Remember the hit song, “Sixteen Tons,” recorded by several artists and taken to #1 by Tennessee Ernie Ford many decades ago? Whether or not you’re a fan of that type of music, most people are familiar with the famous line, “St. Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the Company Store,” meaning, “Hey, I can’t die … I’ve got bills to pay.”
The line referred to Company Towns of the coal-mining industry, where the company owned everything: coal, land, and houses. Workers were paid with scrip―coupons redeemable only at the Company Store, where prices were artificially inflated.
Rent and other services were also deducted from miners’ earnings. Many of them never received cash, which means they had no savings, no freedom to shop elsewhere, and remained in debt to the company from the start. “I owe my soul to the Company Store” was nearly literal in meaning. They owned a man’s life. A miner in debt could not legally leave his job for greener pastures without facing arrest and imprisonment. In some cases, it was nothing more than a modified system of slavery. In a fierce battle in New York State against that system, two North Country communities played a prominent role.
In the late 1800s, as iron mining became increasingly profitable in the Adirondacks, the concept of the Company Town was adopted, notably at Lyon Mountain and Ausable Forks. A large proportion of the population at those sites consisted of immigrants, whose sparse knowledge of English along with a previous life of poverty and religious or political persecution made them particularly susceptible to abuse.
Companies took advantage of the situation to earn great financial rewards on the backs of immigrants and the poor. Social activists took note and waged battles against the manipulative policies used by businesses to control their workers. In 1890, the focus of that battle in New York State was on the Weekly Payment Law, which would require companies to pay employees each week.
Sitting here in 2013, it sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Have you ever received a weekly paycheck? Your reply might be, “Didn’t everyone always get paid weekly?” The answer is a resounding NO. It isn’t and wasn’t a birthright―like everything else, it came at a price.
The common components of today’s workday existed only after workers protested for change, putting their lives on the line (and often losing their lives) in confrontations with companies. The eight-hour day, periodic breaks, extra pay for overtime―those issues and more, no matter how big or small, were won through worker protests.
There was a time when people were not paid with money, when sweatshops were common in America, when young children worked in factories instead of going to school, and yes, when workers were paid whenever it was convenient for the company, usually only once per month.
In the late 1800s, a New York City newspaper, The World, adopted the cause for weekly pay. In support, they ran a series of lengthy articles with personal accounts from men living in Lyon Mountain and Ausable Forks. Combined with the efforts of clergymen and social workers, the impact was substantial. There was no bloodshed in those communities over the Weekly Payment Law, but both were prominently featured in the struggle.
Among the social do-gooders of the North Country at that time was Reverend George Muller of Plattsburgh. He fought long and hard in seeking justice for downtrodden workers, but it was in 1890 when he rose to the spotlight. Leading the labor movement at that time was Samuel Gompers, known today as the founder of the AFL (American Federation of Labor) and regarded as one of the most important men in the nation’s labor history.
Speaking before a senate committee in Albany, Muller acquitted himself so well that Gompers applauded him, offered heartfelt thanks, and told the committee he could add little to such an eloquent presentation. Here are a few excerpts from Muller’s statement in the senate:
“In the vicinity of Plattsburgh, where I reside, a great deal of mining is done, and the majority of those employed in these mines are in a condition that must be seen to be fully appreciated. This year I spent several weeks among these people. They are in a truly pitiable condition. They are in such straits that it is of vital importance that compensation for their labor shall be given as soon as possible to the time it is earned. Justice demands this of their employers … that they receive their pay in cash, and at intervals sufficiently frequent that they will be able to pay cash for what they eat and wear.
“… In the iron region, under this system, it is almost impossible to keep out of debt. The Company Stores give their employees credit and charge terrible prices for their goods. Other merchants are kept out by the refusal of the company to sell them land on which to erect a store. This is the state of affairs at Lyon Mountain. Here the Chateaugay Ore & Iron Company has a store, and I have in my hand a list of its prices and of prices at which merchants in Plattsburgh will deliver there the same or better goods.”
Muller then read a list of articles in which the average Company Store price was fully 25 percent higher than those of Plattsburgh merchants. Here’s one example, followed by a reference to Ausable Forks.
“At the Lyon Mountain Company store, they sell flour for $9.50 a barrel. Plattsburg merchants will deliver there a better quality of flour for $7 a barrel. Just think of it! Men with families who earn $1.10 and $1.25 a day have to pay the Chateaugay Ore & Iron Company a $2.50 bonus [two days’ pay!] on every barrel of flour they eat.
“… at Ausable Forks … the terrible situation of those men, many of whom I know have toiled half their lives without knowing such a thing as a payday, and who, the company claims, are now in its debt. When men are so poor that they can hardly live, they have to pay more for the necessaries of life than the man who can squander millions and not feel the loss. I tell you, these men are as much prisoners as any convicts in Dannemora Prison.”
Speaking out in opposition to the proposed law were most of the major industries, including railroads, who said it could put them out of business. Hamilton Harris, representing the biggest railroad company, didn’t mince words: “It is absolutely impossible for the New York Central to pay its employees oftener than once a month.” With that, Muller leapt to his feet, countering that it was “merely a matter of arithmetic.”
In the weeks to follow, editorials in many newspapers supported the new law. They conceded the annoyance and expense it would add to running a business, but noted that the benefits to employees would far outweigh the disadvantages to employers.
Three months after Muller’s appearance, the bill was signed into law by the governor. The order was given that “every manufacturing, mining, lumbering, steamboat, telegraph, telephone, and municipal corporation, and every incorporated express and water company must, after July 1 next, pay weekly each of its employees.” And I’ll note here that the New York Central didn’t miss a beat, despite the claims that complying was impossible.
As usual, the bill had been watered down by lobbyists, but it was still a huge victory for labor. When you happily take home your weekly paycheck, tip your cap to those who made it possible. A lot of suffering was endured by many, including those of our mining communities, before a seemingly obvious system of weekly pay for weekly work became a reality in this, the land of freedom, fairness, and opportunity.
A little sarcasm there, yes, but this country was founded on dissent and free thinking, not on spouting mindless platitudes about how great we are. Criticism brings about change and keeps us on our toes. In the case of the Weekly Payment Law, for too long we were flat-footed and wrong.
Photo: Headline in the New York World (1890)