“Sixteen tons and what do you get — another day older and deeper in debt. St. Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go. I owe my soul to the company store.”
I used to sing this song alone and later with Tennessee Ernie Ford with headache inducing frequency according to my parents. The thudding deep slow beat of my own voice put me to sleep at night.
For the young or otherwise uninitiated, “Sixteen Tons” was Tennessee Ernie Ford’s signature hit in 1955 even though Merle Travis first introduced it in 1946. The music tells the story of working in a coal mine and having to buy provisions from the company that owned the mine at an amount just about equal to the wages the company paid.
In my kid way I felt terrible for the miner when I came to understand the story. I had to be reassured that those things just didn’t happen anymore. Life went on and I stopped singing “Sixteen Tons” when I hit puberty and fell in love with Ricky Nelson instead.
I never thought of it again until the deep sad refrain came into my head while reading the latest Boeing story. No bleep, it’s true — I heard, “ … owe my soul to the company store … ”
I was born, grew up and lived in Seattle during the time the Boeing Company was Seattle. So went Boeing, so went Seattle. I saw the billboard that read “Will the last one leaving Seattle turn out the lights?” following a major airline recession. A lot has changed with the development and growth of high tech entrepreneurial companies like Microsoft and Amazon and all their innovative offspring. I’m not sure if that’s when Boeing’s loyalty for Seattle eroded but it’s just not the same.
When Boeing shed its loyalty by first moving corporate headquarters to Chicago and then establishing a plant in right to work South Carolina it meant a loss of thousands of jobs to our state. Any pretense of Boeing solidarity with the community went with it leaving a confused sense of betrayal to all us Boeing loyalists.
“ … Sixteen years and what will we get? … ”
The beat goes on. Just last November Boeing threatened to plant its newest venture of the 777X anywhere but in Washington unless the state put up substantial tax breaks. The state did to the tune of $8.7 billion over 16 years, breaking all records for tax subsidies given by states to businesses. Two months following the state’s piece of gold, the machinists voted for concessions to their wage and retirement structure after having rejected two earlier Boeing offers. Boeing made known how many other states with workers willing to work for less were in the wings (pun intended).
What a disappointment now when Boeing announces that it is shipping over 4,000 jobs out of the state, leaving some highly specialized engineers either out of state (at less pay) or out of work. Apparently neither the state nor union agreements keep certain jobs in the state. We can only hope that in the end there will be a meaningful net gain of jobs.
Boeing clearly owns the store and taxpayers across the state are incurring a debt that may never be satisfied. Remember in the early part of the new century, Boeing was granted “tax incentives” to keep the manufacturing of the 787 in the state only to lose parts to overseas and South Carolina. It’s enough to make one think that Boeing is eating its cake and ours, too.
There is a huge question as to whether or not the ordinary taxpayer wants to or should make up the difference. Given our votes on taxes, the public, if asked, would say no. We weren’t asked. So the state struggles to fund its legal responsibility for the education of children and we struggle to meet the cost of keeping up local services.
Given a choice most people would like to pay less sales tax or business tax or whatever tax just like Boeing but ordinary people don’t have that choice except in levies or bonds for local services. We won’t vote for record tax breaks or record taxes. The recent resounding defeat of the Sequim school bond makes the point of our careful financial stewardship when the bond taxes just seemed too much.
The song is no longer about paying wages to the company in order to eat; rather the modern version raps about paying the company’s taxes in order to have a job and an economy which is sort of the same thing. The taxpayer pays more taxes or goes without. Boeing pays far less than its obligation in taxes and doesn’t go without. Boeing has left its family to fend for itself.
Doesn’t it make you wonder who really owes their soul to the company store?
Bertha D. Cooper is retired from a 40-plus year career as a health care administrator focusing on the delivery system as a whole. She still does occasional consulting. She is a featured columnist at the Sequim Gazette. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.