‘Slavery in Michigan’s Beet Fields’ by Louis Steigerwald from Young Worker. Vol. 3 No. 4. February 15, 1924.

‘Jo Durco. This man, his wife and two children, Mary 8 years, Tony 10 years, do all the work on a large plot of beets. They are blocking and thinning now. Location: Corunna, Michigan. July, 1917.’
‘Slavery in Michigan’s Beet Fields’ by Louis Steigerwald from Young Worker. Vol. 3 No. 4. February 15, 1924.

Dear Comrades:

I think it is my duty to write you what experience I have had in the sugar fields in Michigan, for I was out there in 1920 during the industrial crisis. Being out of work for 9 months, I applied for work. Now, they do not take Americans for that kind of work knowing that they will not stick to it. But, so I told them that we came from Hungary a few years ago and were used to work. So I landed the job for $23 an acre, never having seen a sugar beet before. They told me that for every family I would get they would pay me $1 and they told me the reasons why they wanted the foreigners was because of their big families. They said that while the father has to work the wife and children could help him out.

Being a member of the Y.P.S.L. then, I tried to get as much information as possible. One German family told me that they had not enough money to get back to the city and so the smallest children had to go out and work in the fields. There was no way out of it, for the father could not earn enough money and the children had to help out. It is a joke to think an investigation was necessary. Former Governor Sleeper, I think, could give them all the information that was necessary. The real reason why they do not abolish child slavery is because if the Michigan Sugar Beet Company was forced to pay these families an American living wage, they might go bankrupt.

Sometimes in the fields, you would find a family of three or four living in a small shack and when it happened to rain they would get a shower bath. I have seen places where the farmers clean out their chicken coops and put families in there. When the families come out there, they are usually broke and they are given credit by the beet company; when they get their pay checks they have to repay their debts which leaves them very little to buy the necessities of life.

Michigan beet workers, 1920.

If you want to make a living out here you must start out at four o’clock till sun down, working’ by the light of a lantern. Especially at the lining. If the ground is not lined when they are one inch out of the ground the grass will grow that takes the strength away from the beets and also makes it harder for you to work. If you are not fast enough the beet field boss will give it to some one else. Well now, with the pulling it is the hardest of all for the children and also for the men. They start pulling about September 15th and don’t get a cent until the last beet is pulled. The children suffer by their being out even when it rains, crawling over the fields and getting rheumatism. For the rest of their lives there is no cure for them. The school teachers obligingly give them a leave of absence for two weeks and sometimes the weather is so bad that by Christmas time they are still pulling beets.

So I say there is no need of investigation. All the farmers know what the children have to suffer. There is only one remedy for this situation and that is the organization of the workers into an industrial union. This can be made possible by Young Workers League members going out on the farms and working alongside of them to spread working class propaganda.

There is much more I would like to write but this will be all for this time. Hoping that this letter will lead the Young Workers League into action.

The Young Worker was produced by the Young Workers League of America beginning in 1922. The name of the Workers Party youth league followed the name of the adult party, changing to the Young Workers (Communist) League when the Workers Party became the Workers (Communist) Party in 1926. The journal was published monthly in Chicago and continued until 1927. Editors included Oliver Carlson, Martin Abern, Max Schachtman, Nat Kaplan, and Harry Gannes.

For PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/youngworker/v03n04-feb-15-1924-yw.pdf

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