Today in labor history: Tenant farmers form union

tenant farmers

Today in 1934 African American and white farmers formed the Southern Tenant Farmers Union in Tyronza, Arkansas. Harry L. Mitchell and Clay East, the cofounders, were both socialists.

The group adopted two goals: to protect the Arkansas sharecroppers from eviction by planters and to ensure that the sharecroppers received their fair share of the money due from Agricultural Adjustment Act payments to landowner not to plant cotton or to destroy the crop.

The STFU appealed to the federal government to end AAA policies that in effect rewarded large planters by allowing them to eliminate their work force.

In 1935 the union staged a successful cotton pickers' strike that raised the price for picking cotton to seventy-five cents for one hundred pounds.

In 1936 the union pressured Arkansas and Oklahoma into appointing commissions to study the plight of sharecroppers. The studies resulted in passage of legislation that codified some of the rights of tenant farmers.

In later years the group's members merged into various unions, first the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America which was part of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and later the Amalgamated Meatcutters Union which eventually became part of the United Food and Commercial Workers.

Photo: Arkansas farm workers listening to the speaker at a meeting of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union; circa 1934. From the Southern Tenant Farmers Union Records #3472, Southern Historical Collection, courtesy of the Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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