September 6 – Sixteen Tons

Coal scrip (Image courtesy Wikipedia)

Coal scrip
(Image courtesy Wikipedia)

This is an image of company scrip. These little metal coins were given to the workers of a company and could only be spent in a company store to buy company-approved goods. The paper form of this was sometimes referred to as “shinplasters” because that’s about all you could use it for once you left the company. By paying workers in company scrip, a company could control where they lived and what they bought and how much they paid.

Company housing paid for in company scrip (My camera)

Company housing paid for in company scrip
(My camera)

During the 1800’s it was very common to advertise what looked like better than usual wages for a job. Once the workers got to the work site, they’d be required to live in the company housing and would be paid in scrip. The company stores would typically have prices 10%-20% higher than other stores; indeed, some companies made more money off of their company stores than they did from their actual goods! As a result of the high rent and expensive food, those “better than usual wages” often left a worker in debt to the company at the end of the month. (That’s what the song “Sixteen Tons” is about.)

A company-provided Sunday School where the three R's were taught (My camera)

A company-provided Sunday School where the three R’s were taught
(My camera)

In 1894, company scrip led to the first national Labor Day holiday. Pullman was a railroad baron who was famous for two things: his luxurious railroad cars and the terrible conditions in his company towns. When the stock market crashed in 1893, travel dropped precipitously which meant that Pullman started to lose money on his railroad business. He therefore cut the wages of his workers but left the cost of their rent and the food in the company stores at the same level. As a result, his workers instituted a national strike that brought railroad travel to a virtual standstill.

The US government stepped in and forced the workers to allow scabs in, often at the point of a bayonet. In the aftermath of the violence, the US Congress passed a law establishing the first Monday in September as “Labor Day”; Pullman was later investigated and denounced for running an unAmerican company town, and four years after the strike the Illinois Supreme Court forced  Pullman to divest all of his holdings in the company town giving the union the final victory.

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