On September 13, 1990, the mostly Black workforce at Delta Pride Catfish in Indianola, Mississippi walked off the job in revolt over the working conditions they faced. One of the many examples of civil rights unionism over the post-World War II decades, this was a modern situation with an ancient problem–white owners dominating a Black workforce and showing complete indifference for their health, safety, and dignity.
In 1981, a bunch of white catfish farmers got together and decided to open a factory to process the fish into a marketable frozen food product. Personally, I find catfish unreasonably greasy and not very good, even when I’ve had it as super popular joints in Louisiana, but that’s besides the point (but not so besides that I am going to avoid the chance to evaluate food). They hired almost all Black women to work in the factory.
This area of Mississippi was poor. It wasn’t called “Delta Pride” for nothing. This was the Delta, the home of the worst racism in the South. The region’s population was impoverished basically forever, even as the wealthy made money off the cotton that grew there. The Great Migration took some of that labor force out as they moved into northern cities. But the people who still lived there faced a new round of economic problems when automation meant the end of sharecropping. That was a horrible system, but if you don’t have anything to replace it, what are people supposed to do? The economic justice demands of the civil rights movement were never taken particularly serious even by liberal northern whites and those that were tended to be more focused on the reality of urban life than the people left behind in the rural South. There were plenty of attempts by Black farmers to control their own land, start co-ops, and create alternative arrangements to traditional agricultural capitalism. But these were hard to operate and most did not succeed.
What all this meant was that there was a sizable Black labor force for these catfish farmers to choose from and that meant they cared even less about conditions for the workers than they usually did. This proved to be a very hard place to work. Repetitive motion injuries appeared almost immediately. But that wasn’t even close to all of it. The foremen were huge racist jerks. They limited bathroom breaks, a classic form of worker control that is akin to torture. They also used the infamous stopwatches, disastrously used by Frederick Winslow Taylor in the early 20th century for his scientific management experiments. Workers despised the use of stopwatches and had struck over this in the past. These workers were just as angry about it.
So the workers made a choice that was unusual for the time. They unionized. United Food and Commercial Workers had tried several times to get a foothold in the southern catfish industry, but employer intimidation had prevented this. But not this time. In 1986, the workers won a union election and became UFCW Local 1529.
Delta Pride signed an initial contract with the workers and then strategized to rid itself of the union menace when the contract expired in 1990. In the meantime, it doubled down on the terrible conditions. It refused to increase wages except for a pittance. Working conditions were so bad that OSHA came down on the company, even though that agency had now faced a Republican hamstringing and judicial limitations for nearly a decade. OSHA accused the company of openly violating safety regulations and showing complete indifference to repetitive motion injuries. When the union and company sat down to bargain the next contract, the company clearly had no intention of doing so in good faith. It wanted the workers to strike so it could bust the union. It offered a pittance of a 6.5 cents an hour raise and that was it. So the workers rejected the contract by a 410-5 vote.
When the workers went on strike in Indianola, the unionized plant at Inverness joined them and 900 workers walked off the job on September 13, 1990. At first the UFCW ran its traditional playbook and just tried to keep the scabs from coming in. That didn’t work very well and got very little attention. Much more useful strategy came from the union’s civil rights allies in the area, which wanted to portray the strike as an extension of the movement. That worked really well and the strike began to get national attention when portrayed as another example of white Mississippi oppressing Black Mississippi. Local strike leaders went to Washington, announced a national boycott, and met with the Congressional Black Caucus. The National Labor Relations Board began finding against the company consistently, noting labor law violations around intimidating strikers and trying to convince workers to quit the union. Then a grand jury issued charges against the company for trying to bribe a union negotiator. That they thought this would work and that the union guy wouldn’t just go to the authorities demonstrates just how out of touch the employers were. This might work in local Mississippi politics, but wasn’t going to work with a bunch of lefties.
All of this meant that national media began showing up. The arrogant catfish farmers did not handle this professionally. The company’s chairman of the board was a wealthy catfish farmer named Turner Arant. NBC did a story on the strike. He showed them around his mansion and his catfish farm and talked about what a great life this was. NBC then juxtaposed this with interviewing the workers in their homes. The rampant inequality was now on national television.
Shortly after this, Delta Pride decided to cut its losses. It fired Arant and returned to the bargaining table. Chastened and publicly humiliated, it began to negotiate in good faith for once. Instead of the pathetic 6.5 cent raise, they agreed on a 60 cent an hour raise for any worker who had been there for at least a year. The company agreed to rehire all the strikers. Perhaps most important, it agreed to a health and safety committee with workers and the union. The workers ratified the contract 479-1 (there’s always 1 or a few, no matter what). Moreover, the company has generally continued to have good relationships with the union in the years since. It was a pretty big victory at a time when union victories didn’t happen often.
This is the 493rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.