DISINHERITED: A Brief History
the Agricultural Workers Union
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
above statement, though long, is necessarily a brief account of
the trials and tribulations of this Union for
a period of 25 years.
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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