Black women challenge the open shop in Mississippi

New victory in catfish union drive

Peter Shapiro

The 3,500 mainly Black women workers in Mississippi’s booming catfish industry are moving into the front ranks of the struggle for unionization and for equality and political power in the state.

On August 4, the ConAgra plant in Isola became the third catfish plant in less than a year to be organized by United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1529. Nearly half the catfish workers in this Southern Sunbelt state, where less than 10% of the work force is unionized, are now covered by UFCW contracts.

deltapridevictoryThe UFCW organizing drive, led largely by the workers themselves, is challenging the power of the white planters who own most of the catfish processing plants and have dominated the state for over a century. Its impact is being felt in the political arena as well as the workplace.

The ConAgra workers narrowly lost their first union election in August 1986 yet came back with a landslide victory this time, drawing strength from their unity with struggles of the Black community. In the first union drive, ConAgra workers suf- fered a campaign of intimidation by plant management and local white farmers. Six of the 15 members of their in-plant committee were fired. According to ConAgra worker Donna Guider, “The farmers we were processing fish for told the(workers), ‘If you vote this union in, your husband won’t have a job.'”

But the setback only made the workers more determined. “I felt as though they’d taken something away from me,” Donna Guider told Unity. “I wanted it back.”

This time around, in the weeks be- fore the second union vote at Con-Agra on July 22, the UFCW was actively involved in an NAACP-led protest against the beating of a 16-year-old Black youth by the son of a white planter, Isola’s most powerful man. The plantation is a major Con-Agra supplier.

“We couldn’t get it settled in court, so we boycotted all the white stores,” says Donna Guider. The success of the ConAgra organizing drive was due in large part to this linking of their unionization struggle in the plant with the struggle for political empowerment and against racist violence. Donna Guider credits this approach with uniting Isola’s Black community and winning many workers over to the union.

“An extension of the plantation”
Mississippi is a notorious anti-union stronghold where denial of union rights has long been used to keep African American people down. But the rise of the catfish industry in recent years has brought factory conditions to the state’s rural economy and sowed new seeds of resistance.

As health-conscious consumers look for cheap alternatives to eating red meat, Mississippi planters are making huge profits raising catfish in special breeding ponds and selling them to processors like Delta Pride and ConAgra.

Inside the processing plants, hundreds of African American women earning little more than minimum wage stand in cold water for hours on end, killing, skinning, gutting and packing the fish. Many have husbands working as field hands for the same white farmers who own the plants. NAACP field director Cleve McDowell, a key figure in the union drive, calls the pro- cessing plants “an extension of the plantation.”

Late in 1985, union drives began at ConAgra, the Delta Pride plant in nearby Indianola and Pride of the Pond in Tunica.

“Working conditions were bad, the I pay was low, people were getting fired for just anything,” Donna Guider told Unity. “We were tired of working under those conditions.”

It took courage and perseverance to defeat ConAgra, whose parent company grossed $5.9 billion in sales last year.

The victory at ConAgra follows a successful union election by 1,000 workers at Delta Pride last October. “Everybody knows Delta is the biggest catfish plant in the U.S.,” says former Delta Pride worker Mary Young, now working for the UFCW. “Wen we won, it gave these women (at ConAgra) the courage to make a change in their own plant.” Delta Pride workers ratified their first contract just before the union representation vote at ConAGra.

Fighting for power
African American people in the area are coming to see the union as a key weapon in the fight against the white power structure. This was apparent in local elections held around the state August 4.

In Sunflower County, home of both ConAgra and Delta Pride, a pro- union Black candidate, Clanton Beamon, was just elected county commissioner over Willie Spurlock, who is also Black. Spurlock helped lead last year’s fight for a Black school superintendent in Indianola. But he badly damaged his standing in the Black community by opposing the union drive at Delta Pride. “I think he learned his lesson,” Mary Young told Unity.

Union support also helped elect a