Thursday, October 14, 2010
Rose Turner: A labor organizer committed to her "family" of low-pay workers in the Deep South
MEMPHIS - On the wall next to Rose Turner’s desk at United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1529 headquarters here is a framed copy of a 20-year-old newspaper cartoon depicting former Mississippi Delta Congressman Mike Espy as a huge catfish. The caption reads: “The one that almost got away.”
“I laugh every time I look at that cartoon, and it brings back all the memories of that 1990 strike (by catfish workers),” said the 52-year-old West Memphis, Ark., native and veteran labor warrior. “He didn’t really show much support for us, and when he did show up to apologize, we said, `We’re not voting for your ass again.’”
Turner, Local 1529’s organizing director, has spent the last three decades fighting for some of the lowest paid workers in the Deep South—workers at catfish plants in the Delta, nursing home workers in Arkansas and Tennessee—and she has seen first-hand what even they can do if they stand together and speak with one voice.
“The South has always been about people working for nothing, not having pensions, health care,” she said. “The only way the South is going to grow is through the labor movement.”
Even die-hard conservative Republicans now pay homage to the civil rights movement, tipping their hats to events safely tucked away in history, while at the same time many in the business community so closely aligned with them still do everything they can to keep workers—whether black, white, Latino or Asian—at the bottom. “This is the 21st century, and it’s still going on,” she said. “It is well alive.”
Turner and Local 1529 President Lonnie Sheppard led hundreds of workers at Delta Pride Catfish Inc. and partner firm Country Select in a threatened strike this summer that finally forced the companies back to the bargaining table with a new contract offer that restored the pay and benefits their previous offer had tried to gut.
It was almost a replay of the 1990 strike at Delta Pride, which garnered national attention, led to a boycott of company products, and resulted in one of the South’s great union victories in the last half of the 20th century.
“If I was going to be an employer, I would a business I was proud of,” Turner said. “I wouldn’t want a company that hinders the community.”
Yet, she recalled, company officials sat across from her at the bargaining table in 1990, saying things like, “`If they want to go the bathroom, they got to clock out,’” and “`We’re going to do what we want to do even if you have a union.’”
She was also part of the team that first organized workers at Delta Pride and all but two of the catfish plants now operating in the Delta, perennially one of the nation’s poorest regions. “When people have been oppressed and beat down, they like to see somebody on their side.”
Turner, a salty-tongued, quick-to-laugh woman with a thick drawl, sharp wit and compassionate eyes, got her start in the labor movement while working as a certified nursing assistant in a West Memphis nursing home. “People were being mistreated,” she said.
After she began enjoying success organizing at that nursing home and others, a company official tried to get her to stop by offering her a major pay raise. “I told her the union is bigger than you or me. This is just a job. I don’t want them to give me anything. Anything people give you, they can take away. You got to earn what you get.”
Turner said organizing is a constant, daily activity, and you can never sit back and think it’s going to happen without a lot of sweat. “This is an everyday thing. You’ve got to constantly move, (make sure) the things you get are tangible. You got to organize. If you don’t, you die on the vine.”
Organizers have to adjust to changing times but never take their eyes off the prize, she said. For example, the catfish industry was thriving in 1990. Today producers have to compete with China and Vietnam while surviving a recession at home. However, Turner said, organizers have to be on the alert that these factors don’t become excuses for mistreating workers.
She recalls one company official’s comment during the recent negotiations: “`We never said we were broke. We just want to be competitive like everybody else.’”
Management tends to see workers like those in the catfish-producing plants in the same way they look at field hands. “It’s like we’re all on the farm. Just because we work at a catfish plant, we’re not still on the farm. A lot of people at those plants have been to high school, been to college. They know there are no other jobs in the Delta, so they stay. `I don’t want to leave my mama, my family,’ they say, and the company knows that.”
Turner said she has occasionally thought about retirement, but she can’t stop fighting right now. “I can’t leave until I make sure that catfish contract is made whole. I don’t just want to see Rose Turner make progress. These people are just like my family.
“A lot of people think a contract is about money,” she said. It’s actually “about fairness and dignity on the job.”