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R. Craine

Peonage Uncovered in South

Sugar Company Uses Violence to Hold Badly Paid Negro Workers

(November 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 47, 23 November 1942, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The indictment by a federal grand jury of the United States Sugar Corp. and four of its employees on charges of peonage has thrown some light on the continued existence of virtual slavery in the South.

The same jury also brought in indictments against Charles A. Gaskin, owner of a Florida turpentine plantation for “arresting” James Johnson, a Negro workman, and holding him in servitude until he worked off an alleged debt of $22. At the same time, Sheriff Jeff Wiggins of Glades Country, Fla., was indicted for working county prisoners on his farm without pay.

In indicting the U.S. Sugar Corp., its personnel manager, M.E. Von Mach, and three camp superintendents, the grand jury charged that the defendants had violated the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery, and it listed at least twenty overt acts on the part of the company.

Since November 1, 1941, and for a “long time prior thereto and upon subsequent days thereafter” the company is accused of recruiting laborers for work in the fields by paying their fare. When the men arrived there they were told that they owed the company the railroad fare and that they would have to work off this debt before they could leave the plantation. Those who tried to leave were hunted down by the sheriff and returned to the fields by force.

In addition, the indictment reads that the company compelled the field hands, all of them Negroes, to remain at work against their wills by “force, threats and by divers other means of coercion and intimidation,” which included beating, striking and by imposing other forms of bodily punishment.

The Department of Agriculture has long been interested in the sugar corporation and has been granting it millions of dollars in subsidies over a period of years. Under the federal sugar act, certain conditions regarding wage scales, living and working conditions, were set up. These the company tried to escape by resorting to the practices for which they were indicted last week.

What They Were Paid

One has but to look at what the conditions set up by the Department of Agriculture were to understand the real heinousness of the crime. On November 5 of this year, the Department of Agriculture announced the new rates of pay for harvesting sugar. These are supposed to represent an increase of from 3 to 12 per cent of the stipulated pay for 1941, and the increases were granted, according to the Department, “because of increased sugar prices and higher government payments, and because of the rises in general farm wages and in the cost of living.” In other words, the increases represented no money out of the over-stuffed coffers of the corporation. The wage rates follow:

The highest paid jobs on the sugar plantation are cutting, topping and stripping of the sugar cane. For nine hours of hard, back-breaking work, adult male workers were awarded the grandiose wage of $2.45 per day; adult females $2.00 per day. Children between 14 and 16 doing the same work are to receive three-fourths of the rates established for the adult worker. These are only the top rates. For other work, such as tractor driving, truck driving, hoisting, piling, scrapping, the wages vary from $2.30 to $1.25 for a nine-hour day.

The above represent an increase of about 10 per cent over what the prevailing wage was SUPPOSED to have been since 1941 – an increase that is actually covered by government subsidies (indirectly by tax-payers), and by higher sugar prices – directly by consumers. Even these minimal conditions the sugar barons sought to avoid by the introduction of slave conditions in their fields.

The company of course denies these charges. Each defendant was set free on a $1,000 bond and the case is to be tried some time in 1943. The penalty, if and when there is a conviction, will most likely be a fine of several thousand dollars and the sugar company will be set to continue its old methods.

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Last updated: 19 August 2014