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The Forthcoming Miami Disaster

[ 78 ] July 13, 2014 |

Between having 2.4 million people living at six feet above sea level or less and a nuclear power plant ready to be inundated with sea water, watching the United States’ first climate refugee crisis is going to be incredibly depressing. Not that Florida politicians care.

Tommy Ramone

[ 30 ] July 12, 2014 |

I suppose there’s something very punk about the last surviving original member of The Ramones dying at the ripe young age of 65.

A Mandate Hobby Lobby Can Believe In

[ 187 ] July 11, 2014 |

Hobby Lobby may not approve of a contraception mandate, but it will sure fight for a 4-year Bible study course in public schools mandate.

This Day in Labor History: July 11, 1934

[ 35 ] July 11, 2014 |

On July 11, 1934, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union formed when eleven white farmers and seven black farmers met in Tyronza, Arkansas to form a union of sharecroppers to fight for poor farmers’ rights. Perhaps the last gasp of the Farmers Alliance potential to reach out across racial lines and transform rural life, the STFU sought to empower sharecroppers to fight for economic rights during the dark days of the Great Depression.

The Great Depression was very hard on poor southern farmers. In fact, the Depression there had really started in the 1920s. Crop prices plummeted after the overproduction of World War I. By the time the official Great Depression began in 1929, the farm economy had been terrible for years, meaning the sharecroppers on southern land, a labor situation that had begun as something of a compromise between freed slaves and white landowners after the Civil War but had since spread to employ poor whites as well, were in entrenched, awful poverty.


Arkansas sharecroppers, 1930s

Tyronza, Arkansas was a bit odd for the rural South as there were active socialists in the area. This was not totally unknown in the South, but rare enough by 1934. Floods and droughts had ravaged the region in recent years and the national attention these received interested socialists in the area. As those ideas began spreading into the area, some locals, even merchants, showed interest in an economic system that offered an alternative to a capitalism that had not worked out for their region. Living in Tyronza was Harry Mitchell, a socialist and sharecropper. He and a gas station owner named Clay East saw that the owners were not sharing their Agricultural Adjustment Act payments with the sharecroppers and they began organizing their neighbors into what became the Southern Tenant Farmers Union.

The STFU’s main mission was fighting against the Agricultural Adjustment Act. The New Deal promoted agricultural centralization, which threw thousands of sharecroppers off their land. The Okies coming to California in the 1930s, were mostly fleeing the loss of their land rights from AAA-related centralization, not the Dust Bowl. It was the same in eastern Arkansas. AAA had two provisions that severely hurt sharecroppers. First, it had no provisions to ensure that the money landowners received to reduce farm production trickled down to sharecroppers. They were expected to share it but the owners were just keeping it all. Second, it encouraged the eviction of sharecroppers through its centralization policies, in effect if not in word. In 1934, these farmers had nowhere to go. A decade later, the jobs of World War II would give them opportunities. These did not exist in 1934. Eviction meant moving to a strange place with no likely hope of a job.


Southern Tenant Farmers Union meeting, Arkansas

The first strike began in the fall of 1935, when Mitchell led sharecroppers out for $1 per pound of cotton versus the 40 cents the owners were offering. When the owners compromised on 75 cents (and some went all the way to $1), the workers declared victory and returned to work. Of course, the response of landowners to this movement was violence, especially once the unionization campaign began. The STFU was a threatening organization to the white power structure. That it was integrated automatically made it dangerous. The first commission of STFU representatives to travel to Washington to appeal to the government included two African-Americans in its five members. At one meeting, four armed whites walked in and ordered all the blacks to leave if they did not want to be lynched. Many members were thrown off their land for membership in the organization. Beatings of organizers took place while police violence was common and threatened lynchings scared many members. STFU offices had to move from Tyronza to Memphis, where the urban environment provided more safety.

The STFU soon spread from Arkansas to Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, and Tennessee. It claimed 7500 members in Oklahoma, demanding land redistribution, with land owned by banks given to small farmers. In Arkansas, it forced politicians to create the Governor’s Commission on Farm Tenancy. Oklahoma passed the Landlord and Tenant Relationship Act in 1937 to encourage long-term residency on the land and promote the government as a mediator of the problems of the sharecropped farm, but conservative outrage led to its repeal in 1939.

Unlike previous farmer movements like the Populists, STFU leaders actively thought of themselves as in the same boat as industrial labor and thus sought to become a union like in eastern factories. The STFU joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ agricultural union, the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA) in 1937 but withdrew a year later, worried that UCAPAWA’s communist leadership was looking to take over the STFU. UCAPAWA president Donald Henderson saw the STFU as a utopian vanguard of rural revolution rather than a real union and attempted to overwhelm its leadership with paperwork so he could take it over. When the STFU leadership withdrew, it led to UCAPAWA ending its attempts to organize in the fields, focusing on the canneries, where the CIO (and the CP) was always more comfortable. The break with UCAPAWA severely hurt the STFU’s ability to function, especially as several of its leading organizers were CP and stayed with the union. Two-thirds of its locals collapsed.


Southern Tenant Farmers Union logo

As the STFU and landowners battled each other with increasing intensity, the situation finally received some attention from the government. This led to the Resettlement Administration (RA), intended to help sharecroppers find better lives. But the funding for the RA always remained small and the solutions it developed long-term rather than immediate. The government also created the Farm Security Administration (FSA), to provide low-cost loans to poor farmers who wanted to buy their own land but this was not a realistic option for the vast majority of STFU members. The 11,000 farmers around the nation it helped in 1939 was a nice start, but far too small to deal with the scale of the problem. Ultimately, the government did little to alleviate the problems AAA had spawned for sharecroppers.

The STFU declined by the early 1940s. Mitchell continued leading it, called the National Farm Labor Union after 1945, for the rest of his life, but it was only a shadow organization except for some success organizing the California cotton fields in the 40s. Because of the mechanization and industrialization of farming, most of the cotton labor force disappeared from the fields not long after World War II. The same happened for many other crops. The exception to this history of agricultural labor is Latino farmworkers, laboring in exploitative conditions not dissimilar to that of the early 20th century American South. On these farms, usually in more difficult to mechanize fruits and vegetables, the fight continues.

This is the 114th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Coca-Cola Anti-Union Meeting

[ 117 ] July 10, 2014 |

Yesterday, Coca-Cola held a mandatory anti-union meeting in an Atlanta warehouse. The workers were not happy. You can listen to the entire thing here.

New Deal Agency Poetry

[ 15 ] July 8, 2014 |

My interest in political-based poetry of American history means I find all sorts of weird stuff, or more accurately, I report on what others have found if I don’t find it myself. Such as this slight bit of rhyme from the papers of forester David Mason. One of the founders of sustainable forestry, Mason was involved in the New Deal attempts to bring forestry into an era that meant something other than rampant exploitation. Anyway, during the era of the National Recovery Administration, before the National Industrial Recovery Act was ruled unconstitutional in 1935, someone wrote this small bit about the lumber code:

“NRA me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my Code to keep.
If I should bust before I wake.
The AFL my plant will take.”

As it would turn out, it would mostly be the CIO their plant would take, as the International Woodworkers of America would step into the breach, although certainly in some areas, it would be the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. In any case, while timber interests originally had some support for the NRA, it quickly faded once it meant not decimating workers’ lives. And then came the National Labor Relations Act and their world was never quite the same.

This is taken from Rodney C. Loehr, ed., Forests for the Future: The Story of Sustained Yield as Told in the Diaries and Papers of David T. Mason, 1907-1950 (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1952). And yes, looking at this sort of thing is what I spend the non-LGM part of my days doing.


[ 51 ] July 8, 2014 |

This is a useful graphic on habitat loss for charismatic mammals. And I know that big green groups rely on the shock and awe value of this kind of thing to fundraise. But it would also be interesting to show how other species have expanded their range in recent centuries, whether it be an invasive species like the starling or a species that has just wandered into new territory like the armadillo. None of that would diminish the power of 99%+ loss in habitat for key species, but would give a more complete picture of environmental change and its effect upon animals.

Reconstruction and the National Park Service

[ 17 ] July 8, 2014 |

Because the National Park Service reflects the historical priorities of Americans over time, it’s not surprising that it is so lacking in sites interpreting Reconstruction, since the great growth period for the NPS came when Reconstruction was not seen as so central to U.S. history as today. Hopefully, this is a good sign that not only is the agency taking the period seriously, but that the government will actually create some new sites to interpret the period exclusively.

The True Anti-Racist President

[ 179 ] July 7, 2014 |

The only logical follow up for Pat Buchanan now that he’s written a book arguing Richard Nixon wasn’t racist is a book definitively showing that the greatest civil rights president was Andrew Johnson.


[ 89 ] July 7, 2014 |

In the summer of 1864, Abraham Lincoln’s reelection was still up in the air, so politically it might have made sense to pocket veto the Wade-Davis bill to impose a harsher Reconstruction policy upon the South. But Lincoln had one fatal error in his presidency, which was believing in southern unionism. That error made him slow to believe that the majority of whites in the Confederacy wanted to secede, slow to emancipate the slaves, and open to Andrew Johnson as vice-president, his greatest error of all. Pocket vetoing Wade-Davis meant that when Lincoln was assassinated, he was clearly still waffling on what to actually do on Reconstruction and thus his incredibly weak 10% Plan was still his only public statement. But the 10% Plan was far too lenient to the Confederacy and again reflected Lincoln’s belief the Union could be easily put back together again if the reasonable white men of the South bought in.

No one is perfect and that includes Lincoln.

False Balance

[ 111 ] July 7, 2014 |

Huh. Imagine if CNN or other American networks followed the path of the BBC and had directives to stop bringing cranks on the air to present absurd and scientifically bogus arguments that human-caused climate change isn’t happening. It’s almost as if we might get somewhere in fighting it.

Youth Unemployment

[ 121 ] July 7, 2014 |

The more that the young are unemployed, the more than the long-term stability of capitalism is threatened. It’s not just the U.S., but in fact most of Europe as well, that is dealing (or not dealing more like it) with this problem. If even just getting a decent job requires knowing the right person in upper management, that dooms a lot of kids (like myself) who did not grow up rich or have connections coming out of college. If you tell working and middle-class kids that they have no hope of rising in the world, you undermine the economic system you claim to hold dear. Of course the real economic system the rich hold dear is plutocracy so they don’t care, even though this is very much a solvable problem with government intervention into the economy.

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