North Dakota Man Camps in a Comparative Context

Over the last month I’ve made my way through Bobby Weaver’s newest book on the Texas Oil Boom of the first half of the 20th century. It is an engaging read. 

More interesting for my research though is his brief discussion of the arrival of corporate man-camps in the East Texas book of 1930-1935. He describes the strategy of the Humble Oil Company (which eventually merged with Standard Oil of New Jersey to become Exxon). Humble built a town of 4 and 5 bedroom houses for their salaried employees to induce them to bring their families and make a home in the oil patch. These houses had water and electricity and other amenities. For hourly employees of significant value they prepared a series of lots with water, sanitation and power and invited them to move or building houses on these lots for a modest monthly rent. Workers not fortunate enough to find lodging in Humble’s Type 1 or Type 2 camps made do. They lived “poor boy” camps which were sometimes nothing more than tents in a field or a windbreak. These larger camps which have nice parallels with our Type 3 camps sometimes swelled to over 100 residents. Weaver describes one such camp on the outskirts of Kilgore, Texas in a place called “Happy Hollow” which would grow to close to 300 residents. From time to time the police would break up the camp – just as they presumably do to Type 3 camps in the Bakken – but the camp would reliably reappear throughout the duration of the boom.

I was fortunate enough to receive an email from Tristan Bruslé at the Centre d’Études Himalayennes who does research on the situation surrounding Nepalese in Qatar (and elsewhere). In a recent article in the South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, he described life in the labor camps associated with this booming Persian Gulf state as a “life of exception” following Giorgio Agamben’s development of this concept in his Homo Sacer. Agamben concludes his study of “the state of except” with a short discussion of mid-century concentration camps. Without simplifying a rich and complex article, Bruslé emphasized how Nepalese migrants were held apart from mainstream society in Qatar through the location of the camps, the conditions of the facilities, and laws and customs that prevented the immigrant workers from accessing most parts of Qatari society. While Bruslé does little to explore the Qatari justification for these policies, he notes that while in the camps the Nepalese experience a leveling of social distinctions present in Nepal and a general sense of being trapped, jailed, and dehumanized. The camps described by Bruslé have parallels with our Type 1 camps, but seem to allow for greater personalization of space and often house workers for longer periods than the short term labor force accommodated by Type 1 camps in the Bakken. 

In a 2007 article in Work, Employment, and Society, Pun Ngai and Chris Smith studied dormitory labor in China and understand this regime as the intersection of larger transnational labor process with local practices. In doing so they distinguish dormitory labor practices from earlier models of Fordism which emphasized the paternal role of the corporation and draw upon David Harvey’s (and others) view of global capital as radically disruptive to both time and space. They summarize a key argument from Harvey’s Spaces of Capital in a particular useful way: 

“Analysis of the spatiality of transnational political economy highlights a fundamental paradox central to global capital: that the imperative of capital flight – the deterritorization of production on a global scale – means nevertheless that workplaces require provisional setting within specific locales to ensure that surpluses are expropriated within a given time-frame (Harvey, 2001)”

Despite Ngai’s and Smith’s emphasis on the local influence of practices like dormitory labor, it is hard not to see the parallel with workforce housing in the Bakken which shares some aspects of the Just-in-Time labor practices common to the textile industry supported by the Chinese dormitory regime. Having space to accommodate additional labor or – in some cases – access to surplus labor stored in camps allows companies to accommodate the fluctuations in the global oil market and local production.

None of these circumstances are a direct parallel for what is going on in the Bakken, but they all provide points of comparative reference that will enrich the significance of our final analysis. Moreover, the remind people in North Dakota that what is going on here really is as much about global forms of labor organization as it is the situation in local communities.


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