The Company Store

I grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, specifically the Keweenaw Peninsula. The area is sometimes referred to as the “copper country”, because there’s so much of the stuff up there.

Anyway, as with most mines of the time, miners who worked for Calumet and Hecla Mining Company were required to buy all their own tools before they worked, often from the company store, which would allow them to buy on credit that they’d have to pay back later out of their subsequent paychecks. The result of this situation was that miners were already in debt before they even started work.

I won’t drag out all the details, but there are parallels to be drawn with the ever-ballooning student loans we’re seeing today. Before workers even start their jobs, they’re required to buy the tools necessary for them to work, and are in debt right out of the gate. Only, instead of fifty cents for a hardhat and a dollar for a shovel, it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars for a certification, often for jobs that never used to require specialized education.

This is especially unsettling when you look at how increasing numbers of graduates are drawn to jobs in finance because the pay is higher and will allow them to pay off their enormous loans more rapidly. Meaning, students take on debt from banks, then go to work for the same banks that give out student loans, so that they can pay off those loans, and in the process figure out clever new ways to manipulate finances to benefit those who are already wealthy and penalize those who are not. (Even more disturbing is that they’re being drawn to these kinds of profit-maximization jobs instead of fields involving science and research, which offer a considerably greater benefit to human progress, prosperity, and civilization.)

In the end, it’s all about control — by forcing students into debt right out of the gate and making them more desperate for jobs, you’re making them more complacent and less willing to complain or demand fairness. (You can amplify this by refusing to hire more employees, even if you’ve made record profits and you have more workload than your current “human capital” (a rather disgusting term) can tackle in forty hours a week — it’s cheaper to manipulate them into working longer hours, especially if they’re salaried without overtime, than it is to hire more workers, and ensuring a shortage of jobs means you can leverage the growing pool of unemployed against your workers as a threat. And by keeping insurance inexplicably married to employment, you’re making people even less willing to stand up for themselves.)

It would seem the “competition” that conservatives keep championing is a race to the bottom, where recent graduates compete over who can put up with the most abuse, the lowest pay and benefits, the longest hours, and the worst lives. We can do better than this. The America that I believe in, the America I know we can be, is better than this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *