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Blacks, Unions, & Organizing in the South, 1956-1996

A DOCUMENTARY HISTORY

Compiled by Rudolph Lewis

 
 

 

THE DISINHERITED: A Brief History 

of the Agricultural Workers Union (1934-1959)

By H. L. Mitchell

In July, 1934, eighteen sharecroppers me in an abandoned school on the Fairview cotton plantation near the town of Tyronza, Arkansas to found the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. Eleven of the men were white and seven were Negro.

The impetus for the formation of this interracial organization of people at the bottom of the agricultural ladder came as a direct result of the adoption of the New Deal farm program, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), under aegis of Henry Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture. The sharecroppers were convinced that if they were to share equitably in the benefits of AAA along with the plantation owners, they must have an organization to represent them.

Early in the fall of 1934, a number of sharecroppers on the Fairview Plantation received notices that because of the reduction of crops, their services were no longer required. However, a section of the AAA contract provided that each landlord must maintain the same number of tenants on his land and permit then to use part of the government rented acreage to produce food for their families and livestock. The first action of the Union was to secure the services of an attorney and to file suit in the U.S. District Court against the owner of the Fairview plantation, to prevent his eviction of 40 sharecroppers, all members of the Union. 

In an effort to enlist the support of Henry Wallace in their plight, the Union next sent a delegation of give men to Washington to ask Mr. Wallace to enforce the AAA contract and prevent the plantation owner from evicting the sharecroppers. Mr. Wallace met with the group, promised to investigate and to consider intervening in their law suit. An investigator was sent to Arkansas. She was Mrs. Mary Connor Myers whose report was never made public, but it was learned that her findings substantiated the Union's charge that sharecroppers were being evicted by the thousands as a result of the AAA program.

Gardner Jackson, Jerome Frank and others then in the Department of Agriculture sought to persuade the Secretary to enforce the rights of sharecroppers and tenant farmers and to become a party to their lawsuit. Mr. Wallace refused to do so and Judge Frank, Gardner Jackson and several others were ousted from the Department in what was known as the "purge of AAA," early in 1935. The Southern Tenant Farmers Union's suit was thrown out by the U.S. District Court on the technicality that since sharecroppers were not direct parties to the contract between the Department of Agriculture and the land owner, they had no legal rights under it.

Soon after the court acted, local law enforcement officers began arresting and jailing union leaders on the basis that they were violating such laws as "enticing laborers," "barratry" and other obscure statutes. A young Methodist minister, Ward Rodgers, engaged in teaching W.P.A. adult education classes, was jailed on charge of anarchy and blasphemy. He had addressed one of the Negro leaders as "mister" at an open Union meeting. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Union lawyer and outstanding Americans such as Norman Thomas, were able to get the man released from jail. Mr. Thomas made several trips to Arkansas and in appearance on radio and public platforms, forcibly called attention to the "plight of the sharecroppers."

Early in 1935, a reign of terror was unleashed in Arkansas by plantation interests operating as "night riders." Homes of Union members were shot into, meetings were broken up, two men were killed, dozens were beaten, others had to leave the state. Nevertheless, the Union continued, and during the fall of 1935, led a successful strike of cotton pickers which resulted in a substantial wage increase. The union was again able to operate openly in Arkansas and organization spread to other states. Thousands of sharecroppers and wage workers joined its ranks.

In the spring of 1936, there was another strike of cotton field workers. Again Union meetings were broken up; picket lines attacked by mobs; Union men were arrested and forced to work plantations owned by their jailers. A woman social worker from Memphis and a minister from Little Rock were flogged by a band of plantation owners. A mob attacked the president of the Union in a county court house and almost lynched him. Rev. James Myers of the Federal Council of Churches, along with several other out-of-state ministers on an investigation trip into Arkansas, was held for questioning. Dr. Sherwood Eddy and a party met similar treatment in another area.

The March of time made a two reel movie of the events that occurred. This movie was shown throughout the country. National magazines and newspapers such as the New York Tims ran articles on the embattled sharecroppers in Arkansas. The governor of Arkansas sent in the national Guard and the strike was broken. However, U.S. Attorney General Homer Cummings sent investigators and special prosecutors into the area. One of the chief offenders, a local deputy sheriff, Paul D. Peacher of Earle, Ar., was tried and convicted of peonage.

President Roosevelt appointed a Commission on Farm Tenancy the same year. An officer of the Union served on this presidential commission. Out of the report of the presidential commission came the resettlement and rehabilitation of low income farm families. The Union's representative on the Farm Tenancy Commission filed a minority report calling for cooperative farm projects. If there had not been a union in existence and widespread interest aroused by its activities, it is doubtful whether there would have been either a presidential commission on farm tenancy or a Farm Security Administration program.

In 1937 the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, believing that it could be more effective, sought affiliation with the C.I.O. John L. Lewis put the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU) in the C.I.O. cannery and agricultural workers union led by Donald Henderson, a member of the central committee of the Communist Party of the U.S.A. Henderson attempted to oust the native southern leadership and take over the Southern Tenant Farmers Union for his political party. After nearly two years of internal strife, the STFU withdrew from the C.I.O. union with its membership decimated. The C.I.O. expelled the Henderson union ten years later as being dominated by communists.

Early in 1939, a demonstration occurred in Southeast Missouri. Several hundred Negro and white families, evicted from the plantations, camped out on the highways in protest against the change being made by plantation owners who were substituting wage work for the age old sharecropping system.

The union appealed to Mrs. Roosevelt, requesting her help in getting relief for the families camped on the Missouri highways. She asked the President to have the National Guard in Missouri provide tents to shelter the people from the winter weather and in her column, called on the public to send food and clothing to those who were hungry and homeless. Aubrey Williams, then head of the National Youth Administration, asked Mrs. Roosevelt to see H.L. Mitchell, then Secretary of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, who told her about the people camped on the highways in Missouri.

The families on the highways were removed by local authorities and scattered about in churches, vacant houses and barns on the back country roads just before the National Guard trucks arrived from Jefferson City with the tents. Some weeks later a delegation from the Union called on Dr. Will Alexander and proposed that a permanent labor homes project be established in Southeast Missouri by the farm security administration. Within a year the Delmo Labor Homes were built by F.S.A. and 600 families, many of whom had once camped on the highways, were provided with comfortable homes.

In 1943 when the Farm Security Administration was under attack by the Farm Bureau and wrecked, the Union enlisted the help of a group citizens in St, Louis, among them Bishop Scartlett, and 550 of the Delmo Labor homes were saved. The house are still in use and are now owned by white and Negro farm worker families, many of them migrants who follow the crops each year.

During World War II the Southern Tenant Farmers Union slowly rebuilt its membership in Arkansas and other states. It sent its unemployed members out of the South to work on seasonal jobs on farms and in food processing plants. Unemployed farm workers were recruited by the Union in cooperation with the war Manpower Commission and the Farm Security Administration and sent to Arizona, California and Texas to pick the long staple cotton needed by the army for barrage balloon manufacture, and others went to Florida to help harvest fruits and vegetables.

Soon Congress passed a law prohibiting use of government funds for recruiting and transporting farm workers to jobs outside their home counties. This law stopped the Union workers from being recruited and transported by the government agencies to out of state jobs. But the Union set up an organized migration plan with the assistance of another union which had contracts in food plants and on the large Seabrook Farms in New Jersey. During World war II, 2000 or more adult workers secured jobs in New Jersey and other eastern states for two and three months each year. This organized migration program has been conducted intermittently ever since, and it is believed that here in embryo is a plan that will eventually provide a solution to the migrant labor problem.

Largely because of the success of the above organized migration program, in 1946 the American Federation of Labor was persuaded to accept the Union as one of its affiliated national unions. The following year, with AFL encouragement and financial assistance from some its more enlightened unions, a campaign was launched in California to organize farm workers. The 12,000-acre Di Giorgio Fruit Corp. ranch was organized.

The employer refused to bargain with the Union and 1,000 workers went on strike. The strike lasted two years. There was an attempt to wipe out the local leadership. A strike meeting was fired into, the local union president was injured severely. The corporation then secured injunctions under the new Taft-Hartley Act and prohibited the Union as well as other unions from boycotting the Di Giorgio products. Strike breakers, Mexican Nationals legally imported under contract, were first used and then the AFL succeeded in stopping their use, illegal aliens from Mexico, know as "wetbacks," were employed in Di Giorgio. In spite of the loss of this strike, the Union persisted in California, establishing local organizations in every important agricultural area of the state.

A strike affecting 40,000 cotton pickers in California was won and an informal contract with the principal employers agreed upon. By 1949, hundred of thousands of illegal workers from Mexico were crossing the border into the United states each year. Native Americans, the majority of whom were of Mexican descent, found it increasingly difficult to earn a living from farm work. Entire rural communities were abandoned as more and more Mexican wetbacks arrived to replace the resident farm workers.

In a final desperate effort to stem the tide, the Union turned to the Imperial Valley in southern California, seeking to stop the influx of illegal workers at its source. A demonstration by 6,000 local farm workers led by the Union in Imperial County was almost successful. With assistance from unions in Mexico, the border was manned by picket lines of union men from both countries and the loop holes were temporarily plugged. One of the Union organizers also had an idea, which involved the duty if citizens who see a crime being committed, to make a "citizens' arrest." Soon all the union members were arresting Mexican wetbacks and turning them in to the immigration authorities for deportation across the border. The Imperial Valley was cleaned out of illegal workers, but the U.S. Department of Labor refused to return 4,000 legally imported contract workers still employed, and Secretary Tobin permitted additional thousands to be brought in to harvest the crops.

Recalling how the farm tenancy problem had been improved, the Union proposed to President Truman that he appoint a Presidential Commission to investigate the farm labor problem. With the help of others, including Mr. Green of AFL and Mr. Murray of CIO, President Truman was prevailed upon to establish the President's Commission on Migratory Labor in Agriculture. This Commission made its report in 1951. In the ensuing political campaign of 1952 and the election of President Eisenhower, nothing much was done about this significant report on migratory labor.

The President's commission report did help bring an end to the wholesale employment of Mexican wetbacks on the farms of the southwestern states. After Senator Douglas of Illinois got a bill through the Senate to penalize employers, (though the legislation was killed in the House of Representatives) the administration acted to enforce the immigration laws. However, an agreement was made whereby the corporation farmers stopped employing illegal aliens and were assured of all the Mexican workers they wanted. Instead of wetbacks, they secured contract workers legally imported from Mexico under conditions not much better than those prevailing for illegal aliens.

Meanwhile in the Southern states the agricultural economy was changing rapidly. During World war II, thousands of new industries were located in the South. The plantations were being mechanized and larger crops of cotton were produced on smaller  acreages. Many former cotton plantations became livestock farms. Nearly all sharecroppers became casual wage workers, finding only a few weeks work in the spring and fall months each year. Some became migratory farm workers, following the crops with the sun. Others left the land permanently for nearby cities and the industrial centers of the North and the far West.

By 1948, plantation owners in Arkansas and other delta cotton states began importing seasonal workers from Mexico. A task force of approximately 25,000 contract workers from Mexico is imported each year to work in cotton in Arkansas. With this force of foreign labors available, it was found possible to reduce wages for cotton chopping (weeding) and picking from the war time levels attained by the Union. An anomalous situation is now found where native Americans are often paid 30 cents to 40 cents an hour for the same work for which imported contract workers from Mexico are guaranteed not less than 50 cents an hour. Few white workers remain in the cotton industry, Most of them left for war jobs in the 40's. Only the young and aged remain to work on the cotton plantations at low wages. However, the union continues in over 100 communities in the mid-southern states.

In 1952, the Union assisted over 3,000 small farmers in Louisiana to form a combination local union and cooperative to market the early crop of strawberries. These little farmers, many of them Italian-Americans, had an average of three acres of strawberries in cultivation. For two years the cooperative unions' orderly marketing of strawberries brought better prices to the growers, with no increase cost to the consumer

In the political campaign the strawberry farmers mobilized and voted for Adlai Stevenson. As soon as the Eisenhower administration started, trouble began for the Louisiana strawberry farmers. The new administration's first successful prosecution under the Sherman Anti-Trust law was directed against the 3,000 little strawberry farmers. The local cooperative union was fined heavily and five of its local officers and a representative of the national union were not only fined but given suspended sentences for conspiracy to violate the U.S. anti-trust law. Their union ceased to exist. Three years later nearly all of the strawberry farmers were working in construction trades and industries in the expanding industrial development taking place in Louisiana. Less than 2,000 were still producing strawberries. California strawberries produced with cheap Mexican contract labor were being shipped into Louisiana for processing, at a lower price than the local farmers could produce the crop.

At approximately the same time strawberry farmers were operating their successful union, the workers on the nearby sugar cane plantations began organizing. The union of plantation workers received encouragement from the rural priests working in the New Orleans Archdiocese of the Roman catholic Church. When the plantation workers simply requested the sugar corporations to meet with them to discuss wages and working conditions, the corporations refused and the workers were forced to strike. For four weeks the 2,000 plantation workers held out for recognition of their union. But the strike was broken when their employers secured broad injunctions from the state prohibiting strikes during the harvest season as an irreparable damage to an employer engaged in producing a principal crop. 

These injunctions were based on a theory first advanced by Richard M. Nixon when he was a member of Congress, which is "that since farm workers were excluded from the National Labor relations law, they are therefore forbidden to organize and to act in concert. The state supreme court in Louisiana upheld the injunctions. Having lost 5,000 members within a year, the National agricultural Workers Union was unable to finance an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Nevertheless, an appeal was made on a "pauper's oath" and the highest court in the land ordered the injunctions vacated two years after the strike of the plantation workers was lost.

When the AFL and the CIO were merged into a single labor federation and the program for organizing the unorganized was announced, officers and members of the National Agricultural Workers Union were hopeful that at last the nation's far workers would be organized. They waited three years. All they could get were expressions of sympathy from some of the leaders, other leaders of AFL-CIO professed to believe that farm workers neither wanted to be organized nor could be organized. The prevailing attitude toward the nation's farm workers seemed to be about the same as that expressed 20 years before about the workers in other basic industries, such as auto, rubber, and steel. Then the National Advisory Committee on Farm labor was organized and officials of AFL-CIO became more interested in the plight of farm workers.

The AFL-CIO is now committed to a program to assist farm workers by helping secure better enforcement of existing laws, securing new legislation, mobilizing public opinion to create a favorable climate wherein improvement can be made, and finally, to assist the workers in organizing their Union.

The above statement, though long, is necessarily a brief account of the trials and tribulations of this Union for a period of 25 years.

The major accomplishment of the Union has been in keeping the plight of first the sharecropper and now the hired farm workers on the conscience of the public and of organized labor. In doing this, it has succeeded in bringing about a temporary improvement in the lives of many, and permanent benefits to a few.

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update 25 July 2008

 

 

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