Black Women, Sanderson Farms, and the Strike for Better Conditions

tags: strikes, African American history, labor history, Agricultural Work, Poultry Industry

Derrion Arrington is a librarian at the Mississippi Library Commission.

“Try Miss Goldy Chickens, and try a little tenderness”,” chorused an advertisement jingle for Sanderson Farm Inc., a poultry integrator headquartered in Laurel, Mississippi. The tenderness symbolized the hundreds of chickens being scalded and pushed down the assembly line for processing. The work on the line was bemired and dangerous. The birds were killed and hung on conveyer racks. The workforce—mostly black women—made plant operations possible. But what the women described as “15th century working conditions”, led to 22 months of boycotting and labor unrest.    

Since the first strike of unionized workers in 1972—organized by the leadership of the International Chemical Workers Union (ICWU) Local 882—conditions never improved. Workers accused the owner, Joe Sanderson Jr., of running the plant “like a slave plantation.” The entirety of the foreman and supervisors were white men—including Charles Noble, former Klansman who was acquitted of the murder of Hattiesburg civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer.— Qualified women with seniority were being overpassed by male workers who needed extensive training to execute the job. Moreover, workers were only allowed to use the restroom three times a week, were sent back home if they were even a minute late, made only $2.95 an hour, and white supervisors would attempt to cajole the workers with sexual advances. With the workforce segregated, the most dangerous jobs were located in the front of the plant and worked primarily by Black people. Workers would end their shifts covered in feathers with cuts up their arms from the beaks of the chickens and sheeted in gore that spurred them with rashes down their necks and arms. However, the women didn’t view Sanderson’s segregationist attitudes as a slight to the black workforce. “Lil’ Massa Joe didn’t treat nobody different, no matter you black or white,” said Mary Newell, a Black poultry worker of twelve years. “He treated all of us worse than he treated his chickens.”   

On February 7, 1979, the Union met with representatives of Sanderson Farms to negotiate a new collective-bargaining agreement. Joe Sanders, who had been involved in negotiations for the prior contracts, had been in communication with Hurbert Mills, the Union’s International representative, about arranging the meeting. For the last five years, Mills had been assigned by the International to a large area, which included Laurel, and had served the Local and the employees at the Sanderson plant, including the negotiations for the second agreement that was reaching its expiration date on February 26. Joe Sanderson queried Mills on whether he “expected anything hot” in the negotiations. It was evident that when discussions commenced, both parties would approach bargaining from entirely different positions. Sanderson Farms, appeased with the existing agreement, expected to again use it as a basis for negotiating revisions respecting particular problems arising under the old contract On the contrary, the Union sought drastic changes—an essentially different contract. In the old contract, the topic of working conditions defined the workweek, hours of work, employee breaks, and show up and call-in pay. The proposal set by Local 882 would substitute for this a series of topics entitled Workday and Workweek, Shift Premium, Overtime, Rest Periods and Plant Rules, which spelled out many more employee rights in considerably greater detail. It also would require the Company to assign employees returning from a leave of absence to their former position rather than to a pool of unassigned employees.  

After three months and three sessions of unproductive negotiations, on the evening of February 20, Mills met extensively with the Local’s membership. In the union hall—a wooden hut built by union members—Mills presented the never-budging negotiations with the union members, including union proposals and the company’s responses. Union officials deemed the meetings “surface bargaining without [an] intention to reach an agreement” alleging that he company had bargained in bad faith. No sooner than Mills left Laurel, a strike was called by the Local’s membership, led by Gloria Jordan, a poultry worker and vice president of the ICWU.  

Read entire article at Black Perspectives

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