The Journal for MultiMediaHistory
Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998


The 1939 Dairy Farmers Union Milk Strike in Heuvelton and Canton, New York: The Story in Words and Pictures
Part IV

Thomas J. Kriger

Part I
  •  Introduction

  •  Background

  • Part II
  •  The 1939 DFU Milk Strike

  •  Struggles in Words and Photographs

  • Part III
  •  Struggles to Close the Heuvelton Sheffield Farms Plant

  •  DFU's Struggle to Close Canton Milk Plants

  • Part IV
  •  Conclusion

  •  Postscript

  •  Acknowledgements

  •  About the Author

  •  Suggested Reading


    A cartoon commentary by Rufus J. Quinn on redbaiting tactics directed against Archie Wright 1942.

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    Local newspaper account of Archie Wright's 'un-American' activities.
    Selection from an anti-DFU broadside circulated after
    the 1939 strike. DFU Collection, St. Lawrence University.
    Needless to say, DFU funerals held for the Big Three milk dealers were premature. As early as August 31, 1939, the Watertown Daily Times reported that a "campaign to minimize [the DFU's] strike victory [was already] under way." The dealers' first tactic was to ignore the settlement negotiated by LaGuardia.[40] Their next tactic was to publish a series of allegations assailing the motives of Wright and the DFU. The purpose of these allegations was to cut into the community support enjoyed by Wright and the union. One set of allegations dealt with CIO and Communist Party involvement in DFU strikes; other allegations questioned Wright's patriotism by pointing to his membership in the IWW. In November 1939, New York State farmers began receiving a free magazine called the Dairy Farmers Digest, which was published in the exact same format as the DFU house organ. The Digest's goal was fighting "Communistic and CIO activities." Another example, which appeared in January 1940, was a series of letters sent to farmers signed by Robert Eastman entitled "The Red Line From Moscow." Eastman was a frequent contributor to the American Agriculturalist, owned by longtime DFU opponent Frank Gannett. In April 1940, these charges gained greater credibility when Congressman Martin Dies, chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, issued further accusations alleging that Wright and the DFU had ties to the Communist Party.[41]

    A cover page from Archie Wright's FBI file.
    Cover page from Archie Wright's
    Federal Bureau of Investigation files. From the author.

    The dealers' personal attacks on Wright eventually succeeded in splitting the DFU. In the Dairy Farmers Digest, editor V. R. "Tommygun" Tompkins repeatedly implied that the DFU was controlled by the Communist Party, which raised questions within the union membership. Wright, for his part, denied ever having been a communist and pointed out the real motives behind the dealers' "red-scare." As the attacks wore on he wrote:
    There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that the attack on Communists was designed in great part to bring about the destruction of all trade unions and farmer organizations or to scare those organizations from protection of their people, and in this the campaign has been quite successful. Most people's organizations are now much more interested in proving that they are not Communists, by chasing Communists all over the lot, than they are in protecting the interests of their own people.[42]

    Much as Wright described, however, such accusations continued until they polarized the union. The attacks also took a toll on Wright personally. In June 1940, he resigned because of ill health and was given a leave of absence by the DFU's General Organizing Committee (GOC). He returned two months later to reclaim his position at a union general convention, but had to fight off a resolution stating that the union had no connections to the Communist Party. In November 1940, Wright filed suit against GOC members Frank Brill and Sam Schou, who called him a communist. He eventually dropped his suit following yet another tension-filled meeting, but this was added evidence of the growing discord within the union.

    A cartoon commentary by Rufus J. Quinn on redbaiting tactics directed against Archie Wright 1942.
    Portion of a 1942 Cartoon by
    Rufus J. Quinn on redbaiting
    tactics against Archie Wright.
    DFU Collection, St. Lawrence
    The next month, just prior to DFU elections, an "Open Letter" circulated throughout the milkshed signed by fifty-one DFU members who accused Wright of communist sympathies. In addition, a series of broadsheets mysteriously appeared in northern New York with Wright as the target. Bearing banner headlines such as "Mr. Wright Denies It, But Communism Is In Dairy Farmers Union," and "Who Is the Rubber Stamp For the Communist Party Inside the Dairy Farmers Union?" these posters undoubtedly influenced the DFU election results. When the votes were counted Wright's opponents had gained a decisive victory. Although Wright was elected DFU Chairman with by far the largest number of votes, his entire slate for the union GOC had been defeated. In reaction, he forced a confrontation with his critics the day after the election. Using heavy-handed tactics quite out of character with the DFU's democratic decision-making process, Wright personally called a union special convention to expel the fifty-one members who had signed the "Open Letter." But when DFU delegates meeting in Utica voted against him by a vote of 118 to 52, Wright immediately resigned his position, most likely as a last-ditch effort to provoke a purge of his enemies. Regardless of the merits of Wright's actions, one thing was clear: the dealers' well-financed redbaiting campaign had fatally split the DFU.

    Portion of a 1940 broadsheet
    circulated by the milk dealers.
    DFU Collection, St. Lawrence University.
    In the months following Wright's resignation the DFU was rent by conflict. While most DFU locals in northern New York remained loyal to Wright, others elected new officers who professed allegiance to the anti-Wright GOC. In Jefferson County, Earl Lathan, the chairman of the second largest DFU local, resigned after a failed effort to reinstate Wright. In St. Lawrence County, home of the largest DFU local, DFU Chair Carl Peters cut off payments to the GOC following Wright's resignation. When the GOC elected its own officers in St. Lawrence County, Wright's followers shouted down the GOC at a tumultuous meeting at the Canton Town Hall on May 1, 1941. This meeting, like many others around the state, ended only after the local police were called in. Five days later, the split in the union became official when the St. Lawrence County unit joined Wright in forming a separate organization known as the Farmers Union of the New York Milkshed (FUNY).[43] Although Wright and his followers remained active in dairy politics until the late 1950s, neither they or the remnants of the DFU ever enjoyed the community support so critical to the organization in 1939. The pictures that accompany this text thus mark the zenith of power of one of New York State's most remarkable farmers' organizations.

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    My own connection to these events is a simple one. In 1991, I was invited to a tavern in upstate New York where a group of angry dairy farmers were once again trying to organize a milk strike. After their meeting, some of the farmers asked me—an outsider and an academic—about milk strikes in the 1930s. I confessed I knew nothing about them. But after some digging I stumbled upon the story of the DFU. What struck me was that contemporary dairy farmers knew so little of their own history. A few farmers had heard stories about the 1930s milk strikes; others had vague memories of milk being dumped in the streets. However, they knew almost nothing of the success the DFU had achieved under similar, seemingly insurmountable economic circumstances. My mission over the last few years has thus been to bring the colorful history of the DFU to the attention of historians, and in the process to offer New York's small dairy farmers a more complete picture of their spirited legacy.

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    The photographs used in this article are found in the Dairy Farmers Union Collection, Owen D. Young Library, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York. The author would like to thank Tim Wright; Lynn Ekfelt, Owen D.Young Library archivist; Linda Casserly, Town and Village of Canton (NY) historian; and Claudia Giffen, Town of Clare (NY) historian, New York for providing him access to these photographs. The farmers whose voices are heard in the article requested to remain anonymous.

    About the Author:

    Thomas J. Kriger is associate director of research/legislation at United University Professions, the union that represents academic and professional employees in the State University of New York (SUNY) system. He has taught at St. Lawrence University, Providence College, and the University of Northern Colorado. From 1980 to 1993, he was assistant manager of Ontario Orchards Farms, one of the largest fruit and vegetable farms in central New York.

    Go To:
    Dairy Strike: Part I  
  •  Introduction

  •  Background
  • Dairy Strike: Part III
  •  Struggles to Close the Heuvelton Sheffield Farms Plant

  •  DFU's Struggle to Close Canton Milk Plants
  • Dairy Strike: Part II
  •  The 1939 DFU Milk Strike

  •  Struggles in Words and Photographs
  • Dairy Strike: Part IV
  •  Return to top
  •  Conclusion

  •  Postscript

  •  Acknowledgements

  •  About the Author

  •  Suggested Reading
  • line.gif - 2332 Bytes

    Notes for Part IV:

    40. In August, 1940, Sheffield Farms and Borden's paid DFU farmers a lump sum of $91,090.25 to settle a suit filed by the DFU and supported by Mayor LaGuardia. Ignoring LaGuardia's agreement, the dealers had issued checks based on prices lower than those specified in the 1939 strike settlement. See The Union Farmer, 25 August 1940; Dyson, 175-6. [Return to text]

    41. For the dealers' redbaiting campaign, see Dyson, 177-81; see also Tim Wright, "Milk Strike: The History of the Dairy Farmers Union of New York, 1936-1941," (unpublished senior thesis, Princeton University, 1974), Ch. 5; for the Dies Committee allegations, see United States Congress, House, Hearings on Investigation of Un-American Propaganda Activities in the United States (Washington D. C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1938), Vol. 1, 913. [Return to text]

    42. Ogdensburg Journal, 19 July 1956, 4. [Return to text]

    43. Watertown Daily Times, 8 April - 12 May, 1941. [Return to text]

    Suggested Reading:

    Dyson, Lowell K. "The Dairy Farmers Union." Chap. In Red Harvest. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982, 168-85.

    ________. "Dairy Farmers Union." Chap. In Farmers' Organizations. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986, 67-71.

    Ford, Linda G. "Another Double Burden: Farm Women and Agrarian Activism in Depression Era New York State." New York History (October 1994): 373-98

    Kriger, Thomas J. "Syndicalism and Spilled Milk: The Origins of Dairy Farmer Activism in New York State, 1936-1941." Labor History forthcoming, 1997-1998.

    ________. "'Power Lies in Their Milk:' The Story of Archie Wright and the Dairy Farmers Union, 1936-1941." St. Lawrence County Historical Association Quarterly 41 (Winter 1996): 1-28.

    ________. "Milk Strike! The Politics of Dairy Farmers' Movements." Ph.D. diss., City University of New York, 1994.

    LaGuardia, Fiorello. "Urban Support for the Farmer." In New Deal Thought. ed. Howard Zinn. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, Inc., 1966, 227-31.

    McConnell, Grant. The Decline of Agrarian Democracy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954.

    Mooney, Patrick H. and Theo F. Majka. Farmers' and Farm Workers Movements. New York: Scribers Reference, 1994.

    Osterud, Nancy Grey. Bonds of Community: The Lives of Farm Women in Nineteenth Century New York. Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1991.

    Saloutos, Theodore. The American Farmer and the New Deal. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1982.

    Terkel, Studs. "The Farmer Is The Man." Chap. In Hard Times. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986, 213-35.

    ~ End ~

    The 1939 Dairy Farmers Union Milk Strike in Heuvelton and Canton, New York:
    The Story in Words and Pictures
    Copyright © 1998 by the Journal for MultiMedia History.

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    Contents: JMMH, Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998