Hidden History: How the New Deal Ripped Off Farmworkers and Blacks

The Great Depression – Part 5 Mean Things Happening

PBS (1993)

Film Review

While the National Recovery Administration, created in 1933, theoretically guaranteed workers the right to unionize, company bosses continued to fire (and shoot) employees who went on strike for the right to form unions.

In 1933 John L Lewis formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Unlike the American Federation of Labor (AFL), membership in the CIO was open to blacks, immigrants and communists (women continued to be shut out of the union movement until World War II).

For political reasons, the New Deal right to unionize didn’t extend to agricultural workers. The primary New Deal farm program was the Agriculture Adjustment Act, which gave plantation owners direct payments for destroying surplus cotton crops. Despite federal requirements that owners share their payments with tenant farmers* and sharecroppers,** they rarely did so.

Both approached socialist leader Norman Thomas, who helped them organize the Southern Tenant Farmers Association (STFA), which had 1,000 members by the end of 1935. Arkansas lawmakers responded by evicting tenant farmers and share croppers suspected of organizing, murdering black members and passing ordinances banning public gatherings.

Despite white terrorism, the STFA organized a successful cotton pickers strike (for higher wages) in 1935.

By 1935, the STFA had 25,000 members in Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee and ongoing terrorist activities by whites began to receive national attention. The same year, FDR declined to meet with union leaders during a trip to Little Rock.***

In 1938, Congress finally passed legislation granting direct federal relief to tenant farmers and sharecroppers – plantation owners responded by evicting 251 families in order to keep the relief payments for themselves.


*A tenant farmer used his own seed and animals to cultivate an owner’s land and paid him 1/4 of his crop for this privilege.

**A sharecropper used the landowner’s seed and animals and paid him 1/2 of his crop for this privilege.

*** Aside from FDR’s inherent racism, southern tenant farmers and sharecoppers didn’t vote because they couldn’t afford the $1 poll tax. More importantly the President relied on the votes of southern Democrats to pass New Deal legislation.

Where Have All the Unions Gone?

union

Loss of union protection is catastrophic for millions of American workers with no way to protect themselves against layoffs and wage, benefit and pension cuts. In 2013, only 11.3% of US workers belonged to unions. Many Americans are unaware of the deliberate 95-year campaign by Wall Street to destroy the trade union movement. It all started in 1919 when the National Association of Manufacturers engaged Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, to destroy public support for a steel workers strike. Following a brief rise in union activism during the Great Depression, it continued with the punitive 1948 Taft Hartley Act, the expulsion of militant unionists during the McCarthy Era, and the cozy cold war collaboration between the CIA and AFL-CIO bureaucrats. The most decisive blow would be the trade liberalization of the 80s and 90s and the wholesale export of skilled union jobs to third world sweatshops.

Edward Bernays’ Campaign to Demonize Unions

In his 1995 Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, the late Australian psychologist Alex Carey describes how the National Association of Manufacturers engaged Edward Bernays to launch a massive media campaign to reverse public support for steel workers striking for the right to bargain collectively. Bernays first got his start helping President Woodrow Wilson sell World War I to a strongly isolationist and antiwar American public. Following the war, Bernays was immediately engaged by major corporate clients that included Proctor & Gamble, CBS, the American Tobacco Company, Standard Oil, General Electric and the United Fruit Company.

Bernays is also regarded as the father of “consumerism,” the transformation of Americans from engaged citizens into passive consumers by bombarding them with thousands of pro-consumption messages. He was also instrumental  in convincing doctors and dentists (without a shred of scientific evidence) that disposing the industrial toxin fluoride in municipal water supplies would be good for peoples’ teeth.

His media campaign to convince the American public that striking workers were dangerous radicals, Bolsheviks and anarchists was an instant success. The anti-Red hysteria it created ushered in a decade of severe repression, enabling Bureau of Investigation J Edgar Hoover to launch a Red Scare and illegally arrest, detail and deport several hundred suspected radicals.

The 1948 Taft Harley Act

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, unions became popular again. Then, as now, corporations took advantage of high unemployment rates to cut wages, increase hours and force employees to work under unsafe sweatshop conditions. Led largely by the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), organized labor fought back with scores of sit down and wildcat strikes.

Immediately following World War II, the National Association of Manufacturers sought to reverse union gains by ramming the Taft Hartley Act through a Congress dominated by Republicans and conservative southern Democrats. Among other provisions restricting worksite unionization drives, Taft Hartley prohibits mass picketing, as well as wildcat and sit down strikes.

The McCarthy Era

The effect of the 1947 Taft Hartley Act on union membership was almost immediate. In 1946 the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) had 6.3 million members. By 1954, when it merged with the AFL, this number was down to 4.6 million or 34.7% of the American workforce. This percentage steadily declined as union officials used the anticommunist hysteria of the McCarthy Era (1950-56) to expel militant trade unionists from their ranks. The original Taft Hartley Act included a provision preventing members or former Communist Party members from holding office in a labor union – which the Supreme Court struck down in 1965 as unconstitutional. .

Thanks to the Taft Hartley Act and the purging of militant grassroots unionists, a trade union bureaucracy arose that felt closer to management than the workers they supposedly represented. This stemmed, in part, from perks they received for delivering “labor discipline” (i.e. preventing disruptive industrial action). Thus instead of lobbying to repeal Taft Hartley and relying on well-organized rank and file and industrial action, union officials became more focused on “sweetheart deals” they made with managers.

Enter the CIA

According to former CIA officer Tom Braden, many AFL-CIO officers were also on the CIA payroll for their work with USAID in suppressing foreign unions with anti-US leanings. In 1967 Braden bragged about this in the Saturday Evening Post. Founded by prominent Wall Street lawyer Allen Dulles, the CIA has always played a major role in protecting Wall Street interests. They have a long history of overthrowing democratically elected governments that threaten US corporations with overseas investments (e.g. major oil companies and United Fruit Company and Coca Cola in Latin America).

Killing Off American Manufacturing

With Reagan’s election in 1980, numerous trade laws protecting US industries and workers were repealed through the Caribbean Basin Initiative and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades. Clinton continued this process by fast tracking both NAFTA and the World Trade Organization treaty through Congress. Once protective quotas and tariffs were repealed, there was nothing to stop Wall Street corporations from shutting down thousands of US factories and reopening them as sweatshops in the third world. In the process millions of US workers lost union manufacturing jobs to take minimum wage jobs at MacDonald’s and Wal-Mart.

The loss of the US manufacturing sector has clearly played a major role in the failed recovery and declining US global influence. This seems an enormous price to pay for the sake of destroying trade unions. Our children and grandchildren, who will reap the consequences, will not look kindly on the neoliberal presidents (Reagan, Clinton, both Bushes, and Obama) who enacted these disastrous policies.

photo credit: DonkeyHotey via photopin cc