Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Pending strike by catfish workers in Mississippi defused by new contract negotiations

Months-long negotiations between Delta Pride Catfish Inc. and members of the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 1529, have defused a potential strike by hundreds of workers at the company's plant in Indianola, Miss., and with plants operated by a partner firm in Isola and Belzona, Miss., all in the perennially poor Mississippi Delta.

"The strike vote woke them up," said Lonnie Sheppard, president of UFCW Local 1529, referring to nearly unanimous votes by plant workers in May to strike rather than accept a company-offered contract that would have created a seven-day work week, deleted daily overtime, doubled the probationary period for new hires to six months, reduced seniority benefits, given the company free reign in contracting out work, tripled worker contributions to company health insurance over a three-year period, and other measures considered intolerable by workers and their union representatives.

Union officials felt the provisions would have nullified the hard-fought gains made by workers as a result of their highly publicized strike at Delta Pride in 1990, the largest by black workers in Mississippi's history and one that prompted a national boycott of Delta Pride products.

"I was wanting to get this behind me," Sheppard said Thursday. "There's got to be common ground."

The newly negotiated contract, which workers will vote on next week, includes wage increases, daily overtime, and a "modified co-pay on insurance but not bad," Sheppard said. "All the 84 proposals they (previously) gave are off the table."

Had the dispute gone to a strike, he said, "it would have been a revitalization of 1990. It would have been exciting, but also disastrous for all sides."

Strikes, which Sheppard calls "a last resort", have been on the decline for years. However, the recession and frustration over employer intransigence and apparent desire to destroy unions have created a recent uptick of strike activity.

More than 300 workers at the Mott plant in upstate New York declared victory this month after a three-month strike at the applesauce plant. Members of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union/United Food and Commercial Workers Local 220 won a new contract that restored wage-and-benefit levels that an earlier contract had sought to cut or even eliminate.

As with Delta Pride, Mott, owned by the Texas-based Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, had tried to gut worker pay and benefits in its earlier contract offer, including calls for $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.

The union local said "No!" to the contract, and workers walked out, a first for workers at the Mott plant. Local stores offered the striking workers food and other assistance, and other unions, such as the Service Employees International Union, provided cash for the strike fund. As reported recently in Nation magazine, even Canadian politicians weighed in, pressuring CEO Young with concerns that scab workers weren't up to the job in insuring food-safety standards.

"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."

Sheppard said a strike by workers at the catfish plants would have produced similar offers of help, just as it did in 1990.

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