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Labor Action, 7 March 1949


Wyatt Lee

Slave Labor in All Parts of the World
Probed by Hearings


From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 10, 7 March 1949, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Forced labor, in varying forms, is practiced on every continent of the world and, in areas controlled by Russia, is integrated into the economic and political pattern of society, it was brought out in public hearings held in New York on February 24–26 before the Commission of Inquiry Into Forced Labor, a group initiated by the Workers Defense League and sponsored by a large number of liberal and labor representatives, headed by John Dewey.

From the testimony of a parade of witnesses and the introduction of authenticated documents, the Commission heard details of Russia’s gigantic convict labor camps, the United States’ squalid, guarded compounds of Negro workers in the South, the peonage system of Latin America which keeps 40 per cent of the population in debt slavery, and other varying forms of involuntary servitude that men suffer all over the world.

“Wage slavery,” universal under capitalism, did not come under the scope of the Commission’s inquiry. Rather, the free exchange of labor, or the individual worker’s ability to exchange jobs, a fundamental of classic capitalism, was accepted as an ideal still to be sought.

Formation of the Commission began last year after the United Nations, with the approval of the United States, refused to conduct an inquiry requested by the American Federation of Labor. The Commission was formally constituted last December 3 and the hearings in New York at the Bar Association and the Hotel McAlpin were its first public presentation.

The complexion of the Commission ranges from such stalwarts in the long fight for civil liberties as John F. Finerty, a lawyer who defended Tom Mooney and acted as counsel to the Trotsky Commission of Inquiry; Francis Heisler, a noted Chicago labor and civil liberties defender; Norman Thomas, veteran Socialist participant on innumerable commissions and committees; to several “professional anti-Stalinists” from labor and education. Among the latter are Dr. Harry D. Gideonse, president of Brooklyn College and chairman of the commission; Dr. George N. Shuster, president of Hunter College; Sidney Hook, Matthew Woll and John Green, CIO shipyard workers’ union head. The latter two did not attend the hearings.

Representing a younger generation are Emil Mazey; secretary-treasurer of the United Automobile Workers; Arthur Slesinger, Jr., Harvard historian and author of The Age of Jackson; and a group of WDL activists such as Rev. Albert K. Herling, director of research for the Commission; Rev. Donald Harrington and Frank McCulloch. Other Commission members are: Morris L. Cooke, Mrs. Ethel S. Epstein, Dr. Frank P. Graham, A. Philip Randolph, Max Sherover and Dr. Ralph Gilbert Ross, secretary of the Commission.

Thomas L. Parsonnet, corporation counsel for Newark, N.J., acted as general counsel for the Commission and conducted the examination of witnesses. He was assisted by Ernest Fleischman and Carl Rachlin.

Describe Genocide

Testimony concerning Russia and its satellites was taken on the first and closing days of the hearings and, as to be expected, attracted the most attention. On hand for the opening day were newsreel photographers, press photographers and the biggest delegation of the working press. Also present throughout the hearings were technicians who recorded the entire proceedings for the State Department’s Voice of America foreign broadcasts. One of the State Departmen men assured this writer that the recording would be “edited” before using. Aside from the limitations of broadcast time, we wonder how many references to peonage in South America and to the treatment of Negroes in our own South will remain in the final version.

Star witness of the opening session was Jerzy Gliksman, a member of the Polish Socialist Bund and a political prisoner of the Stalinists during the Hitler-Stalin pact. Most of Gliksman’s testimony has already been published in his book, Tell the West, but his first-hand account of his experiences in a slave labor logging camp in East Poland was moving and dramatic. Half-brother to Victor Alter, the Socialist Bund leader executed by Stalin, Gliksman has dedicated himself to exposing the conditions of prisoners in Russia. His appearance before the Commission in the spacious meeting room of the Bar Association, with his words recorded by sound cameras, must be the high point in his campaign.

Two other Poles, Mrs. Sabina Dworecki and Wladyslaw Zachariasiewicz, and a Yugoslav, Osvinik, told the Commission of their experiences in Russian slave labor camps and described in ghastly detail the brutalities practiced there.

Two representatives of governments deposed by Russian conquest appeared before the Commission. General Nicolai Radescu, former Prime Minister of Rumania, had an attendant read a lengthy statement that charged the Russians with genocide as a result of mass forced migrations of Rumanians to Russian regions beyond the Urals. Radescu sees the replacement of 1,800,000 Rumanians in Bessarabia and Bukovina by immigrants from Siberia as “the creation of an ethnic insulation barrier along the Soviet frontier from the Baltic to the Black Sea.”

Kaarel R. Pusta, Sr., former Minister of Foreign Affairs for Estonia, a Baltic nation absorbed by Russia, also charged that the native populations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are being “exterminated” by mass deportations, forced labor and forced migrations. Projects of the Soviet Five-Year Plan require “great masses of cheap manpower,” he said, “and as a result, mass arrests and mass deportations never cease.” Submitted to the Commission were photostats of personal accounts of Estonians deported to Russia.

Horses Treated Better

Russian witnesses appeared before the Commission at the final hearing held February 26 at the Hotel McAlpin. Vladimir Petrov, now an instructor at Yale University, spent six years in Russian prison camps and said that the toll of prisoners from overwork amounted to 15 per cent annually.

“It was much better to be a horse than a human,” he said. “The horse only worked eight hours a day, got medical attention when it was sick and its groom was punished heavily if it suffered an accident. The human worked 15 hours a day, got no medical attention, and nothing happened to its guard if there was an accident.”

More surprising was the testimony of Kyril Alexeev, an engineer who has stayed in the United States after being sent here on a Russian commercial mission. He declared that in 1944, when he left Russia, strikes took place throughout the country, even in Moscow. The strikes were invariably broken, he said, by gunfire if necessary. Prison laborers were used as strike-breakers, being rushed into plants to keep production going.

Alexeev’s wife, Nina, was to have appeared to give an eye-witness account of a strike in the Urals involving 25,000 workers. Mrs. Alexeev was unable to attend the hearing and Parsonnet, counsel conducting the hearing, told the Commission that the strike was broken by machine-gunning the leaders.

Alexeev said that slave labor was not confined to prison camps remote from population centers, but that he had seen groups of political prisoners working for nothing on the same production lines where they had previously earned their living.

Forced Labor in the U.S.

Testimony on forced labor in the United States dealt mainly with the Negro worker in the South. Most impressive witness was C. Leroy Hacker, a Methodist minister and former professor at Bethune-Cookman College, who had made a detailed, firsthand study of labor conditions in the turpentine camps of Alachua County, Fla.

Turpentine workers in that county, which was picked because a few wealthy farmers are in complete control, are kept in filthy compounds made up of one and two-room shacks. Whole families live in these places without the most elementary sanitary facilities. Other compounds, Hacker said, consist of barracks, in which the families are separated. Some compounds are fenced in with mesh wire, while others are surrounded by high board fences topped with barbed wire.

Armed guards are used to keep “the insiders in and outsiders out,” Hacker said. Armed guards also escort the men to work and prevent attempts to escape. A worker who tries to escape will be chased by bloodhounds and, if caught, returned to his slavery.

These workers are recruited through false promises of high pay and good conditions or, if this is unavailing, men are arrested on vagrancy charges and sent by the authorities to work off their bail. Once they are in the compound, low wages and high prices at the compound will plunge them into debt, giving the owner a legal pretext to keep them against their will.

Mr. Hacker told of the experience of his cousin, trapped in one of these slave camps, who escaped through the swamps though pursued by armed men and bloodhounds. Federal and state authorities were notified of this incident, but no action was taken.

Debt Slavery

Rowland Watts, national secretary of the WDL, corroborated Hacker’s testimony on the basis of actual cases investigated by the WDL and discussed the legal status of forced labor in the U.S. The most prevalent form practiced in this country, he said, is debt slavery, in which the worker finds that his wages never meet the cost of food and other necessities supplied by the employer.

Watts told of the case of 60 longshoremen of Broward County, Fla., who were arrested for “vagrancy” on their day off and forced to work off fines and court costs in the bean fields. In another case, a young Alabama farm worker had been held on a farm for eight years, working a 16-hour day seven days a week, without pay. An attempt to rescue him met with armed resistance.

Watts estimated that 20,000 families in six Southern states were held in a state of peonage, but said that the practice was on the wane, due chiefly to improved farming methods and the introduction of mechanical cultivators.

Other witnesses on the American scene were Edwin C. Mitchell, representing the National Farm Union; Dr. Von D. Mizell, Florida state chairman of the WDL; Mrs. Pauline Kibbe, Oil Workers Union representative, who told of slave labor practices employed against Mexican workers in the U.S.; and Roy Finch, a conscientious objectors during the war.

South American Peonage

Victor Andrade, former Bolivian Minister of Labor and at present a lecturer at the New School, was the principal witness on Friday morning when peonage in South America was before the Commission. He told how feudal relations established by the ancient Incas were first utilized by the Spanish conquerors and still form the peonage pattern used today by large plantation and mine owners.

The Bolivian government in 1944, Andrade claimed, abolished this system and another called “Pongo,” under which persons were obliged to serve their “lord” without pay. These obligatory services could also be hired out without consulting the persons involved, Andrade said. When the Villarroel government was overthrown in 1946, Andrade said, these forms of slavery were reinstituted.

A summary of reports on peonage in the Latin American countries was presented by Herling, director of research for the Commission, and he said the conditions described by Andrade were common to Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador.

Impressive Review

Direct witnesses were not called when Africa, Asia, Australasia and the island countries of the South Pacific ware before the Commission, but Herling delivered summary reports on each, dealing with material collected either from direct sources or recognized works published on the subject.

The mass of evidence presented during the three days of hearings was truly impressive and undoubtedly the most ambitious review of a neglected field ever attempted. The Commission and its staff worked under the handicaps common to unofficial bodies dealing with an unpopular subject.

According to Dr. Gideonse, the Commission still hopes the United Nations will deal with the question of slave labor on an official basis.

“We took great comfort,” he said in his opening remarks, “from the fact that the U.S. delegate to the UN Economic and Social Council vigorously supported the second AFL request, made recently, for an official inquiry into forced labor and slave labor all over the world.”

Admitting that the “obduracy” of the Soviet Union may well prevent a UN investigation, Dr. Gideonse went on to say that the Commission “remains the sole source of relief and public information to a frustrated humanity, an extraordinarily large part of which suffers the degradation and humiliation of slaves, peons and forced laborers.”

A luncheon Saturday afternoon at the Hotel McAlpin concluded the sessions.

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