PBS Great Depression Series, #5
Producer: WGBH, Boston
Narrator: Joe Morton
This documentary examines the efforts that tenant farmers and steelworkers undertook to organize and unionize amidst The Great Depression of the 1930s. Using interviews, film footage, and historians’ reflections, it recounts the privation and violent conditions facing H.L. Mitchell and the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU), and industrial workers who formed the Steelworkers Organizing Committee (SWOC) of the burgeoning Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Racism, paternalistic company towns, heavy-handed anti-unionism and violent opposition posed grave obstacles to organizers in the Southern agricultural fields and Northern industrial cities alike. A key element to the success of the SWOC and CIO on the one hand, and the failure of the STFU on the other, was the legal framework protecting organizing, rights, and concerted activity for private-sector workers with the passage of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which expressly excluded agricultural and domestic workers who comprised much of the South’s workforce. The result was the rise of powerful unionism in much of the more industrialized North, Midwest, and West, and the concomitant absence of effective unionism from the more agricultural South and Southwest, in the Depression-riddled 1930s.