An early example of worker writing compiled by CLR James in 1942.
Down With Starvation Wages in South-East Missouri
Introduction from The Future in the Present CLR James anthology:
James participated in the sharecroppers’ strike in South-East Missouri in 1942, and the following pamphlet was published by Local 313 of the CIO-affiliated agricultural workers’ union at Lilbourn, South Delmo Project. He has this to say about it:
“This is a wonderful piece of work. I'll tell you why. I went down to Missouri and decided that the only thing that we could do, after I'd discussed with them, was to have a strike; the sharecroppers should have their own strike, and it was very successful in fact. But the pamphlet has an importance that must be noted. When the time came for us to have the strike, I called some of the leaders together and said, ‘We have to publish something, for everybody to read about it.’ They said yes. So I sat down with my pen and notebook and said, ‘Well, what shall we say? So (I used to call myself Williams) they said, ‘Well, Brother Williams, you know.’ I said, ‘I know nothing. This is your strike. You all are doing it, you have to go through it. I have helped you, but this pamphlet has to state what you have to say. Now, have you got something to say about what you think?’ And I went through each of them, five or six of them; each said his piece, and I joined them together. Everybody said what he thought was important. I didn't write anything, none of them wrote it. . . . They said what they thought and I put it together.”
Black and White UNITE AND FIGHT!
WORKERS OF SOUTH-EAST MISSOURI
COTTON-CHOPPING IS BEGINNING. The landlords are going round offering $1.25 here. Then over there they offer $1.50. Then, where they think the workers are strong, they say they will pay $1.75 if other people will pay it. Workers, white and colored, have none of this. We want 30c an hour or we will not work.
BROTHERS AND SISTERS, for years we have starved at $1.00 a day. Then $1.25. We work from can to can’t for $1.25. All of us know that we can’t do that any longer. The Government is buying up all the cotton. The landlords are getting a good price. They are prosperous. Only we who produce the cotton are starving. The cost of living is higher than ever, but we still get the same pay.
THE GOVERNMENT SAID IT WOULD HELP the croppers through the A. A. A. The landlord made us into day laborers and stole the money we should have got. Now they give us a little crop of six acres. We can’t live on it, but by that they hope to tie us down so that we can do day labor for them. They are fooling themselves if they think that they are fooling us. Long ago we used to make a little corn on the side. They stopped that. Little by little we are starving to death. We live in shacks where the rain comes in through a hundred holes and we have nothing to wear. Year after year it‘s the same thing, only worse. Now when at last we start to organize, they tell us to sacrifice for the war. We have nothing to sacrifice with.
WE CAN’T GO ON LIKE THIS. We have to better our position. We have had nothing to do since picking finished in December. After the chopping is finished in June, we will have nothing to do until September. For 8 months of the year we starve. Now that a little work is coming we must get a decent pay. Otherwise we are not men and women, we are just animals. We are worse than animals. The landlords feed the animals when they are not working. They don’t feed us. We have to change these conditions and we can only change them by struggle.
YOU REMEMBER THE GREAT DEMONSTRATION in 1939. In 1940 Governor Stark heard that we wanted to make another one. He offered us 10,000 houses. But it was only to fool the workers. We only get 800, but we got SOMETHING because we struggled.
TO GET A DECENT WAGE we must struggle again. Now is the time. The cotton must be chopped or it will spoil. We don’t want the cotton to spoil, but we want to live. The cotton is carefully cultivated. The animals are tended. The landlords are carefully fed and housed. They see to that. All of this comes from the cotton. But we who plough the land and plant the cotton and chop the cotton and pick the cotton —we are treated worse than stray dogs.
NO MORE OF THAT. That is going to stop now. We want a decent wage. If we get it, we will work. If we don’t get it we will not work. A child can understand our demands.
1. 30c an hour for day of 10 hours
2. Tractor drivers to get 45c an hour
3. Time and a half for overtime
Look at those demands. Is it a crime to ask for them? 30c is lower than even what the W. P. A. pays, and the W. P. A. is only relief. 10 hours a day is long enough for any man to work at hard labor in the Missouri sun. Nobody is doing us a favor by giving us work. The landlords will work us 24 hours a day if they get the chance. We must have a limit fixed. After that we must get more. The tractor drivers are doing skilled labor sitting on the tractor all day, sometimes at night. They must be well paid. That is what we must die for. We may have to die for democracy in Java or in Iceland. We can die for 30c an hour here first.
HOW TO STRUGGLE
To win these demands is simple. You must join the union. The old locals must be revived. New locals must be formed. If even you haven’t a charter, call a meeting, write for a charter, saying
you will pay afterwards, and begin to function like a local. All you have to do is to get in contact with Local No. 313. Lilbourn, South Delmo Project. The U. C. A. P. A. W. A. gave us full authority to fight and if need be strike to raise our wages. Bring everybody from your district in. Don’t work unless the landlord pays the 30c an hour. Just listen to the instructions which your leaders will work out together and bring back to you. Above all, Solidarity.
White and colored together like one race, the race of labor. United we stand. Divided we fall.
Every man pledges himself not to lift a stroke until he and all the others with him get 30c an hour. If the landlord ofiers 29½c don’t take it. If he offers 30c an hour to 99 workers and leaves out one, don't take it. That will divide us and if we are divided we are lost. If you have started to work, stop.
Above all, no fighting, no disorder. The landlords will try to start race riots. They will provoke us. They will spread lies and rumors about Jap agents and Reds. Pay no attention. Listen to your leaders and the instructions of your committee, We are law-abiding citizens exercising our rights. It is better we die than live as we have been living.
SOLIDARITY. LABORERS OF SOUTH-EAST MISSOURI. WHITE AND COLORED TOGETHER. ONE FOR ALL AND ALL FOR ONE.
TO THE WHITE WORKERS ESPECIALLY
Brothers, you are workers just like we are. The landlords tell you not to join us because we are Black. What we want is to unite with you in the union. Don’t you want 30c an hour just like us? You want it as much as we want it. If we only join together and fight the landlords together, they will have to pay. Their only hope is to keep us apart. We must join together. We Must. If we don’t join we will continue to be as we are. Form your local. Get together a little group of workers. Then go to any colored worker you know and ask him what his group is doing. We are coming to you but do not wait on us. You come to us too. Let us meet half way. Forget the old prejudice. We have suffered more from it than you and we are willing to forget it. You must forget it too. For years you have listened to the politicians and the preachers of race prejudice. What have you got for it? Nothing but starvation, just like us. Join the union with us. Then we will tell the landlord that he wlll pay us all 30c an hour or he will chop his cotton himself. If he wouldn’t pay then we won’t work, white and colored together. All the troubles we have had in the past we must forget. This is no time to remember them. There was a lynching in Sikeston the other day and the Negroes are bitter about it, but that lynching was a landlords’ trick to divide us. All our brothers in Sikeston are ready to join with you in the most important thing before you and before us — the fight for 30c an hour.
Look at the South. brother white worker. It is the most miserable part of America. Why? Because of the division between us. Are you going to sit down and let this go on forever? We know that some of you are thinking differently. But you must not only think. You must act. Be quick. Join the union. Fight with us and a new day will begin for the working people of Missouri.
LIES ABOUT JAP AGENTS
The landlords and the newspapers, and their secret and open supporters, call the union men Jap agents. Simply because we demand 30 cents an hour. So a man is a Jap agent when he says he will not work for $1.25 a day. If that is so, every landlord, every worker in the government, every county prosecutor is a Jap agent. For not one of them would work for $1.25 a day. We are not Jap agents. We are American citizens. Our labor built this country and we don’t want any Hitler, or Mussolini or any Japanese ruling us. We say again that we are not Jap agents but loyal American citizens. But a man who has to live on 12 cents an hour only is a citizen in name. In reality he is a slave. Are we traitors to our country because when we work for six weeks out of 36 we say we should make at least 18 dollars a week? Cursed is the man who calls a worker a Jap agent because he demands 30 cents an hour. He is a slanderer. He is the enemy of democracy, not the worker. He is the traitor, he is the fifth columnist and he is the sixth columnist too, because he is spreading lying rumors, to discredit honest workers.
TO THE MERCHANTS
We say to the merchants: Why don’t you support us? Every penny we get we spend with you. We cannot save anything. If we get 30 cents an hour it means we are able to buy a little more lard, a little more bread. a piece of meat once a week while the money lasts. After that we’ll starve again. But it all goes to the merchant, to raise his income. So we look to the merchant, especially the little merchant, to support us, and stand by us if we are compelled to strike. If during the strike we ask for a little credit, then the merchant must give it.
TO THE OFFICIALS OF THE F. S. A.
We look to the officials of the F. S. A. for support. You and the home economists and the county demonstrators are always coming around to us telling us to eat liver and to eat eggs, for Vitamin A and Vitamin B. You tell us to give the children cod liver oil and milk. We can get eggs only if we learn to lay them and we can give the children milk only if we turn into cows. We are willing to give the children all you say. You see them once a month when you come around. We see them every day growing up hungry and starving and cold without clothes to wear. 30 cents an hour will not be much but it will be a beginning. We shall look to see if you are with us in this struggle. We want to see if you really want us to have eggs and liver and Vitamin A and Vitamin
B. Don’t you come telling us to think of our responsibilities to American labor and the duty to the Nation. We know our responsibility to American labor and the duty to the Nation. We know our responsibility to American labor. It is to get 30 cents an hour. Go and tell the landlords about the duty to the Nation. We are part of the Nation. If you want us to get vitamins, come out in support of our demand for 30 cents an hour. Say that we need it and must have it and that the landlords must pay. Otherwise we don’t want to hear any more of your Vitamin A and Vitamin B.
TO LABOR ALL OVER THE COUNTRY
But it is to labor all over the country we appeal, to our brother workers. You have struggled for what you have, your 60 or your 80 cents an hour and time and a half for overtime. You get it every day in the year, at least while the war lasts. You have the right of collective bargaining. We have nothing, we are trying to get something. We appeal to you for support. We appeal to you to
pass resolutions, to send telegrams to John L. Lewis and William Green and Phillip Murray. Ask them to help us put an end to this criminal state of affairs where workers work for 12c an hour, where landlords come in and break up our meetings. The police help them to do it as they did at Carruthersville. The workers in coal, in steel, in shoe factories, the garment workers, the warehouse workers, all of the truck drivers — remember us. Take up the battle for us. If we are compelled to come out on strike, send us food and money and raise your voices for us. We followed all the big battles you fought. We were always with you. We are proud to be in the ranks of organized labor. Help us now to win a simple living wage for six weeks out of 36. We shall be ready to support you when the time comes. We are labor men fighting for labor’s rights. And who must help us but labor?
All the preachers must get their flock together and preach to them about the union and solidarity in the struggle. If a preacher is not with us he is against us. That is the Voice of Scripture. Also the Laborer is worthy of his hire. That is Scripture also. We are worthy of 30c an hour. God helps those who help themselves. That is Scripture too. Solidarity in the Union, that is the way to get the Kingdom of Heaven upon Earth.
COME TO THE MASS MEETING
1. 30c an hour for 10 hours
2. Tractor Drivers to get 54c an hour
3. Time and a half for overtime