Wal-mart didn’t kill the once-vibrant cluster of shops next to a railroad and a creek in the faded old coal town of Kimball, W. Va.—the disappearance of the mines had pretty well taken care of that already. But now that Wal-mart is leaving, too, as one of 154 U.S. stores the company closed in January, the town might be snuffed out for good.
This quote from a Washington Post article describes the circumstances some small towns are facing when Wal-mart recently decided to close 269 stores and lay off more than 16,000 employees. It also prompted a reader of ours to ask how we can reach these types of communities. How can we present the idea of Distributism to the people living in these situations as a solution to their economic problems?
Kimball is representative of communities that are completely dependent by design. Early examples of this were “company towns” established by large-scale industries like mining companies. These were in many ways closed communities where one company owned the land, the stores, the banks, all of the jobs and, because the workers frequently had to go into debt to the company before receiving their first paychecks, the company also effectively owned the employees. Tennessee Ernie Ford’s song, Sixteen Tons, portrays the people in this situation—at least while the company kept that operation going. Kimball was once a community with a vibrant cluster of shops, but its vitality was always dependent on the continued operation of one industry.
The failure of communities built for dependence on one major industry, or even a few companies, provides valuable lessons for other communities in similar situations. Even in major metropolitan areas, the presence of large-scale employment creates significant economic dependence for labor that translates into significant political power for employers. Examples of this abound in those cases where a major manufacturer has considered moving operations out of a community and the officials of state (and sometimes federal) governments rush in to negotiate special deals not available to ordinary citizens or smaller businesses, granting these employers leverage for fear of dispossessing thousands of workers and economically devastating their towns.
Chris Arnade expressed it perfectly in a recent article for The Guardian,
To say that ‘nothing happened to them’ is stunningly wrong. Over the past 35 years the working class has been devalued, the result of an economic version of The Hunger Games. It has pitted everyone against each other, regardless of where they started. Some contestants, such as business owners, were equipped with the fanciest weapons. The working class only had their hands. They lost and have been left to deal on their own.
Can what happened to Kimball help us to find ways to make communities less dependent on large employers?
Many communities with large employers are overconfident that their job security will weather any storm. However, communities economically dependent on finite resources should consider what happens when that resource is no longer available. Whether that day is coming or not, wouldn’t it be wise for these communities to promote the development of local business against their dependency on a single, large employer? Is it smart for local businesses to grow under the assumption that revenue from large employers and its employees is necessary for their very existence and livelihoods?
While contingency planning, including local businesses development, is an important step for surviving the loss of a large employer, it does not address the most economically devastating aspects of such a loss. How does a community deal with the sudden unemployment of such a large percentage of its population? What is needed to minimize the impact of such an event, and what is the best way to provide for that need?
Providing job training and placement and supporting programs that offer financial assistance and start-up loans for new businesses may be the best hope for other businesses to survive the closure of a large employer. That’s a start. However, while programs designed to locate new jobs for these families are essential, the reality is that there won’t be enough jobs available within these communities for families to make ends meet. Even if these communities try to mitigate the impact by encouraging local businesses growth, and if the other businesses actually budgeted their operation so that they could continue to operate without catering to large businesses, or to its employees, it is unlikely that they will have the means to hire additional staff. In fact, local businesses will be forced to reduce staff just to remain open.
I don’t pretend to know the details of what happened with the mine workers in Kimball’s case, but I think it is reasonable to imagine how different things might have turned out if the operation had been worker-owned. Utilizing the cooperative’s profits and shared resources might have prepared them for the prospect of the mine’s closing. Profits could have been directed to offer job training and job placement, business loans, or unemployment support. Enlisting the assistance of churches and charitable organizations would have provided additional help and minimized the amount of support needed from government agencies.
I am not suggesting that these steps would have neatly eliminated all of the hurdles and suffering from the closure of a large employer. These propositions require as much forethought and planning under Distributism as they would under capitalism or any other model. However, the fact that cooperatives have ownership and capital at their disposal makes a big difference and offers a real alternative to the shrugging we normally experience under the status quo.
Returning to the question of our reader, how do we reach out to these communities?
Achieving what is necessary for a community to survive this type of scenario involves an adjustment in the current prevailing view of the relationship between employers and employees, between business and other businesses, between businesses and the communities in which they operate, and ultimately in the priorities we assign to immediate personal or corporate profit. We need to do what we can to spread the idea that there really is a better way than what capitalists and socialists propose. We need to explain how our political divide between “conservatives” and “liberals” actually helps to perpetuate the economic problems in our society because neither of them addresses real problems. We need to help people see that what is typically called our free market is, in many ways, not truly free. Most of all, to the extent we can, we need to practice what we preach in our society as it exists today. This especially applies to what we say about social responsibility. If we are not willing to exercise solidarity when we have the chance, how can we expect others to accept what we say about it?