Southern Tenant Farmers Union
Originally set up during the Great Depression in the United States, the reasons for the establishment of the STFU are numerous, although they are all largely centered upon money and working conditions. Predominantly, the STFU was established as a response to policies of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). The AAA itself was designed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help revive the United States' agricultural industry and to recharge the depressed economy.
The AAA called for a reduction in food production, which would, through a controlled shortage of food, raise the price for any given food item through supply and demand. The desired effect was that the agricultural industry would once again prosper due to the increased value and produce more income for farmers. In order to decrease food production, the AAA would pay farmers not to farm and the money would go to the landowners. The landowners were expected to share this money with the tenant farmers. While a small percentage of the landowners did share the income, the majority did not. This led to the formation of the STFU, whose existence serves historically as evidence that such a problem existed.
The Southern Tenant Farmers' Union was one of few unions in the 1930s that was open to all races. Promoting not only nonviolent protest for their fair share of the AAA money, they also promoted the idea that blacks and whites could work efficiently together. Because these ideas were highly controversial at the time, the Farmers' Union met with harsh resistance from the landowners and local public officials. The Southern Tenant Farmers' Union leaders were often harassed and ignored.
In the 1930s the union was active in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas. It later spread into the southeastern states and to California, sometimes affiliating with larger national labor federations. Its headquarters was mainly at Memphis, Tennessee, or, from 1948 to 1960, at Washington, D.C.. It was later known as the National Agricultural Workers Union and the Agricultural and Allied Workers Union.
Agriculture in the south never fully recovered since the overproduction of crops during World War I. Additionally, natural disasters in the 1920s and 1930s prepared an agricultural deterioration in southern states. When the Great Depression started, the southern agriculture sector had inherited weak foundations. In order to alleviate this sector, the federal government under the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, through the New Deal, started economic incentives to reduce the production output of plantations; thereby, decreasing the number of sharecroppers and farmers needed in the fields.
The implications of the policies from the AAA caused unemployment and the eviction of tenant farmers to raise dramatically. Harry Leland Mitchell, a socialist and sharecropper, and Clay East, a gasoline station owner, saw that the federal subsidies went mainly to the plantation owners and left tenant farmers and sharecroppers unemployed without any aid from the federal government. Therefore, in Tyronza, Arkansas, East and Mitchell created the Unemployed League with other farmers to fight the local plantation owner's retention of federal relief programs of the New Deal. The Unemployed League was able to distribute this aid among the land workers of Delta; soon after the league disbanded. However, the essence of the cause and the organization will revive in 1934 when the STFU was created. STFU's main goal was to advocate for the distribution of New Deal subsidies from plantation owners to tenant farmers. Later on, the leadership of STFU decided to make the union an established collective bargaining organization, similar to the industrial unions in big cities. However, it never reach a formal bargaining position because plantation owners use violence and intimidation towards the STFU leadership and its members.
One of the first actions taken by the union was the filing of a lawsuit against Hiram Norcross. This was to ensure that the rights of sharecroppers under the AAA were protected and received a share from the government subsidies.
There were many letters written protesting the eviction of hundreds of farmers. The STFU sent five men to Washington to carry out an appeal to the Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace. Two African Americans, E.B. McKinney and N.W. Webb, were chosen to go to Washington to denounce the continual eviction of tenant farmers.
The very first strike of the STFU was in 1935. Cotton pickers were demanding for a better pay rate. Cotton planters wanted to pay forty cents per one-hundred pounds that fall season of 1935 but the union, under H.L. Mitchell direction, demanded for one dollar. After a few days of striking, many cotton plantations offered seventy-five cents and fewer offered a dollar. This marked the union's first victory.
In 1939 STFU activists organized protests by hundreds of cotton sharecroppers in the Bootheel district of southeastern Missouri, alleging there were mass evictions of tenants by landlords who did not wish to share federal AAA checks with them. The Farm Security Administration, a New Deal agency, responded by providing low-cost rental housing for 500 cropper families, and doling out $500,000 in grants to 11,000 families in 1939. The protest fizzled out as Communist and Socialist elements battled for control and STFU membership plunged.
During World War II, the STFU leadership recommended its own members find work outside of the plantation fields of Arkansas. They set up an "underground railroad". This was a transportation network that transported over 10,000 workers to jobs in the northern and eastern regions of the United States.
After World War II, they changed their name to the National Farm Labor Union and were charted by the American Federation of Labor. From these changes, the organization began operating in California. In this state the NFLU was involved in the DiGiorgio Fruit Corporation strike of 1947. After a year and a half on strike, the union had succeeded in improving conditions for its workers. The union organized 30,000 men and women to coordinate a strike in Corcoran, California. The strike was to fight against cotton pickers wage cuts. The strike turned out to be successful because it managed to regain or increase the workers' wages.
Relationship with other organizations
When the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) created its agricultural affiliate, the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA), the STFU saw an opportunity to become stronger and joined them. However, due to the fear that UCAPAWA communist leadership may take over STFU and that UCAPAWA practices may break the racial alliance between blacks and white constructed by the STFU, the STFU resolved to leave the CIO in 1939. After the end of the alliance, UCAPAWA decided to leave the agricultural field and concentrate its labor campaign on food-processing workers.
The Communist party by 1934 was willing to form alliances with progressives and socialists. It begun to assist agricultural workers to allied various organizations from the south in order to create a stronger Popular Front. The STFU was among many unions to take part in this Popular Front. The STFU benefited from its association with the communist party because both organizations were able to support each other in protests and fights against plantation owners. Not every member of the STFU belonged to a communist party. There are relatively few members that would consider themselves communist; the rest would belong to many different political parties or ideologies.
The STFU was not entirely comfortable in its alliance with the Communist party. Many problems between the STFU and the Communist party (such as mismanagement of funds, lack of financial support from the party delaying the union's mission, conflict of interests between both organizations, and minimal interest of the communist party towards STFU members) broke the alliance. By separating themselves from the Communist party, the union was able to maintain a unified alliance between white and black workers and members, which was crucial to the union's identity and program.
The distribution of federal relief enacted by the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) was distributed mainly to plantation owners. The AAA was a New Deal program that was supposed to reduce food production and increase food prices; this was aimed to improve the agricultural economy. Once again, Mitchell, East, and liberal members of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration observed that this program had negative effects on land workers, leaving many unemployed. Therefore, they created and became the leaders of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU) to fight this maldistribution.
The leadership of STFU upheld Mitchell and East attracted many socialists and pro-New Deal liberals to the Union. Furthermore, Clay East was able to promote socialist ideas within Tyronza through his leadership position by distribution its most successful journal, American Guardian, edited by Oscar Ameringer. Due to East's success in selling a large amount of subscriptions, the small town became known as "Red Square." Moreover, about a 1000 people signed up to the socialist organizations that included a small but significant amount of African Americans.
Leaders of the union decided to organize a rank and file leadership due to the pressure of its members. The union soon discovered that a rank and file leadership was difficult to organize. Some farm worker wanted to transform the union into a fascist militant group and others wanted to run the union like a corporation; but as the union membership increased, land worker leadership also improved.
The first chapters of the STFU did not go through racial tensions since blacks and white lived and worked closely. However, when the STFU reached large towns, racial antagonisms were prominent since interracial relations were less frequent in this highly populated regions. In these towns the STFU created black and white localities, with their racially respective organizers to gain confidence from their union members. The union sent white organizers to the localities composed of white people. Similarly, the union sent African-Americans to localities composed of African-Americans. E. B. McKinney was an organizer and the first African American to become vice president of the union. Before becoming vice president of the Union he was an active participator in the Socialist party along with Clay East. Owen Whitfield was another African-American leader associated with the STFU.
Even though racial antagonisms were deeply rooted in the South, the STFU was able to create interracial cooperation within the union. In Marked Tree, Arkansas, the African-American locality invited the white locality to their meeting. In this meeting white and blacks sat in the same room and worked for a common purpose. This lead Mitchell to believe that the creation of a racially united movement was possible in other regions. Indeed, most of the important union events and meetings took place in interracial settings.
Even though Mitchell wanted an interracial union, he observed drastic behavioral differences between blacks and whites. African-Americans in the union had a strong collective conscience and unity; therefore, through their unity they were more capable of resisting repressions through collective action. On the other hand, whites were more individualistic and were easier for managers to coerce.
- Louise Boyle, photographer who documented STFU farmers in Arkansas in 1937
- Mark Naison. "About Sharecropping - Southern Tenant Farmers Union". University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Retrieved 2011-04-17.
- "Inventory of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union Records, 1934-1991". Southern Historical Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill. Retrieved 2011-04-18.
- Grubbs, Donald (1971). Cry from the Cotton The Southern Tenant Farmer's Union and the New Deal. North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press. pp. 137–161. ISBN 0-8078-1156-4.
- Mitchell, Harry Leland (1973). "The Founding and Early History of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union". The Arkansas Historical Quarterly. No. 4. 32: 357. doi:10.2307/40027642. Retrieved 2 May 2016.
- Louis Cantor, "A Prologue to the Protest Movement: The Missouri Sharecropper Roadside Demonstration of 1939," Journal of American History (1969) 55#4 pp. 804-822 in JSTOR
- Naison, Mark. "Southern Tenant Farmers Union". University of Illinois. Retrieved 7 June 2013.
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- Burgess, David (2000). Fighting for Social Justice: The Life Story of David Burgess. Wayne: Wayne State University Press. pp. 50–60. ISBN 0814328997.
- Auerbach, Jerold S. "Southern Tenant Farmers: Socialist Critics of the New Deal." Labor History, vol. 7 (1966), pp. 3–18.
- Cantor, Louis. "A Prologue to the Protest Movement: The Missouri Sharecropper Roadside Demonstration of 1939," Journal of American History, vol. 55, no. 4 (1969), pp. 804–822 in JSTOR
- Cobb, William H. "The Southern Tenant Farmers' Union." The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. http://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=35
- Dyson, Lowell K. "The Southern Tenant Farmers Union and Depression Politics." Political Science Quarterly, vol. 88 (1973), pp. 230–252.
- Grubbs, Donald H. Cry from the Cotton: The Southern Tenant Farmers' Union and the New Deal. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1971.
- Honey, Michael K. Sharecropper's Troubadour: John L. Handcox, the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union, and the African American Song Tradition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
- Kester, Howard. Revolt among the Sharecroppers. New York: Covici-Frede, 1936.
- Mitchell, H. L. "The Founding and Early History of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union." Arkansas Historical Quarterly, vol. 32 (1973), pp. 342–369.
- Naison, Mark D. "The Southern Tenants' Farmers' Union and the CIO." In Staughton Lynd (ed.), "We Are All Leaders": The Alternative Unionism of the Early 1930s. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1996.
- Ross Jr., James D. "I ain't got no home in this world": The Rise and Fall of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union in Arkansas. Ph.D. dissertation. Auburn University, 2004.
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