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Susan Green

An Unsweetened Story of Sugar:

Peonage in the Shadow of the Rockies

(8 June 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 23, 8 June 1942, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Sugar is being rationed as a war measure – a war, we are told, “to preserve the American way of life.” Sugar, therefore, looms large in the public consciousness. What could be a more opportune time for learning something about the production of sugar?

This story will not go far afield into those backward places like Hawaii and Cuba, where sugar is a major crop. There one expects to find – shall I say – backwardness, meaning extreme, exploitation of labor and dire poverty among the sugar-crop workers.

But here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, the picture is not different. This is attested to by many students of American agriculture.

Dr. R. W. Roskelley, referring to the sugar-beet industry, wrote:

“There is a human drama in Colorado which is almost as spectacular as The Grapes of Wrath.”

Carey McWilliams, in his book, Ill Fares the Land, states:

“It is a drama which involves 25,000 Mexican sugar-beet workers, who, for twenty years or more, have been whirled around on one of the giddiest merry-go-rounds in America. It is one more illustration of the complicated patterns evolved in ‘rural’ areas where industrialized agriculture has become entrenched. The appearance of rural slums in a pioneer Western state – the development of a caste system in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains ...”

The Great Western Sugar Co. is the big boss of the beet-sugar industry of Colorado and other Western states, controlling one-third of the whole beet-sugar output in this country.

How the Companies Lure Labor

By the system of circulating lying handbills promising high wages and a farm-laborer’s paradise – re-enforced by local labor-herders – the company lured 25,000 Mexican laborers north to the sugar-beet fields. To ensure their remaining, the company used such gentle devices as withholding wages. In the years 1933 to 1938 there were never less than 500 unsettled wage claims by Mexican sugar-beet workers. The unique operation of the machinery of justice made it impossible for wage claims to be settled sooner than two or three years. This stranded the worker threw him further upon the meager mercy of the company, and virtually made him a peon in free America.

Thus the company shackled workers to the fields by the simple expedient of keeping them too poor even to move away. To ensure a sufficiently low wage level, it encouraged a constant stream of migratory workers. To perpetuate poverty every effort was made to divide the workers by artificial means arid prevent unionization. The Mexican born in this country was encouraged to look down his nose at the Mexican from Mexico. Each group was settled in its separate slum. When the “Okies” and “Arkies” began to pour into the region, still more dissension developed and was blessed by the company.

In 1938 the average yearly earnings per worker in the sugar-beet fields did not exceed $70. Therefore to be able to exist by seasonal work – even on the very lowest subsistence level – every member of the family becomes a slave in the beet fields. In fact, sugar-beet labor is almost exclusively “family contract” labor, thus securing for the employer the unpaid labor of women and children. During the 1940 season a man and his two sons had made a total of $165, according to Carey McWilliams.

The “Heritage” of the Children

In 1929 it was reported that 5,000 Mexican children of the sugar-beet district, of school age, were not attending school. One-half of the sugar-beet families were living in one and two room shacks. Five, six, seven, nine and even eleven people were jammed into disgraceful one-room hovels. Infant mortality rates are shameful. Disease among children and adults runs rampant. Because the children have no opportunity for advancement, the tendency is for the peon status of the parent to remain that of the children. These are some of the high points of the “American way of life” of the sugar-beet laborers.

Reports in 1938 show that little if any improvement had been made in the decade from 1929. Carey McWilliams states in his Ill Fares the Land:

“As long as Mexican labor has been employed in Colorado, these conditions have prevailed; and they are as bad today as they were in 1920.”

Larimer Street, the main thoroughfare of the Mexican district of Denver, is known as “Hunger Street.”

The Great Western Sugar Co. made sure that relief payments and WPA jobs would not interfere with its labor supply. With the coming of the sugar-beet season in the spring, public welfare agencies take all Mexicans off relief. All people with Spanish names are automatically assumed to be sugar-beet workers. If the Great Western doesn’t employ them, well, that’s just too bad. The Great Western also majestically places orders with the Colorado State Employment Service, and workers are taken off WPA when the big sugar boss asks for them. The control exercised by Great Western over state and local politics is by no means remote.

Misery Leads to Western’s Profits

The abject misery of the sugar-beet workers has been transformed into gilded profits for the Great Western Sugar Co. By 1939 it had tripled its assets. Its profit realization was 736 per cent on its original investment.

The domestic sugar industry has been a special pet of the federal government, receiving at times large subsidies and the “protection” of a high tariff. It is estimated that of the proceeds taken in by the sugar companies from the sale of beet sugar, only 27.6 per cent really represents the value of sugar at world market prices. The other 72.4 per cent – or about $350,000,000 a year – is today contributed by the housewives of the country because of the “protection” the government has given its favorites, such as the peon-owning Great Western Sugar Co.

The “American Way of Life”

The “American way of life” is rather nice for the beneficiaries of the Havemeyer estate and for the members of the Boettcher family, who own large blocks of the stock of Great Western Sugar Co.

Quite obviously the “American way of life” hasn’t worked out quite so well for the sugar-beet workers – who number a great many more than the stockholders of the Great Western Sugar Co. A final word on the plight of these human beings: On October 20, 1940, the newspaper PM reported an interview with one A. Halleck Brown – presumably an agent of the big boss – on the subject of sugar-beet labor. Mr. Brown stated, without intending to be sarcastic:

“Wages are better than they used to be. Why, a hard-working family now can clean up as much as $240 a season.”

When pressed for information on how the workers live during the off-season, Mr. Brown added – possible as further evidence of the well-being of the sugar-beet workers:

“You’ll see those Mexicans on a winter morning going around with their little second-hand express wagons, getting stale bread from restaurants and people that know ’em and picking up food from garbage cans.”

For the sugar-beet workers in free America, life itself has been on very strict rations indeed – a rationing system ruthlessly imposed by the profit-grubbing big sugar bosses supported by the federal government.

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