A Square Deal: The Legacy of Company Townsby Devon Zuegel
Carousel rides were free of charge in Johnson City. The workday was just 8-hours long, comprehensive healthcare and affordable housing were easily available. Swimming pools, theaters, and golf courses were open to the public. To factory workers in the early 1900s, Johnson City was utopia.
Under president George F. Johnson, the Endicott-Johnson Corporation was far more than just a company. He offered benefits provided by few other employers at the time and built what he called "Square Deal" towns for his employees. Workers flocked to EJ's shoe factories. EJ was consistently profitable, despite providing the highest wages in the industry.
George F's Square Deal offered employees stability and security even in harsh economic times. However, the deal had implications beyond the employees' working and living conditions; it demanded absolute loyalty from workers and discouraged unionizing in a time when the conflict between labor and industry was at its height.
An emphasis on productivity of all members of society was a common thread in many utopian visions, and Johnson City is no exception. As a company town, daily life was structured around factory hours and the demands of the market. Workers were blessed with world-class recreational facilities and access to amenities, but it was clear to all that the key reason they were there was to work. This productivity and lack of boredom was critical to Johnson City's success.
The need for company towns declined over the course of the 1900s as national affluence rose and factory work was outsourced. Today, the company town is considered a relic of the Industrial Revolution. However, the fundamental concept is still alive and well right here in Silicon Valley. Companies such as Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn have adopted their own form of welfare capitalism that reflects the realities of the 21st century.
For example, the geographical towns of the 20th century aren't possible here in the Silicon Valley today. The Bay Area is already densely populated, and more importantly individualism has become a core value of the middle class. Well-paid engineers and their families are not interested in living in identical, cheap homes in a remote little town. As a result, these tech giants don't have Google City or Facebook Farm. However, they have a close substitute. Large swathes of residential areas in Mountain View are leased by Google to Googlers, and an entire department at Facebook helps employees find housing near their campus in Menlo Park. When a new Google employee moves into his townhouse, he's greeted by an Android statue and a little sign that says "Welcome to your new Google home!".
Meanwhile, benefits offered by these tech companies go even further than George F ever imagined. The companies offer free laundry and maid services, provide three meals per day, and even plan international vacations and charity work for their employees. The company town of the 20th century is gone, but its paternalistic spirit has lived on and even grown here and the Silicon Valley.