Racism often characterized and determined the success or failure of union organizing and strikes. The Knights of Labor, formed in the 1880s, included black and white skilled and unskilled workers while the trades oriented AFL refused to admit black or unskilled workers. The IWW, the Wobblies, led by leftists, organized multiracial struggles in the mines and other industries. In the 1930s as the Depression deepened, the communist led CIO recruited black and white skilled and unskilled workers. However, its inclusionary practices didn’t often extend to fighting the extra exploitation black workers faced in more dangerous and lesser paid jobs. The labor movement reveals how workers overcame or capitulated to the racism the capitalists nurtured to maintain their own wealth and power.
Here are some select examples. More to come.
The Sharecroppers Strike of 1939
In the 1930s, cotton prices plummeted so the government paid the landowners to stop planting. This money was to be shared with the sharecroppers. Instead, over 900,000 lost their cropping jobs.
Faced with starvation, the croppers organized and went on strike in 1939 setting up camps along the highway in the southeastern Bootheel area of Missouri. Over 250 families joined the strike led by black workers, supported by the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, religious leaders and Lincoln University students.
White sharecroppers joined as well. Many were members of the Klan but rejected the false promises of superiority in exchange for an opportunity to win real change. They stuck together through the brutal winter until they were able to secure land. After many government reprisals against them, the government moved many to housing but segregated it. Conditions did not change. Planters used the croppers as day laborers, which maintained poverty and instability.
The strike leaders built an integrated cooperative called Cropperville. Everyone contributed what they could; they farmed and worked collectively, putting their products from food to clothing in a warehouse where people could take what they needed.
This little known struggle demonstrates the power of multiracial solidarity, grassroots black leadership, militancy, and a collective outlook. See the excellent DVD, O Freedom After While, by California Newsreel for the story and images of black and white families camping together.
- The Southern Tenant Farmers Union- STFU
The STFU organized black and white farmers in the deep South during the 1930s, playing a leading role in sharecropper strikes, such as the 1939 strike described above. Black and white Communist Party and Socialist Party members helped organize and lead it. Its integrated membership and militancy drove the Southern planters, politicians, and the feds crazy. They used the Klan to attack Union meetings, beating up and killing its members. Many Klan members did join the STFU as they lost their jobs and income.
Evictions and unemployment shaped the lives of black and white sharecroppers in the 1930s. New Deal programs excluded and shortchanged most African Americans. In 1934, croppers in Tyronza, Arkansas established the Union as an integrated organization, declaring that blacks and whites had the same problem and same enemy: “let’s starve together” was their slogan during the 1935 strike. The planters used anti-communism to try to break the union, but many members followed their leadership.
The Union’s multiracial solidarity, the involvement of women, and partnerships with local churches served as a model for later anti-racist and women’s movements.