What was "wage slavery" in company towns?
"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!"
Company towns, towns where virtually all property and services were controlled by the company that owned the town, started appearing in America shortly before the Civil War, They were characterized by a paternalistic attitude towards the workers by the companies' owners. In hard times, a steady wage and company-provided food and shelter can sound like a pretty good deal, but the wages were often paid in "scrip," company-printed currency that could only be spent at stores and establishments owned by the company.
The effect was to increase workers' dependancy on their employers. These employers dictated what the workers could do when off-duty, what churches they had to attend, who they would vote for. The dependancy relationship invited comparisons to slavery. Chattel slaves, the kind the South was infamous for, were kind of expensive to buy and actually represented a bigger investment than "wage slaves."
Employers defended the practice as a moral imperative, calling it "Capitalism with a conscience." It kept otherwise unemployable people fed, sheltered and in church; what other justification was needed?
Many company towns operated in western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, coal country. The most famous, Pullman, was outside of Chicago and the site of a major strike in the late 1890s. The explicit practice died out in the 1920s, though some mining towns had elements of wage slavery well into the 1960s. Company towns have been represented in books ( The Grapes of Wrath ), film (Matewan ) and song ("Sixteen Tons" by Tennessee Ernie Ford, quoted on the title).