly religious employers. They are not (yet) arguing that ExxonMobil be allowed to retain control over how its employees spend their wages, but CT demands that saintly (their image, not mine) corporations like Hobby Lobby be granted such control over wages and workers.

We should step back for a moment here to recognize the absurdity of CT’s attempt to make this a “religious” claim, because their argument is simply indefensible on Christian religious grounds. The religion in question here is evangelical Christianity  — Bible Christianity. And the Christian Bible is resoundingly, unambiguously opposed to the exploitation of workers. This is not a gray area. From Laban’s swindling of the swindler Jacob, to Pharaoh’s oppressive edict to make bricks without straw (the original company scrip system), throughout the law and the prophets and the parables of the Gospels, from the epistle of James to the beastly monopoly of John’s apocalypse, the Bible is — start-to-finish and all the way through — vehemently opposed to the exploitation of workers. CT’s argument is not religiously permissible, let alone religiously supported. Their Bible forbids their argument.

But as biblically and religiously indefensible as CT’s position is, I don’t want to get sidetracked into a sectarian religious argument. First because sectarian religious arguments cannot be legally compelling. And second because, as CT sadly demonstrates, such arguments appear to be so infinitely elastic as to be meaningless. If the Bible can be read to approve of the denial of wages, then the Bible can be read to approve of anything. Why bother citing scripture to those who think the Bible allows and endorses such exploitation? Once “religion” has been redefined to endorse such views, it can no longer offer much in the way of a common language for moral argument.

So let’s keep our focus instead on the simple, practical questions at the heart of this argument. Do wages belong to workers or do employers retain the right to control how those wages are spent?

If the latter — if employers retain such control over wages — then what does that mean for how we understand all of those things, employers and wages and workers? It seems to me we would have to redefine all of them, and to do so in a way that established that all of the power, all of the control, all of the rights and all of the liberty resided on one side of the transaction.

No, thank you. I do not wish to repeal a century’s worth of labor law — and the 13th Amendment — to permit such a “religious exception.”

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