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Workers Unite!

Stephanie down at the Bayou

Here's a scenario to contemplate. You've been working for the same company for 10 hours a day, six days a week, for the past 12 years and have never received a pay raise. Working conditions are terrible, benefits are nonexistent and prospects for a brighter future are grim. To top it all off, your boss is a bully.

What would you do? Would you sit back and let it happen? Or would you unite your fellow workers and protest?


To strike or not to strike - this is the dilemma workers have faced throughout our nation's history. It is not an easy decision to make. There is always a chance workers could lose their jobs forever if they hold an organized protest - or, worse yet, be subject to physical intimidation, imprisonment or abuse. Then again, if they simply sit on their haunches, nothing will ever change. We'll be learning a lot about labor strikes in the upcoming months, but in this dispatch, we'll take a look at a group that's too often forgotten - African-Americans in the post-Civil War era. If there was ever a group that needed to strike, it was our nation's former slaves, and yet, as we shall see, the consequences were often devastating.


A sugarcane sweet memory...

All this talk about sugarcane reminded me of the time I was strolling down the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam...
Slavery had officially ended by the early 1880s, but the oppression of blacks continued. Jim Crow laws and Black Codes had essentially put former slaves and their children back on plantations, where they earned paltry wages for back-breaking labor. Let's consider the plight of the sugarcane workers of southern Louisiana, for example. African-Americans were given 18-inch machetes and sent to the fields to harvest stalks of sugar cane that were 8 to 10 feet high. Each stalk had to be hacked at ground level, lopped at the top, stripped of its leaves and cut into three or four pieces. An able-bodied man was expected to clear several acres a day under the blazing sun for very low wages. Planters, meanwhile, had a well-earned reputation for being nasty to their workers.

As we can see, the conditions were ripe for protest. The sugarcane workers only needed a leader - and it came in the form of the Knights of Labor. A labor organization started by some Philadelphia tailors in 1869, the Knights united workers of all races and genders. Their motto was "an injury to one is the concern of all" and their demands included an 8-hour work day, an end to child and convict labor, and equal pay for equal work. At its height, there were more than 700,000 members, and in the 1880s, they answered the call of the sugarcane workers.

Dozens of sugarcane workers drowned in these bayous in 1887

In 1887, sugarcane workers were earning about 65 cents a day in Louisiana. With the Knight's help, they started demanding $1 a day. When planters refused, thousands of workers went on strike - right at the height of sugarcane season. The planters were furious. If sugarcane is not harvested quickly, the whole crop will be lost. They started putting tremendous pressure on their workers to return to the fields. Many responded by fleeing to the town of Thibodaux, where the Knights had established a sort of refugee center.

Thus began the standoff between planters and laborers. When it was clear that the workers would hold their ground, the Sugar Planters Association called in the state militia. Then came the first freeze of the year, which badly damaged the uncut cane. This was the last straw for the planters. The first shots rang out the following night, and when it was over, 30 black workers were dead. An unknown number were shot and killed in the bayou as they tried to swim to safety.

One sugarcane worker could clear several acres a day

The Thibodaux Massacre is a frightening example of the risks that workers had to endure when they went on strike. Not only did it end in bloodshed, but the workers had to return to the fields and toil under the harsh conditions set by the planters. Yet, we cannot conclude that the strike was a failure. The tragedy at Thibodaux sparked other organizations to rally to the aid of African-Americans and even nominate a presidential candidate. How effective was it? Well, let's take a look.

Neda peers through the sugarcane

The Colored Farmer's Alliance was founded in Texas to address the concerns of black farmers. It quickly became the largest African-American organization of the 19th century, with 1.2 million members. Adopting the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, the CFA urged its members to uplift themselves through hard work and sacrifice. Its accomplishments included establishing exchanges in ports, raising money for longer public school terms and starting a newspaper. Then, in 1891, it joined with other industrial and agrarian organizations to form a new political movement known as Populism.

Sound familiar? It should. Politicians ranging from Senator John McCain to former President Jimmy Carter have been called Populists, but what does it mean exactly? Well, back in the 1890s, populists were primarily black and white farmers from the South and Midwest who suffered from a combination of falling crop prices and rising operating costs. In 1892, they formed the People's Party and nominated a presidential candidate who called for government ownership of railroads and telegraph and telephone lines, an increase in the money supply, and political reforms. Although he didn't win, he received more than a million popular votes and 22 electoral votes. In addition, nine Populists were elected to Congress.

Stephanie frolics through the sugarcane

Not bad for a third-party candidate, eh? Unfortunately, it went downhill from there. Some historians attribute the party's decline to its crummy treatment of black supporters. Although the Populist Movement needed the votes of African-Americans, they were virtually excluded from holding office or sitting on juries. To make matters worse, the People's Party decided to support the Democratic Party's white supremacist candidate in 1896! Ack! Isn't that awful? Sometimes I just want to travel back in time and scream "What were you thinking?"

It probably goes without saying that blacks took their votes elsewhere in that election. By 1904, the People's Party was virtually extinct. The term Populist still surfaces now and then to describe a politician who opposes party leaders and appeals directly to the public for support.

Stephanie visits the American Sugar Cane League

So how does all of this relate to today? Well, I'm writing this dispatch less than a mile away from the Governor's Mansion in Austin, Texas. As you all know, George W. Bush has just been named our next President. This may not have been the case if third-party candidate Ralph Nader had not run. After all, Nader received 96,701 votes in Florida - which is many times more than Bush's margin over candidate Al Gore. Unfortunately, Nader's Green Party didn't get enough votes to qualify for federal funds in the next presidential election, but he did have a drastic effect on the final outcome.

As we've learned, workers and third parties have had a rough time throughout our nation's history and continue to struggle today. Slowly but surely, however, their voices are starting to be heard. Now is the time to listen. Isn't that what democracy is all about?


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - Anarchy and angry ghosts in the Battle of Homestead
Teddy - It's hard to say good-bye, but farewell it is
Kevin - Thanks for the memories!
Rebecca - Billy-clubs and bayonets: this ain't no May Day parade
Kevin - The men known as Mollie Maguires
Team - Labor Day: More than just the non-official end of summer
MAD - McNasty Mickey D's