Sixteen Tons

workerErnest Jennings Ford, better known as Tennessee Ernie Ford, died of liver failure in a Reston hospital on October 17, 1991, after attending a White House dinner hosted by George H.W. Bush. Ironically, on October 17, 1955, Sixteen Tons, the iconic coal miner’s lament, was released. The ballad soon became a kind of national anthem for working class America. The lyrics resonate with many memorable lines painting a portrait of a lifetime of the coal industry’s dominance of the lives of workers and the conditions that were the daily fare of these hard, tough men. Not even death could free the miner:

            Saint Peter, don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go; I owe my soul to the company store.

After deductions for rent and tools, scrip was issued to the extent of a miner’s weekly earnings and could be redeemed only at the company store for food and other consumer goods. This economic dependence and life cycle was also dramatically portrayed in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter, also depicting a waning grasp of corporate control of a working community. Loretta Lynn recorded the song of the same title, which included the line:

           That’s the one thing that Daddy made sure of; he shoveled coal to make a poor man’s             dollar.

The coal miner was and remains a symbol of the nation’s demand for a commitment to hard, often heavy, labor to care for one’s family and economic prosperity. It’s a tribute, perhaps more than any other, to nation-building, immigrant employment opportunity, expansion of the frontier, and a basic component of the energy necessary to fuel industry, power railroads, and sate a voracious industrial engine. Today, the coal mining industry is moribund and rapidly shrinking due largely to alternate energy sources as well as antipathy to its destructive results—pollution and black lung disease, among others. The political promises of the current administration have not produced any rebirth of the industry’s heyday, and it’s likely that insufficient nostalgia exists to resurrect its demise while market forces continue to pummel the product.

There’s a strong temptation to celebrate the demise of the more brutish aspects of the coal mining industry, especially the greed of its corporate barons and the passing of the company store. But has this vestige of a passing America disappeared? It comes as no surprise that the ingenuity of corporate America has fashioned contemporary schemes to create more modern company stores.

The Marriott Employees’ Federal Credit Union represents a throwback to the closed-ended economic system pioneered by the coal and other industries. For 2017, Fortune reported the hotel chain’s profits at $3.2 billion, while last month, 20,000 of its workers went on strike across the United States. Although the credit union is legally separate from the parent company, its board of directors consists primarily of Marriott managers. The cozy relationship has enabled a number of high-wage-earning corporate employees to receive favorable mortgage loans for which the majority of Marriott employees could not qualify.

The combination of minimum-wage employment and multiple fee charges for banking services tends to tether workers to a revolving cycle of diminishing availability of take-home pay. Short-term loans may carry up to 40% or 50% interest in a 6–month period. For those workers who participate in direct deposit of their wages, the cycle often means very little of those wages remain for discretionary spending as low account balances are subject to servicing fees.

Marriott workers, like all of us, get another day older and, too often, deeper in debt, imploring St. Peter not to call them.


In a previous article on the demise of Sears [Once Upon a Time in America, VoxFairfax, November 4, 2018] as a model of sharing corporate wealth with employees, a very different America is presented, one where the American worker participates through his labor as a partner in the capitalist scheme.

Categories: Issues, Local, National

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