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America as a Company Town: Royal Dutch Shell Workers in Penna. Coerced to Show up for Trump

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Anya Litvak at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that a contractor handling the Trump appearance at the Royal Dutch Shell plant instructed the workers not to yell or protest and informed them that they would not to be paid that day unless they came to the Trump event. Their attendance was worth as much as $700 in pay, benefits and overtime. Shell denies having instructed the workers not to protest. This was a White House event and not a campaign rally, on the surface, but we have had all the trappings of campaigning including Trump bashing his political opponents by name and calling on the union workers in attendance to unseat their union leaders if the latter did not support Trump. The contractor attempted to imply that this rally resembled entertainment events when celebrities visited the plant and workers were given off to hear them.

In fact this campaign rally was a way for Royal Dutch Shell to force its workers to show up for Trump and to put them under his political influence. It is all about climate change, because this is a gas extraction plant, and Trump does not believe in global heating. Indeed, he believes that the climate crisis is a Chinese piece of fake news. If you did believe in climate emergency you would stop the extraction of fossil fuels. That would hurt the bottom line of Royal Dutch Shell. As for the workers, while they no doubt benefit from the jobs provided by this extraction venture there are other jobs to be had in the green energy field and indeed wind and solar are the fastest growing job sector in energy.

The entire episode sheds enormous light on the ways in which the United States is one large company town. The company town was an institution of the early 20th century where, for instance, miners would work in a place where they were given housing and staples, the costs of which were deducted from their salaries. These provisions were a form of loan and the workers never quite got out from under their debt burden. Obviously in a company town there is no room for democracy, and workers are not free to speak their minds about company policy or even about national politics. Royal Dutch Shell has managed to re-create the conditions of the company town at their rally for Trump.

In the early 20th century the state of Montana was essentially a company town of Anaconda Mining, and going against the company was a form of suicide. The noir mystery writer Dashiell Hammett maintained that he was offered $5,000 to kill a union agitator named Frank Little. Indeed, noir as a genre of fiction may well owe its existence to this incident, since Hammett was horrified, quit the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and turned to writing.

Noir mysteries (from the French roman noir or "black novel") have as their premise that the very structures of polite society that are to be upheld by the law and which ought to ensure justice for victims are those structures that actually oppress the innocent and commit the murders that the hard-boiled detectives have to solve.

You might say that from the day that Donald J. Trump was elected president, the United States entered a timeline where the whole country is living in a dreary noir pulp novel, but the fact is that Trump's election simply made very clear what has been going on all along.

As for Royal Dutch Shell, it was a major engine of colonial oppression in what is now Indonesia, and there is a sense in which all colonialism is a form of company town writ large. Now, that's America.

Bonus video:

CBS Pittsburgh: "Protesters At Shell Cracker Plant"

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Juan Cole is an American academic and commentator on the modern Middle East and South Asia.  He is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Since 2002, he has written a weblog, Informed Comment (more...)

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