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

16 Tons and bricks without straw: Christianity Today wants to bring back the company town January 8, 2013

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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  • The_L1985

     Done, and done! :)

  • Honestly, that’s not even analogous to this situation at all. Hobby Lobby isn’t buying or paying for birth control pills or assault rifles for its employees. All it has to do is buy insurance. A lot of people have this vague (idiotic) notion that every employer will be required to have a birth control vending machine or a bowl full of birth control pills somewhere in their office, or have to deliver birth control to their employees, or some other situation like that. 

  • The_L1985

    “There’s nothing to stop the employee from buying their own contraceptive covering health care.”

    Except for the part where I’ve never heard of anyone making that kind of money working retail.  I don’t even pay for my own health insurance, and I make more than the average Hobby Lobby employee!  And I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that most HL employees don’t have rich parents who can pay their health insurance for them, or they wouldn’t be working there to begin with.

    Seriously, I have very bare-bones insurance, and it’s $100/month.

  • The_L1985

    1. Fred is a Christian.  Christians are allowed to have different opinions from each other.

    2. Patheos is lots of different blogs by lots of different people.  When you click “Patheos Portal,” you are saying, “This is the religious background of the people whose blogs I want to read.”  Patheos is basically a paid, religious version of Blogger.  Your comment is pretty much identical to the statement “I don’t like what MySpace said about Justin Bieber.”

  • The_L1985

    Well, there is exactly one exception I know of.  Mifeprex (a.k.a. RU-486) is usually used as an abortifacient, but is occasionally given as an E.C.

    It’s not done often, though, because U.S. law requires that Mifeprex can only be distributed by the doctor directly, unlike most prescription medications.  Pharmacies are not allowed to have it in stock at all.

  • Carstonio

     The analogy is good because in both instances, the employers are wrongly making judgments as to what employees should buy and using their power to implement those judgments.

    Sure, employees in a company town could have hypothetically held down second jobs that paid real cash instead of scrip, and traveled to another town to buy goods that they couldn’t in the company-run stores. The logistics of doing this on the frontier were probably even more insurmountable than the affordability of additional insurance for Hobby Lobby employees.

    Plenty of employers offer incentives for employees to pursue healthier lifestyles, such as exercise facilities or discounts on smoking cessation programs, partly because these benefit the employer as well through lower insurance premiums. But employers shouldn’t decide how employees should spend their compensation.

  • DavidCheatham

    Would you guys be opposed if the government required Hobby Lobby to provide AR-15 assault rifles, like they are requiring them to provide abortifacients?
    Hey, that actually is a fun question, except of course no one is requiring Hobby Lobby to ‘supply’ any such thing. Hobby Lobby is required to _pay workers_, both via actual money and via a health insurance plan, both of which can be used by the worker to acquire contraceptives. (Which you have confused with abortifacients.)

    So let us rework that analogy: Would you be opposed if the Federal government had passed a law saying businesses were _required_ to allow people to purchase guns with their wages, and Hobby Lobby (despite apparently not caring about the purchase of guns previously) decided it would now bar workers from purchasing guns and sued the government over it?

  •  The thing about the company towns is that if the company could pay you in scrip, they could pay you less than a living wage.  I’m not sure if the era of company towns and the era of a legally mandated minimum wage actually overlap, but what Hobby Lobby is doing is effectively saying “Minimum wage is $5 per hour. So we’ll pay you $4 in real money and $1 in DollarZ which are only redeemable at the company store.”

    Hobby Lobby is required to provide health insurance. And the government has declared that the thing called “health insurance” under the law must include contraception coverage. What they want to do is to provide something which does not meet the legal definition of “health insurance” and have that counted as meeting their legal requirement to provide health insurance.

    This is, in fact, just like if a company wanted to have paying you in scrip count as meeting their legal requirement to pay you minimum wage.

  • Okay. I did not know that Mifeprex was used as an emergency contraceptive. I can’t actually tell if it prevents implantation, though, and if not then the whole fertilization/implantation thing is kinda irrelevant.

  • Lunch Meat

    A lot of people have this vague (idiotic) notion that every employer
    will be required to have a birth control vending machine or a bowl full
    of birth control pills somewhere in their office, or have to deliver
    birth control to their employees, or some other situation like that.

    Seriously. If employers are handing out birth control pills, that must mean they are also conducting physical examinations and performing surgery. Since apparently paying for or arranging the purchase of insurance that covers something means you actually literally take the place of the doctor who is normally paid to do it.

  • P J Evans

    There are two major insurance carriers in my area (call them ‘Evil’ and ‘Slightly Less Evil’). Some people prefer one, and some the other. I think most of the larger businesses do offer both; even the smaller one I worked for did.
    ‘Slightly Less Evil’ is more expensive for the employee; I don’t know how it differs for the employer, but clearly it isn’t a big enough difference to keep it from being offered.
    Neither one has provided what I would consider useful information for choosing coverage.

  • everstar


    except of course no one is requiring Hobby Lobby to ‘supply’ any such thing.

    I think you left the “yet” out of this sentence.

  • DavidCheatham

    Not only is no one going to require them to supply birth control pill, it is actually _illegal_ for Hobby Lobby to supply birth control pills. Birth control pills, being a scheduled substance, may only be supplied by licensed pharmacies.

    Sometimes I wonder what world some people live in, where random retail outlets are forced or even _allowed_ to dispense prescription medication to their employees.

  • Tricksterson

    Any evidence that there’s any plansto do that  And by eidence I men items of legisatins pending and/or actual quotes.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Okay, may as well inflict this on you, too.  There’s a Pony for this:

    The Bad Apple Chronicles:  Apple Shrugged

    This is a My Little Pony fanfic set in a nightmarish Objectivist company town which rips into Atlas Shrugged like Slack rips into Left Behind, including casting a ponyfied Ayn Rand as the boss villain.  Very surreal.  Enjoy, Slacktiverse.

  • Estproph

    “Employer-provided health insurance is already a form of scrip, not a
    wage. An employee can’t choose to spend their health insurance on a new
    car, for example. They can’t even choose to sell their coverage to
    someone else for cash, whereas with scrip or non-money compensation
    (e.g. stock options) they can theoretically do so if they can find a
    buyer. With health insurance, the company is already dictating what the
    employee can spend that part of their compensation on, so I have a hard
    time taking seriously the argument that slightly tightening the
    restriction is a moral tipping point.”

    Not exactly. Employees can always choose not to participate in their health insurance program, which would mean that the money they save from paying for the program can go into stock options, cars, their own health insurance, etc. If it were really a form of scrip it would be mandatory for employees to take part in the program.

  • Estproph

     “The law now is that employers have to require contraception.”

    That’s not even remotely the law.

  • > That’s not even remotely the law.

    It would be intriguing if it were, though. Presumably employers would be in favor, since it keeps them from having to deal with temporarily losing employees to pregnancy. And it would mean that only unemployed people could have children, which would do some wonky things to our demographics over the next few decades.

  • Thank God I work for the United Methodist Church and not the Hobby Lobby. My church pays for my birth control. http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/2013/01/21/im-glad-my-church-pays-for-my-birth-control/

  • guestaerf

    The Bible is unabiguously against exploitation of workers? Seriously?
    1 Peter 2:18Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward.Ephesians 6:5Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.
    Pretty ambiguous with servant’s rights if th two passages abovve are also included.