Southern Tenant Farmers Union Museum

IMG_0208 Tyronza, Arkansas Working closely with Sam Mitchell of Ottawa, Ontario since the Labor Neighbor Research & Training Center, we have been stewarding the H.L. Mitchell Scholarship Fund in honor of his father, one of the founders and the long time chief organizer of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU), who I tracked down and got to know well in the 1970’s after founding ACORN, nonetheless I was still surprised when he mentioned on the phone over the last year that there was an STFU Museum now in Tyronza, Arkansas.  How wonderful, and unbelievable, I thought, and of course promised that the next time I was anywhere near, I would be there, and so I was to my great delight.

The STFU was one of the seminal farm labor organizations of America along with the great movements of the Texas

Mitch's dry cleaners
Mitch's dry cleaners

Alliance leading to the Populists and in a continuum that ended with the United Farm Workers’ Union of Cesar Chavez, and has many chapters left to write I hope.  The STFU was founded by 11 white and 7 black sharecroppers in 1934 in Tyronza in Poinsett County in the flat Mississippi River delta country of eastern Arkansas and quickly came to notice in those years by striking in various locations to force planters to raise the price per bale of cotton to the sharecroppers.  These battles were bitter, sometimes violent, struggles.  The STFU though founded in Tyronza had moved its headquarters to Memphis within a year or so due to constant harassment and threats.   You get the picture, I’m sure.  This was an amazing organization in its time and the lessons of its success and failures along with the special treat of my getting to know Mitch in the last years of his life were seminal in the development of ACORN.

Linda Hinton, STFU Museum official, showing the union's history
Linda Hinton, STFU Museum official, showing the union's history

Linda Hinton, the assistant director of the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum, as it is formally called, walked us through the facilities.  The Arkansas State University under Ruth Hawkins and others had made creating this museum a priority in the early years of the 21st century and opened the museum in 2006.  They invested $3 M in the enterprise and acquired not only Clay East’s old gas station and H.L. Mitchell’s old dry cleaners operation and his dad’s barber shop, but the Tyronza bank next door to build out the facilities.  The museum was handled very well, not only setting the context for the development of the union and its fights, but also giving a sense of the cotton industry in general and its labor practices from slavery to sharecropping in the museum.

I was delighted, but am still realistic even as I’m awe of the ASU commitment.   There’s no question you have to be looking for the museum to find it in Tyronza.  There’s no sign on the road and the road is off of I-55 and on the way to Jonesboro, but that’s about all I can say for it.  There are so few institutions like this though that document the struggle of people for justice and power, that it’s worth the trip, and I’ll definitely be spreading the word!

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Assault on the Rights of Workers in USA and Mexico

Solidaridad-1New Orleans When I was working the streets as an organizer, and now that I’m still working the “allied trades,” my rule of thumb was that if a name was mentioned to me twice, that meant I needed to find the person, and if three times, I needed to do it immediately, to build the organization.  The famous story of Fred Ross pursuing Cesar Chavez on the same basis in Fresno over and over was a great example of the same working system.

All of this is a long way around Susie’s house to say that yesterday it seemed that over and over I had one conversation after another about the deterioration of workers’ rights.  Whether I looked for these conversations or not, they simply found me.   A call from Ohio was chilling about the attack on public employees there, and then a friend and comrade told me equally frightening stories from Florida which were barely turned back, but where public employees in the only Southern state with a collective bargaining law, will be under siege for years.

I had a long, impassioned correspondence from Suyapa Amador, ACORN Mexico’s head organizer, about the war on all workers being waged in Mexico to gut labor laws that had been foundational protections in the Mexican Constitution since shortly after the Revolution there.  An email later in the day posted by labor journalist and photographer, David Bacon, echoed the same themes.

There’s no question about these proposals been bad and draconian.  Bacon lays it out better than Google translate could summarize Suyapa’s arguments:

“Article 123 of the Mexican Constitution spelled them out.  Workers have the right to jobs and permanent status once they’re hired.  If they’re laid off, they have the right to severance pay.  They have rights to housing, health care, and training.  In a legal strike, they can string flags across the doors of a factory or workplace, and even the owner can’t enter until the dispute is settled.  Strikebreaking is prohibited.  The new law would change most of that.  Companies would be able to hire workers in a six-month probationary status, and then fire them at the end without penalty.  Even firing workers with 20 or 30 years on the job would suddenly become much easier and cheaper for their employers, by limiting the penalty for unjust termination to one year’s severance pay.   The justification, of course, is that by reducing the number of workers at a worksite, while requiring those remaining to work harder, productivity increases and profits go up.  Meanwhile for workers, though, a permanent job and stable income become a dream, while the fear of firing grows, hours get longer, and work gets faster, harder and more dangerous. The labor law reform proposal deepens those changes.  The 40-hour workweek was written into the Federal Labor Law, which codified the rights in Article 123.  That limit would end.  Even the current 7-peso/hour minimum wage ($5/day) would be undermined, as employers would gain the unilateral right to set wages.  The independent review of safe working conditions would be heavily restricted.  Mexican workers aren’t passive and work stoppages and protests are much more common than they are today in the U.S.  Greater activity by more angry workers, therefore, wouldn’t be hard to predict.  So the labor law reform takes this into account as well.  Even in union workplaces with a collective agreement setting wages and conditions, an employer could force individual workers to sign individual agreements with fewer rights or lower wages.  Companies could subcontract work with no limit, giving employers the ability to find low-cost contractors with no union to replace unionized, higher-wage employees.  And it would become much more difficult to go on strike.”

I’m not trying to say, “hey stop your whining, look how bad it could be!”  I am saying that what we are now seeing in the USA is part of a global assault being masterminded by corporations with their political allies and servants.  To see Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Mexico, and the list goes on and on, as isolated examples of “rationalizing” the workplace or “rightsizing” wages, benefits, and productivity is ridiculous.

These are all battles in the same war against workers.  And, we are not winning!

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