Slave-labor conditions at Sherrods' farm?
Shocking new allegations against Shirley Sherrod (the USDA employee recently embroiled in a controversy over a speech she gave to the NAACP) and the communal farm she ran with her husband Charles Sherrod have been confirmed by an article published 36 years ago in a farm workers' newspaper.
Combined, the new 2010 allegations and the original 1974 allegations accuse Shirley and Charles Sherrod of:
• Paying farm workers as little as 67¢ per hour, far below minimum wage for the era.
• Employing underage children to perform hard labor.
• Compelling their employees to work in unsafe conditions, including getting sprayed with pesticides.
• Firing any workers who acted as whistleblowers.
• Forcing employees to work overtime in the fields at night with practically no advance notice.
• Having a capricious payscale under which employees doing the exact same jobs were paid different amounts according to the whims of the managers.
• Being unwilling to address the abuse even after it was raised by union representatives.
• Seriously mismanaging the farm to such an extent that it went bankrupt.
Let's first look at the new allegations, and then at the original allegations.
Ron Wilkins accuses Sherrods of Exploitation and Mistreatment
On Monday, August 2, 2010, Ron Wilkins, who was a black Civil Rights activist and organizer in the '70s and is now a professor specializing in African-American history, published an incendiary article in the magazine CounterPunch in which he describes how he infiltrated the Sherrods' "New Communities" farm commune in 1974 and discovered horrifying circumstances where black farm workers labored in near-slavery conditions, often being paid as little as 67¢ per hour (far under the minimum wage at the time) and facing intolerable conditions:
Imagine farm workers doing back breaking labor in the sweltering sun, sprayed with pesticides and paid less than minimum wage. Imagine the United Farm Workers called in to defend these laborers against such exploitation by management. Now imagine that the farm workers are black children and adults and that the managers are Shirley Sherrod, her husband Rev. Charles Sherrod, and a host of others. But it’s no illusion; this is fact.
The swirling controversy over the racist dismissal of Shirley Sherrod from her USDA post has obscured her profoundly oppositional behavior toward black agricultural workers in the 1970s. What most of Mrs. Sherrod’s supporters are not aware of is the elitist and anti-black-labor role that she and fellow managers of New Communities Inc. (NCI) played. These individuals under-paid, mistreated and fired black laborers--many of them less than 16 years of age--in the same fields of southwest Georgia where their ancestors suffered under chattel slavery.
Shirley Sherrod was New Communities Inc. store manager during the 1970s. As such, Mrs. Sherrod was a key member of the NCI administrative team, which exploited and abused the workforce in the field. The 6,000 acre New Communities Inc. in Lee County promoted itself during the latter part of the 1960s and throughout the 70s as a land trust committed to improving the lives of the rural black poor. Underneath this facade, the young and old worked long hours with few breaks, the pay averaged sixty-seven cents an hour, fieldwork behind equipment spraying pesticides was commonplace and workers expressing dissatisfaction were fired without recourse.
These accusations are not coming from conservatives like Andrew Breitbart: they're coming from a respected left-leaning African-American professor with a long history as a Civil Rights activist, and were published in the far-left magazine CounterPunch.
United Farm Workers Slam the Sherrods in 1974 Exposé
But if these radical bona fides are not enough to convince you that this isn't just a conservative hit-piece concocted out of thin air, Wilkins' allegations (and more) are confirmed by a news story published at the time in the far-far-far-left-leaning United Farm Workers' newspaper El Malcriado on September 28, 1974.
Below are two jpegs showing the article exactly as it appeared in El Malcriado. The image on the left is taken directly from a microfiche in a well-known Chicano Studies library. (To absolutely confirm the veracity of this article, I have appended to the bottom of this post three additional jpegs showing the article in context on the newspaper page and with adjacent El Malcriado pages.) The image on the right is taken from a photograph of the entire September 28, 1974 El Malcriado issue in its original paper format, preserved in pdf format (3.8mb) here at the UFW's history archives. And as final confirmation, a close-up high-quality pdf of just the page 2 article itself can be seen here.
The El Malcriado article contains additional allegations on top of those made by Ron Wilkins in his recent essay, as you will see; an exact transcription follows the images:
On the left: jpeg of a microfiche version of El Malcriado (click to enlarge); on the right, jpeg of an original newsprint version of the same article.
Children Farm Workers Strike Black Co-op
Albany, Georgia -- The black eagle flag first flew over the fields of Georgia on August 19th, when 50 Black farm workers, most of them under 16 years of age, walked out on strike at New Communities, Inc., a farming cooperative near here.
As the strike enters its fourth week, only management and eight workers are gathering the harvest at this 6,000 acre farm.
The strikers walked out for a living wage and humane working conditions.
Not only must they work behind machines spraying lethal pesticides, but there is no definite pay scale.
Wages paid by New Communities vary from 67¢-$1.63 per hour, and management pays each worker whatever they please, according to personal preference.
Strikers say they must put in unnecessary overtime, on a half-hour's notice, at ungodly hours because the farm is poorly managed.
The farm's manager, for instance, would accept a large produce order late in the afternoon and then require people to work late into the night so that the order would be filled the next morning.
Management had convinced the workers that they should not expect better pay for hours because the entire cooperative was losing money.
Robert Johnson, one of the employees, finally organized the current strike but was promptly fired.
The day after the strike began, the workers called on the United Farm Workers (UFW) field office in Avon Park, Florida for assistance.
Mack Lyons, Florida field office director and UFW National Executive Board member, met with the strikers in Georgia.
The workers signed UFW authorization cards (cards which name the UFW as the bargaining agent of their choice) and voted to demand a UFW contract with the protections of the union's Coca-Cola contract in Florida.
The union has already won back pay for workers who were not earning the minimum wage, sometimes amounting to as much as $500.
Though several of this Black cooperative's funding organizations are pressuring Charles Sherrod, the farm's manager, to reach a settlement with the strikers, he remains unwilling to negotiate.
With so few scabs left in New Community's fields, the UFW's first strike in the southeast area (outside of Florida) may also bring the first of many UFW contracts to these fields that were once harvested by slave labor.
Page 2 -- September 28, 1974 -- El Malcriado
(* The typo "Through" in the article's second-to-last paragraph has been corrected in this transcription to "Though".)
Remember when reading all this that the Sherrods' New Communities Farm received $13 million from the USDA to compensate for the loss of their land as part of the "Pigford v. Glickman" settlement, and that Shirley and Charles Sherrod personally received $300,000 for "pain and suffering."
The irony is that Shirley Sherrod baselessly accused Andrew Breitbart of wanting Blacks to get "stuck back in the times of slavery," when in fact it was Sherrod herself who was practically enslaving poor Blacks on her farm.
Additional Links with More Info on This Story
Below are three additional images of the El Malcriado article, showing it in progressively greater context, to prove beyond any doubt that it is an authentic article published in 1974, and not a later invention concocted by her detractors, as some of Sherrod's defenders might claim if not confronted with solid evidence: