Catfish union faces hurdles


INDIANOLA, Miss. -- In 1983, when Sarah Claree White joined the kill line at the Delta Pride Catfish processing plant, the workers' lives were so dominated by stopwatches that even their restroom visits were timed.

White male supervisors often followed the workers - nearly all of them black women - into the bathrooms with timers to make sure they didn't stay too long.

White was one of the catfish workers who began the fight for change in the growing industry, demanding medical benefits, job security and a work environment free of sexual harassment. The workers accomplished what few believed was possible for poor black women in the Deep South. Twenty years ago this fall, they formed a union.

Though the gains from organizing have been modest, White, now a union representative, says they have eroded in recent years as undocumented Hispanics entered Mississippi's catfish industry willing to work for lower wages and fewer benefits.

In places such as Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, the debate about immigration reform often centers on people coming to the U.S. to do work most Americans don't want to do. That might not be the case in the Delta, where in some counties 40 percent of black residents live below the poverty line and the jobs left for low-skilled workers often are in food-processing plants, particularly those in the $275 million- a-year catfish industry.

Few places outside this region, which produced more than half of the nation's farm-raised catfish in 2005, better illustrate the competition between the nation's poorest citizens and its newest immigrants for low-skilled work.

"We struggle to hold on to what we have," said White, 47, who left the plant floor in 1996 to become a union representative for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1529. "We try to tell the Hispanic workers about the unions. But mostly they're afraid and desperate and will do whatever to keep food on their table. Just like us."

White sees the stamp the fast-growing immigrant population is making on a landscape influenced by a legacy of black-white segregation. Some catfish plant owners have created mini-communities for their new workers that include on-site housing and churches.

White spends much of her time in several catfish plants, addressing the grievances of union members and trying to persuade others, particularly Hispanic workers, to join the union. But her greatest struggle is devising a way for black and Hispanic workers to find common ground.

In 1983 White took a job at Indianola's Delta Pride plant. Like many women there, she was a young single parent trying desperately to support her family.

With the opening of the catfish plants in the early 1980s, the workers believed their lives would change. Many had picked cotton. Some were on welfare.

"We learned fast that they'd took us out of the cotton fields and put us in a field with a tin roof," White says. "They knew they could pay us slave wages and put us in slave conditions, and they did."

On the plant floor, the workers often stood for 12 to 13 hours a day in ankle-deep water. They sterilized their aprons with water so hot it often scalded them.

The women - timed by their bosses - skinned 25 to 28 catfish per minute. "Workers got carpal tunnel so bad, and all the company nurse could tell us was chew on a couple of aspirin and then get back to work," White says.

The federal government eventually fined Delta Pride $32,800 for violation of safety laws and ordered reforms. The company appealed but later complied.

Such conditions weren't limited to Delta Pride, which was one of several catfish processing plants in the Delta owned by white farmers.

In 1985, White and another catfish worker, Mary Young, decided to organize the workers. They knew that talk of a union could get them fired.

Despite opposition from plant owners, workers voted in 1986 to bring in a union. But White says conditions hardly improved.

In contract negotiations four years later, management offered a 6.5-cent-an-hour raise over each of three years. But the greater indignity was a proposal to restrict the workers' bathroom breaks to their lunch hour.

About 1,200 workers walked off the job. The strike and a national boycott brought Delta Pride back to the bargaining table, ending the walkout after three months. The workers won a pay increase of $1.50 per hour, pushing the average hourly wage to about $5.50, as well as full bathroom privileges and a clause prohibiting sexual harassment.

As the years passed, White says, it became more difficult to persuade new workers to join the union. Because Mississippi is an "open shop" state, workers do not have to be union members to reap the benefits.

"People just forgot about what we went through," White says. "They kind of took it for granted, thought the jobs would be there forever."

Those sentiments changed in the mid-1990s when catfish plant owners found an even cheaper labor pool: Hispanic immigrants. Owners with fewer Hispanic workers started asking for union givebacks to stay competitive.

Hugh Warren, vice president of the trade group Catfish Farmers of America, says his industry has turned many Delta communities around, and plant owners have a stake in treating employees fairly.

But White says the pressure for givebacks is frustrating because catfish work never has had the pull to lift people out of poverty.

The Hispanic population is growing faster in the South than in any other part of the country, according to the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center. U.S. Census data show that from 1990 to 2000, Mississippi's Hispanic population grew nearly 150 percent, to about 39,000 residents. In a February report, the state auditor said Mississippi's undocumented population could be as high as 100,000.

Dickie Stevens, part-owner of ConFish Inc., said that years ago his plant hired documented immigrants because many local workers were employed in other industries. But as work for low-skilled laborers left the region, Stevens says, ConFish has been hiring more local workers.

White estimates that about 30 percent of the 5,000 catfish plant work force is Hispanic, yet only one Hispanic catfish worker belongs to Local 1529.

Hispanic catfish workers face uncertainty. With attention being trained on immigration reform, the undocumented workers are more vulnerable than ever, White says.

Last month, the owner of one processing plant sent letters to some of his immigrant workers, advising them that they have 30 days to prove they are documented or they will lose their jobs.

White says black union workers - facing contract negotiations next year - can't help but wonder whether their pay and pensions would improve if large numbers of undocumented workers pull out.

"It's like there's a rumbling and a quake is coming," says White.

Dawn Turner Trice writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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