Unions Don’t Get Respect by Giving In

By Joseph B. Atkins

Indianola, Miss.

Hundreds of strike-ready workers at Delta Pride Catfish Inc. here in the heart of the Mississippi Delta forced the company in late September to go back to the bargaining table with a contract offer that restored wages and benefits it had sought to cut or eliminate in its “last, best and final offer” in May.

They proved that even workers facing an entrenched anti-labor business establishment in the Deep South can hold their own by standing together.

“The main thing with the catfish (workers) is dignity and respect,” said Rose Turner, organizing director with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1529. “Anytime you work for a person and they want to take out the nondiscrimination clause, that they don’t have to treat you fairly, I don’t care if they are paying you $30 an hour, you don’t have a job.”

Turner, a veteran of the historic 1990 strike at Delta Pride that gained national attention, referred to one of many draconian provisions in the company’s contract offer in May. That offer would have deleted language requiring fair treatment by supervisors as well as called for a seven-day workweek, deletion of daily overtime and seniority rights, free reign by the company to outsource jobs, and a tripling of worker contributions to company health insurance.

Some 600 members of the Local 1529 in Indianola and with plants operated by Delta Pride’s partner, Country Select, in Isola and Belzoni, Miss., voted nearly unanimously to go on strike rather than accept a contract that would have gutted the hard-fought gains they made in their successful 1990 strike at Delta Pride, the largest by black workers in Mississippi’s history.

Behind-the-scenes negotiations continued after the May vote, leading to a new contract offer that included wage increases, daily overtime, and new, more acceptable rules on health insurance. “All the 84 proposals they (previously) gave are off the table,” Local 1529 President Lonnie Sheppard said. “The strike vote woke them up.”

Had the dispute gone to a strike, he said, “it would have been a revitalization of 1990. It would have been interesting but also disastrous for all sides. A strike is a last resort. There’s got to be common ground.”

The earlier offer by the company was an attempt “to keep that Delta area 150 years in the past,” Sheppard said.

Turner said the company had to know that workers were not going to accept the earlier offer. “Not only would you have to be Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, you would have to be a moron.”

Repeated telephone calls to officials and attorneys with Delta Pride for comment were unanswered.

“I’m glad it’s over,” said Maggie Leflore, 58, who makes $8.05 an hour after 22 years at Delta Pride. A veteran of the 1990 strike, she operates a machine that takes the skin off the fish. “We been having a tough time.”

Clyde Stansberry, 57, a mechanic’s helper and 28-year veteran at the plant who makes $12.75 an hour, said he was hoping it wouldn’t come to a strike. The contract “is better than nothing. Jobs are hard to find. I figured they would come back with a new offer. Too much to lose for both sides.”

Some have mixed feelings about the new contract. Corinneiler Howard, 55, a 26-year veteran who makes $9.15 an hour filleting fish, said her wages will increase to $9.50 an hour but she will lose a week’s vacation because of new restrictions in the contract. “I’d a felt better if they’d said $10.” As for the loss in vacation time, “I worked hard to get where I am. I think it’s so unfair to lose a week after 26 years.”

The three-month strike at Delta Pride in 1990 prompted nationwide media coverage and a national boycott. Entrances to non-participating Winn-Dixie stores in Atlanta were blocked. Tensions led to charges against two farmers for allegedly trying to bribe union officials, and a charge of unfair labor practices against the company after an official allegedly made threats with a gun against people on the picket line.

Most of the workers were black women (as they still are today), and the strike was called an event that brought together the civil rights and labor movements. The late Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, told workers in 1990 that “90 percent of the work (is) done by blacks; 90% of the money (is) gotten by whites.”

Employees at the time complained of working conditions that led to hundreds of them developing carpal tunnel syndrome, and included use of the “speed-up” on the assembly line, a strict five-minute limit on bathroom use, and a “plantation mentality” of low wages and benefits coupled with hard, 10-to-13-hour workdays.

Turner, who was featured in the 2001 documentary Standing Tall about the 1990 strike, said working conditions in the catfish-producing plant prior to 1990 were medieval. “Women couldn’t go to the bathroom but once a day. Back before 1990, if you worked five days a week, you got to go to the bathroom five times a week. … We don’t hold grudges, but we don’t forget either.”

In 1990, Delta Pride was a leader in a promising industry that boasted $350 million in annual income in one of the nation’s perennially poorest regions. The industry has struggled in more recent years, however, as a result of rising production costs, intense competition from Vietnam and China, and other factors.

Although strikes have been on the decline for some time, their effectiveness was proven recently at the Mott applesauce plant in update New York, where a three-month strike by more than 300 workers produced a new contract that restored wage-and-benefits levels that an earlier contract offer had sought to cut or eliminate.

As with Delta Pride, Mott, owned by the Texas-based Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, had tried to gut worker pay and benefits, including $3-an-hour wage cuts and the complete elimination of pensions for new workers. The Dr. Pepper Snapple Group’s profits last year totaled $550 million, and its CEO, Larry Young, earned a nifty $6.5 million.

Members of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union/UFCW Local 220 said a resounding “No!” to the contract, and workers walked out, a first at the plant. Other unions offered assistance, and local storeowners provided food and other supplies.

“Not a day went by without people stopping by to drop off a financial or food donation to the strike fund,” RWDSU President Stuart Applebaum told the AFL-CIO Now blog. “The RWDSU members at Mott’s have a message for working people everywhere: Stand up for what you believe in, and stay united.”

A strike by workers at the catfish plants in Mississippi would have produced similar offers of help, Sheppard said.

Joseph B. Atkins is a veteran journalist, columnist, professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi and author of Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press. Email jbatkins@olemiss.edu. He covers labor activity in the South in his blog laborsouth.blogspot.com.

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2010


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