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Labor Action, 13 March 1950


Forced Labor in U.S.
Bared Before UN Body


From Labor Action, Vol. 14 No. 11, 13 March 1950, pp. 1 & 8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The same group which has done outstanding work in bringing to light and publicizing the facts about forced labor and slave-labor camps in Stalinist Russia last Thursday presented to a United Nations body a detailed set of charges on the continuing existence of forced labor in the United States.

In a Report on Legal and Illegal Forms of Forced Labor in the United States, the Workers Defense League, through National Secretary Rowland Watts, drew up its indictment under seven heads in a 10,000-word summary of the findings of the Commission of Inquiry into Forced Labor. [For the hearings held by this commission into conditions on both sides of the Iron Curtain, see Labor Action far February 14, March 7 and March 14 of last year.] The document was presented to the Ad Hoc (Special) Committee on Slavery, Economic and Social Council of the UN.

The WDL charges pointed the finger at conditions in a number of states tolerated by the federal government, and at practices and laws of the federal government itself, in which human labor was held in actual or virtual bondage under color of various pretexts and exploited for governmental or private gain.

While it goes without saying that the picture thus painted is far short of the monstrous scale of slave labor in Stalinland, the significance of the disclosures for American labor is not in the slightest degree affected by this comparison. The conditions of-which the WDL speaks are taking place in our own country and are no more to be tolerated because there is something even more horrible elsewhere in the world. [For one of the most detailed portraits of labor conditions in Russia, see Labor Action for July 18, 1949.]

Slavery for Debt

The document took up U.S. forced labor practices in the fields of (1) peonage, or debt-slavery; (2) foreign contract labor; (3) prison labor; (4) mental-hospital labor; (5) wartime exploitation of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps and of conscientious objectors; (6) certain Indian tribes; (7) anti-labor restrictions, especially the Taft-Hartley Law.

Peonage, says Watts, is the Southern states’ modern replacement for the chattel-slave system, most commonly among the cotton sharecroppers of the deep South and among the turpentine workers of Florida and Georgia.

The system works through the plantation owners’ keeping the cropper in perpetual debt: the latter is furnished with seed, supplies, food and tools for credit, but at exorbitant prices, and with the accounts kept solely by the plantation owner with unchecked possibilities and practices of fraud. No matter how hard the sharecropper works, he can never work free under this setup. If he attempts to leave he is either detained by force or arrested and handed back.

Boxed on this page is a sample ease of how this works. The ease deals with the way in which the police authorities act as agents of the exploiters through systematic arrest for “vagrancy” to provide additional labor for the lords of the manor, even on a mass basis, in a manner reminiscent of the way in which the Russian GPU steps up its purges when more labor is needed in the Kremlin’s slave camps. As in Russia, not even a trial need accompany the drumhead recruitment of forced labor in this fashion.

The intent of the 13th Amendment, charges the report, has been totally ignored by the states involved, “which have constantly refined their criminal fraud statutes to avoid the letter of U.S. Supreme Court decisions.” Nor has the federal government made any serious attempt to enforce laws on the books which would apply. “The Civil Rights Section of the Department of Justice with its six lawyers and no power of independent investigation is in sharp contrast to the Anti-Trust Division with its 320 lawyers and full investigative powers.”

Government Winks

The worst situation of foreign contract labor centers around Mexican workers in the Southwest and details are also given on West Indian workers in Florida and Connecticut. Arrest for “vagrancy” also figures in Florida as a forced-labor-recruiting device.

The virtual slave labor of Mexican workers in the Southwest and Middle South states involves hundreds of thousands: in two months of 1949 as many as 118,575 Mexican nationals were legally imported for farm work and in addition at least 200,000 illegal entrants cross the border every year “with little interference from the ‘Border Patrol’ which winks its eyes.”

”In October 1948 so many of them crossed the border at El Paso, Texas, that large-scale farm operators like the Great Western Sugar Company backed up special trains to haul them away.” The Immigration Service put the label of legality on this proceeding by registering the entrants and PAROLING them to the custody of the farm operators, thus rendering them completely at the mercy of the latter.

The situation of the illegal entrants (the “wetbacks”) is worse than that of the legal workers – but cannot be much worse. “Mr. John P. Swenson of the U.S. Immigration Service and some of his subordinates agree that slaves were treated better than the men on many farms they visited.”

A newspaper reporter is quoted:

“On many of the farms there was no provision for shelter, strictly catch-as-catch-can. The men, and often the women, slept under the long cotton wagons, under trees, in trucks, or in the open fields. The flies, valley mosquitoes and other insects of the Southwestern summer crawled over the workers by night. They welcomed sunrise each morning as an escape to the fields.”

Of the 110,000 Japanese and U.S. citizens of Japanese descent piled into concentration camps after evacuation from the West Coast, the WDL charges say: “They were supplied with food and lodging in such camps but were expected to supply their own clothing and in order to obtain the ordinary necessities of sanitary living they were forced to work. This work was mostly farm labor; they had no choice of occupation and their remuneration was very small – in no way comparable to that paid free labor for similar work. If they objected to the conditions of their employment, their only alternative was to remain within the barbed wire confines of the camp and live on the subsistence standards provided by the government.”

“It should be borne in mind.” the report reminds, “that the pattern ... was unprecedented in the history of the United States. Not only was it a penalty imposed upon specific ethnic and religious groups as such, but it was the establishment of a principle of unpaid labor coerced by the government which may well be used against other groups in other situations, such as labor groups in strike situations.”

The least known situation highlighted in the indictment is that of the Pribilof Indians off the coast of Alaska, who supply seal skins. The Fouke Fur Company of St. Louis has an exclusive contract with the Department of the Interior for all such skins. The native gets an average of less than $1 per skin – two per cent of its real value in its unprocessed state – and are prohibited from doing processing themselves.

“If they remain in their homeland they are forced by the government of the United States to work for the Fouke Fur Company. If they attempt to leave the islands they are told that they will never be permitted to return, even for a visit to their families.”

UN Won’t Do It

The story of the Taft-Hartley Law is, of course, familiar to Labor Action readers. The report to the UN concludes on that question:

“The worker recalls with apprehension the wartime use of troops as strikebreakers and knows that the government has the power to take such action again. He knows further that in other countries of the world where the government has assumed control of the unions it has been a prelude to the destruction of free labor.”

In several places, stress, is laid on the idea that the existence of forced labor is not only a human and moral abomination but that wherever it exists it tends to, and is used to, grind down the conditions of free labor. This is also a large part of the function it serves in the United States.

That the UN will or can do anything at all about the violations of democracy and freedom described is, of course, not to be expected. The submission of the report to its subcommittee could serve and has served the purpose of throwing the spotlight of publicity on them.

In each case, the practices are intimately tied up with the insatiable drive of the profit system to exploit the wealth-producing labor of the workers for the gain of the owning few, with human dignity, freedom and democracy of no account where they get in the way of profits. The aroused labor movement has met and beaten down similar conditions before, but their roots in the nature of capitalism have not been pulled out.

The Workers Defense League and its Commission of Inquiry have done a praiseworthy job in showing the labor movement some of the crimes to be fought here in this country.

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