Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Are Silicon Valley "campuses" the 21st century version of coal mining company towns?

I was reading a recent article about the new Facebook "campus" that is being built in Menlo Park at the old Sun Microsystems facility. It's on 57 acres with an additional 22 adjacent acres set aside for more expansion. Later in the article,  it mentions a Facebook official saying they "envisioned a long courtyard at the hear of the cluster of buildings being turned into a play on a European street scene where workers could exchange ideas in an outdoor social scene."

I have some friends and former students who are working for other Silicon Valley companies with similar "campuses". They tell me they love it because they have housing, laundry facilities, dining halls, some stores all on campus. They tell me they don't need a car because everything they need is right there. A couple of them said it was like being in college. Of course, I always ask them about salaries and they were predictably decent salaries. A few of them said they were taking salary cuts in lieu of stock options. I started to get a funny feeling about that but couldn't quite put my finger on what was bothering me.

A couple of weeks ago, I was watching one of my favorite movies, "Matewan", which tells the tale of a struggle between WV coal miners and the local coal mining company. The struggle resulted in a shootout that became known as the Matewan Massacre. Now, my reason for liking the movie is that a bunch of my musician friends are featured in the movie. Anyway, while I was watching the movie, it suddenly hit me why I felt a little uneasy when I was talking with my former students about their jobs in the Silicon Valley campuses.

If you look at the history of coal mining towns, you find that everything in the town was owned by the company. Miners were paid in scrip and a portion of their salary was deducted for living expenses.  You paid for items in the company stores with scrip. Basically, you paid for everything in scrip.

The Facebook article got me thinking about the parallels between the Silicon Valley campuses and the coal mining company towns of the early 20th century. Here's some parallels that occurred to me:

  1. All "living" services - housing, food, laundry, schools, transportation, entertainment, employment provided and owned by the company.
  2. Coal Company "scrip" = 21st Century stock options. Stock options can't buy me a car :-).
  3. Miners/Workers aren't encouraged to leave the town/campus. Companies want them to stay on campus and work more than the traditional 40 hour week.
You could probably find more parallels but these are just a few that came to me. 
I hope this "campus" model of employment doesn't lead to abuses such as those that happened in our history.