Home / General / This Day in Labor History: May 3, 1932

This Day in Labor History: May 3, 1932

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On May 3, 1932, the former president of the Iowa Farmers Union, Milo Reno, organized the Farmers Holiday Association. This was a short-lived but important expression of rural organizing in the midst of the Great Depression.

Farmers are usually left out of labor histories and there’s a good reason for this. They are a bunch of reactionary assholes, by and large. Despite being in a pretty disadvantageous place in the system of American capitalism, few identify more with ideas of individualism and producerism than the people actually tilling the land. This remains true today. We have often talked in our current politics about the so-called “Buddy Garrity Republican,” named after the car dealer from Friday Night Lights. Farmers really embrace parts of this too–they know they are getting screwed, but it is never their fault and they hate change of all kinds anyway, so believing they have built everything they have and that their government welfare is totally different than some unwed mother (PRODUCERISM BABY!!; I’ve seen this argument articulated in exactly this way in various agricultural magazines in the 70s and 80s), they see the world as filled with enemies to their way of life.

Well, it wasn’t that different a century ago either. Going back to the 1880s, the Knights of Labor tried to figure out how to make connections with farmers, but mostly didn’t. Populists in the 1890s tried to figure out to make connections with labor, but also mostly didn’t. These conversations were common enough among reformers on both sides of this divide for decades, up through 1950 or so. But while farmworker organizing became common enough after 1900, both with the IWW and CIO based actions, as well as independent union movements and sharecropper movements, organizing actual farmers was very difficult. There was some rural socialism on the Great Plains in the early years of the twentieth century, but it was of limited vision, not to mention explicitly for white people only.

Despite how we usually talk about the Great Depression as starting in 1929, for farmers, it basically was 1921 or so. The government had promoted overproduction in World War I with no thought as to what would happen when the war ended. By the time farmers had invested in new debt-funded machinery and got these crops in the ground, the war was over. Overproduction ruled the day and farmers got more and more desperate. They began to organize. People such as Henry Wallace became national voices for governmental reform for farmers and eventually, that would happen in the New Deal.

But farmers also engaged in direct action and that is what led to the Farmers Holiday Association. The FHA came out of the National Farmers Union, which was really much more about things such as tariff reform and sales cooperatives than anything like a labor union. The head of the Iowa Farmers Union, the state branch of the NFU, was a man named Milo Reno, who came out of a long-time farm reform family. An older man by 1932, he had been around during the Populists and is a key individual linking that era of reform with the New Deal era of reform.

With the NFU not really that effective, Reno decided to create a sister organization, the Farmers Holiday Association. The name came from the position that farmers should strike to reorder their businesses by raising prices. This was a more aggressive organization for sure. Thanks to Reno, Iowa was the center of the FHA’s activism, but it had significant support throughout the northern Plains and Upper Midwest. It never really extended to the South, but you had very different dynamics there, if many of the same problems. Reno was a great speaker, a man with a booming voice who exerted serious leadership qualities.

The idea behind the FHA, again, was the idea of the strike. Farmers would work together to stop selling their produce until prices rose enough to make it worth their while. They wanted their share of the profits. The question was whether a bunch of individualistic independent farmers could work together to do that. What made the idea interesting was the strategy behind it. Avoiding any kind of centrally planned leadership, members could enforce the strike on their own through radical direct action. When the FHA decided to start a strike in August 1932, it allowed individuals to do their own thing. They could blockade roads, intimidate farmers who did not participate, go after the cops if they interfered, whatever they wanted to see it through. The governors of states such as Iowa and South Dakota were not amused. Neither were truckers, who often plowed into the picket lines. The strike didn’t work and some FHA members were arrested. The FHA did attract attention from larger leftist groups. In fact, the Communist Party hoped to attract members and focused on the Nebraska chapter for this, but it never got very far, which does not surprise me in the least. I mean, the entire idea behind the organization was profit for farmers.

The reason for the FHA to exist was heavily undermined by the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which put into place much of the farm community’s demands. In this case, rather than promote a strike, the government paid farmers to destroy their crops to reduce production and competition, thus leading to the demanded higher prices. AAA was most certainly controversial. Some farmers loved it, others hated the sheer idea of it. The Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional a few years later, but the basic idea of price supports stuck around and really that ended the entire history of farmer organizing in terms of farm owners. Obviously, farm workers would have a long history of organizing that continues to the president. But the price supports did take care of a lot of their problems.

However, the FHA opposed Roosevelt’s plans as not sufficient. Reno himself wasn’t sure what to think and postponed a second attempt at a strike in 1933 to see what would happen. But his members found AAA disappointing. They seemed to think FDR would rain money down on them, and AAA was many things, but it wasn’t that. They also believed that the same people who caused their problems under Hoover were returned to power under Roosevelt. Wallace responded by basically icing them out. Reno tried to appeal directly to FDR. But what AAA ultimately did was undermine much of FHA’s support and it disappeared by 1937. Reno ended his career supporting radical alternatives to the New Deal, flirting with figures such as Father Coughlin and Huey Long.

I borrowed from Jean Choate’s Disputed Ground: Farm Groups That Opposed the New Deal to write this post.

This is the 518th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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