Saturday, May 29, 2010

Southern labor taking action in North Carolina and Mississippi

Southern workers in North Carolina and Mississippi are taking a stand against intransigent companies that want to roll back the clock to a union-free past.

In North Carolina hundreds of tobacco pickers frustrated with 12-hour workdays and unsafe working conditions took their case directly to the R. J. Reynolds Company in Winston-Salem, invading a May 7 shareholders meeting, making sure stockholders as well as executives heard their complaints. The workers sang a civil rights spiritual and then joined a picket line outside the building.

Despite the miserable working conditions in the fields, R.J. Reynolds has posted a $962 million profit during this recession, with huge bonuses going to company executives.

The workers are members of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a group led by Baldemar Velasquez and which has a long record of successful labor actions on behalf of the immigrant workers who now work the fields in this country.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the South, in Mississippi, veteran workers at the Columbus plant of the Omnova company have gone on strike after rejecting a contract that put seniority and other rights at risk.

The strikers are members of the Steelworkers Union Local 748-L. The company produces commercial wall covering and coated fabrics. It employs just under 300.

As previously reported in this blog, workers with the Delta Pride Catfish company have also voted to go on strike after their company tried to gut seniority and the other rights that they had fought for and gained over the past 20 years.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Strike! Catfish workers in the Mississippi Delta reject company contract and vote to strike

Here's another breaking item from the workers at Delta Pride Catfish, Inc. in the Mississippi Delta. By a 99 percent margin, workers voted to strike rather than accept a contract that would essentially gut most of the changes that their historic three-month strike won them in 1990.

The vote took place last night (May 26), and another vote is expected this evening by the workers at the Isola, Miss., plant of Country Select, a partner firm with Delta Pride. Delta Pride has a plant in Indianola, Miss., and Country Select has plants in Isola and Belzoni, Miss.

The roughly 600 workers are members of United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 1529. Most of them are black women who live and work in one of the poorest regions of the nation. Their 1990 strike was the largest by black women in the history of Mississippi and a landmark victory in the Southern labor movement, one that brought together the labor and civil rights movements.

The company's contract, coming after a year and a half of negotiations, would have created a seven-day work week, deleted daily overtime, reduced seniority benefits, tripled worker contributions to company health insurance, and eliminated severance pay if the plant closes, among other measures.

See Labor South's earlier story below for a full account of what led to this week's strike vote and for details of the 1990 strike. Labor South broke this story and will continue to follow it.

Monday, May 24, 2010

News coming soon from Singapore as well as closer to home

(To the right you see a photograph from Singapore's Chinatown, shops featuring everything from duty free goods to posters of Chairman Mao)

I'll be returning from Singapore Tuesday, May 25, and will soon thereafter have a report on issues here in Southeast Asia that are remarkably similar to those we face in the U.S. South--a growing gap between the rich and poor, the plight of immigrant workers, tensions between rural and urban dwellers.

There is a hotbed of activity over here with bloody demonstrations in Thailand, saber-rattling between North and South Korea, knife attacks on children and students in China, resentment against U.S. military presence in Okinawa, and tensions everwhere regarding the effects of U.S.-style capitalism on society.

Today I visited an exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum on social realism in Asian art, and I discovered a strong tradition of artistic sympathy for and insight into working people and their struggles that reaches far beyond the usual Marxist dialectics and debates. I talked with workers and intellectuals here about Singapore's unique status as a city-state with essentially one-party rule, a long tradition of ethnic diversity and toleration, and a nervous eye toward the various tensions that surround it. It's a fascinating place, and you'll be getting the full report very soon, as well as updates on the catfish workers' situation in the Mississippi Delta and other issues closer to home.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Catfish workers in Mississippi poised for major strike, 20 years after they made Southern labor history

(This is a scoop--you read it here first!--and it may be my last posting for a short while. I'll be in Singapore for the next two weeks but will try to monitor events as best as I can from that distance. Stay tuned!)

Hundreds of workers at Delta Pride Catfish, Inc., in the Mississippi Delta are poised to go on strike after receiving the company’s final offer of a contract that would “roll the clock back to the time of the (1990) strike,” according to labor attorney Roger Doolittle.

“If we agreed to this contract, it would be an all-time low for workers in the history of the catfish industry,” the Jackson, Miss.-based attorney for the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 1529, said.

Local 1529 President Leon Sheppard agreed. “It is pretty ugly. They want to keep the Delta area 150 years in the past. Everything we fought for, they just want to sweep away.”

The local has close to 600 members at Delta Pride in Indianola, Miss., and with plants operated by its partner firm, Country Select, in Isola and Belzoni, Miss. The union has been in negotiations with Delta Pride over a new contract for a year-and-a-half. Employees earn on the average $8 to $9 an hour, and they haven’t received a raise since 2006.

The contract would create a seven-day work week, delete daily overtime, double the probationary period for new hires to six months, reduce seniority benefits, give the company free reign in contracting out work, triple worker contributions to company health insurance over a three-year period, allow the company to withdraw from the pension plan with 30 days notice, and eliminate severance pay if the plant closes.

Efforts to contact company officials and the company’s attorney were unsuccessful. However, officials have said that the contract reflects the company’s need to level the playing field with non-union competitors.

A strike by Delta Pride workers likely would garner national attention and invoke memories of the successful three-month strike at the same company in 1990. 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 percent of the money (is) gotten by whites.”

The 1990 strike was the largest by black workers in Mississippi’s history. A national boycott of Delta Pride products was called. Entrances to non-participating Winn-Dixie store in Atlanta were blocked. The company fought back hard, hiring scores of replacement workers and charging union members with trespassing. A company official allegedly threatened people on the picket line with a gun, prompting a charge of unfair labor practices against Delta Pride.

Employees at the time complained of working conditions that led to hundreds of them developing carpal tunnel syndrome, 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 yet hard, 10-to-13-hour workdays.

With the contract they gained after the strike, workers received a 75-cent pay raise over the $4.05 average wages they were previously getting. Still, relations between the company and union remained uneasy, and future contract negotiations were stalled and stalemated.

Strikes are last resorts, particularly in a troubled economy with high unemployment rates, and organized labor faces an entrenched opposition after decades of decline. Witness the struggle between the Memphis Commercial Appeal and Memphis Newspaper Guild, whose members haven’t had a raise in seven years. The new contract offers small raises but also gives the company the green light to outsource jobs and lay off workers. Like the Commercial Appeal, Delta Pride hired a non-local “union-busting” legal firm—the Coleman firm out of New Orleans--to argue its side at the negotiating table.

Unions across the region and country are showing new feistiness, however. UNITE-HERE, the union for hotel, casino, textile, and hospitality workers, continues to be successful in organizing casino workers in Mississippi and elsewhere. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida has won agreements from Whole Foods, Subway, McDonald’s, Burger King, and Aramark that have led to higher pay for immigrant field workers.

The 1990 strike by Mississippi catfish workers is still considered a landmark event in the history of the Southern labor movement. Will history repeat itself?

Monday, May 3, 2010

UNITE-HERE in the South, and a visit from a veteran of the textile wars

Here are a couple of related stories of recent visits by a national labor leader and an old vet of the textile campaigns in the Carolinas and deeper South:


"The South is where we've got to go," said John Wilhelm, president of UNITE HERE (the union for hospitality, gaming, food service, textile, and other workers here and in Canada), during lunch in Memphis last Friday after speaking to the regional meeting of the NAACP in nearby Tunica, Miss.

A handful of us met Wilhelm at La Teranga, a West African restaurant in a south Memphis neighborhood of immigrant workers from Mauritania and Senegal.

Wilhelm and labor organizer Scott Cooper talked about recent successes organizing casino workers in Tunica, one of the nation's leading centers for casino gambling, and the union's overall effort to reach out to immigrant workers, whether they're from Africa or Latin America or Asia. "That's where we started," Wilhelm said, referring to the huge role immigrants played in the beginning of the U.S. labor movement.

The history of UNITE HERE resonates in the South, where the union and its antecedents fought the good fight to organize the textile industry, succeeding with J.P. Stevens, Pillowtex, and others only to see the industry pack its bags and move to Mexico and China, where the workers will work even cheaper than in the South.

In its campaign with casino workers in the Deep South, the union hammered out agreements with owners in Las Vegas that allowed the card check elections in Mississippi, the fourth largest casino center in the nation, that have led to successful organizing campaigns in Tunica and on the Gulf Coast.

After joining the breakaway Change to Win coalition several years ago, UNITE HERE has now rejoined the AFL-CIO. Meanwhile, Change to Win and SEIU (Service Employees International Union) leader Andy Stern has stepped down from his old posts, with much conjecture as to his future, and Wilhelm's former partner and later rival at UNITE HERE, Bruce Raynor (a major figure in the Southern textile organizing campaigns) is facing questions regarding his handling of union finances.

The Public Review Board of UNITE HERE, an independent, court-appointed panel created in 1995 to serve as a watchdog over union finances, has called for a federal probe of Raynor and the alleged transfer of millions in union funds to Raynor-friendly locals within the union.

Despite all the internal politics within the labor movement these days, expect to see more UNITE HERE activity in the South.


I taught a course in labor, the press, and the South during the just-ended semester here at Ole Miss, and my students were fortunate to get a visit last week from Danny Forsyth, a veteran of the labor and civil rights struggles who worked as an organizer for textile workers in North Carolina and Mississippi in the 1960s, '70s, and beyond. He now lives on a farm near Water Valley, Miss., but he has tons of war stories to tell and plenty of insight into labor's struggles today.

"It's a calling," Forsyth said about labor organizing. "It's hard work. You've got to work door-to-door. You can't waste time sitting in your hotel room over beers and talking about it. You've got to get out and do it."

When an organizer wins a good contract for workers and sees on their faces what that's going to mean in their lives, "you know it's worth it," Forsyth said. "You know it's a calling."

Forsyth worked for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union of America (ACTWU), which was later reconfigured into UNITE (the Union of Needletrades Industrial and Textile Employees). He helped organize the textile workers in Kannapolis, N.C., in the late 1990s after a years-long up-and-down effort against intransigent owners, one of the greatest union victories in the history of the South. Years earlier, in the 1960s, Forsyth's activities organizing black workers in the Mississippi Delta brought down the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan.

He recalled being in the Delta town of Cleveland with an agent from the National Labor Relations Board in the mid-1960s. “The agent said, `Have you looked outside the window?’ I looked and saw four Klansmen sitting a car, fully clothed and everything. When the final witness was finished, the agent asked me if I had protection. He gave me a pistol, and we left. They came in behind us. We ran a hundred miles an hour across the cotton fields … then took the long way back. When you organize you know all the backroads. There’s not a county road in Mississippi I don’t know. We cut through the back trail and ran into them, and I said, `Here we go again.’ These were all gravel roads. I was very concerned. We created such a smokescreen of dust. We both bailed in a cotton field and let the car run on out in the field. They got out within 1,000 yards behind us. They had flashlights out and started shooting out across the field. I was laying on my belly in that cold field. They finally gave up. I didn’t know how we’d done it. We finally got out of there. I didn’t sleep any that night.”