What kind of company town will Tesla build around its Gigafactories?

The Verge went to the Gigafactory this week for the first time since the official opening in 2016. I won’t go on for too long about the experience here; we’ll publish a more in-depth look soon. (Suffice to say, it’s a big place! Who knew.)

But what struck me about Reno, Sparks, and the factory itself is how it is (and isn’t) like some other really famous company towns.

I have a mild obsession with company towns, and two, in particular, always jump to mind. The first is the community Henry Ford built around the River Rouge plant in Michigan. River Rouge was a vertically integrated plant — Elon Musk has said it was an inspiration for Tesla’s similar approach with the Gigafactory — and Ford applied this thinking to his workers, too.

Ford famously pioneered a $5-a-day wage at his factories to allow (in part, at least) the company’s workers to be able to afford the cars they made.

More than just enabling them to buy the company’s car, Ford had the company offer friendly loans for employees to buy houses, and, in some cases, he provided housing for his workers. His desire to fully integrate his workers into the company vision ran so deeply that he even set up a school to teach English to his immigrant employees.

Ford, a noted racist, made graduates of that school dress in indigenous clothing, step into a giant “melting pot” prop on the stage, change into “American” suits and hats, and emerge — and this is according to the Henry Ford Museum — “waving American flags, having undergone a spiritual smelting process where the impurities of foreignness were burnt off as slag to be tossed away leaving a new 100% American.”

Ford didn’t stop there, either. The company had a “Sociological Department” that investigated whether employees were being “model Americans.” He also cleared a huge swath of the Brazilian rainforest in an attempt to build a rubber factory, and he created an entire town for the workers, hospital and church included. It was called Fordlandia. (There’s a whole book about it that I can’t recommend enough.)

The second company town I always think about is called Lost Hills, which is run by Wonderful, a major California farming company that also makes POM juice and Fiji water. Wonderful’s owners, a billionaire couple named Stewart and Lynda Resnick, have built trailer parks for field workers, and they employ dietitians and trainers to push their employees to eat healthy and exercise more.

The story of Wonderful and Lost Hills was captured in this vivid California Sunday Magazine piece, which I also strongly endorse. The TL;DR is that Wonderful’s is a more nuanced situation than Ford’s Big Brother-ish approach to creating a company town. While there’s plenty of reason to bristle at the Resnicks’ vision and their approach, there’s definitely more room to argue that they’re doing some good for their employees.

To be clear, I’m not saying Tesla is like either of these examples. But after a few days in the Reno-Sparks area, it’s hard to deny that something is brewing. It’s part of the fabric. Step into a convenience store to pay for gas at the right time of day, and you’re likely to spot a Gigafactory worker in a black Tesla baseball cap making a pit stop before or after their shift change. The highway is dotted with cars like the Model 3, S, and X, though not in the same overwhelming numbers as those close to the company’s Fremont, California factory. Tesla is an easy, even common, topic of conversation at Reno restaurants, hotels, or even the Walmart parking lot.

Beyond that, though, Tesla once offered temporary trailers to newly relocated employees. And it’s considering building a housing compound to accommodate a coming hiring boom. The Gigafactory already employs more than 10,000 workers (including the Panasonic employees), and housing in the area is stretched so thin that a few are living in their cars in various parking lots.

Tesla is also now firmly on the path to a global Gigafactory expansion, with a lease signed in China and a European location announcement on the horizon. These new Gigafactories will, in turn, employ thousands of new employees in countries with different cultural norms and protections for workers. It’s not quite the same scenario that Amazon recently found itself in as it pushed to find new headquarters, but whatever path Tesla takes as it moves forward, it’s worth keeping cases like Ford and Wonderful in mind along the way.

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