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A REAL SHOWDOWN

In 1933 — four years before the demonstration in Foley Square — the New York milk market collapsed. Dairy farmers faced bankruptcy as milk prices took a sharp downturn; that April, they received an average of 99¢ per one hundred pounds of milk ("cwt"). Compared to the $2.25 cwt they were earning in January of 1931, the change incited protest across the state 3. That was enough to garner government concern: The Pitcher Committee, named for Watertown Senator Perley Pitcher, formed to report on the causes of such alarming decline. The Committee found that over-production of milk, costly transportation and distribution, and general economic trends threatened further market destruction. The They warned that"unfair and distinctive trade practices are now being carried on in the distribution of milk, whereby a constant supply of this product in a pure and wholesome condition is imperiled."4

In response to Committee inquiry, Mr. Earl Laidlaw, a dairy farmer from Governor, New York, spoke frankly: "There is no question in my mind but that there will be a milk strike within six months...We might as well withhold our milk and have a real show-down."5 That April, the emergency Milk Control Law of New York State – a temporary law that would only last one year – intervened in an effort to stabilize the market. An appointed Milk Control Board consisting of three men now controlled the entire New York milk market: the Commissioner of Agriculture and Markets, the Commissioner of Health, and the Director of the Milk Control Board. They alone held the power to fix fluctuating milk prices and grant milk dealer licenses only if they believed that additional distributors would not "tend to a destructive competition in a market already adequately served."6 The license stipulation was problematic: it prevented dairy business newcomers from operating legally, while at the same time ensuring milk distribution giants United States Dairy Products Company, Borden’s Condensed Milk Company, and Sheffield Farms Milk Company maintained their control of two-thirds of the City's market.7

Over the next few weeks in 1933, however, those prices seemed far from fixed. That year three successive raises in milk prices for consumers – April 14, April 24, and May 15 – continued to burden consumers, who suspected that they lost out in the new arrangement.8 Dairy farmers were no better off; they saw only a small percentage of the new revenue allowance. As a result, alarming reports from upstate poured in. Farmers were literally "losing their minds" with poverty and, according to one Clinton County farmer, "are up in arms, and unless they get some relief at once in the form of higher prices, they are threatening to blow up milk stations and milk trains. They won’t import gunmen from New York, but will do the job themselves."9 To avoid more striking, the Milk Control Board, urged by Borden’s and Sheffield, continued raising the price of milk. They hoped that the steep market price would pacify desperate farmers who benefited from the extra revenue.