With unemployment hovering around 10 percent, Sunflower County was an unlikely setting for a show of labor militancy. But for thirteen weeks in 1990, nearly one thousand African American workers struck for higher wages, safer working conditions, and an end to discriminatory managerial practices at the Indianola-based Delta Pride catfish processing company. Although it barely registered on the national radar, the strike rekindled the spirit of the state’s civil rights movement and continued the long-running struggle over the value of black labor in the Mississippi Delta.
Shortly after Delta Pride’s founding by a group of white farmer-owners in 1981, the African American women who made up the majority of the workforce began complaining of repetitive motion ailments, insufficient bathroom breaks, and overbearing supervisors who used stopwatches to time workers as they cut and packaged fish. “They hire you, cripple you, fire you,” explained one longtime employee to a reporter. “They treat people like dogs out there. It’s like being back on the plantation.” The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which had limited success in unionizing catfish and poultry plants in the region, soon set its sights on Delta Pride, believing that a victory at the nation’s largest catfish producer would facilitate the organization of smaller processors and bring stability to the industry. In October 1986, despite the company’s efforts to intimidate and fire union supporters, a majority of Delta Pride workers voted to be represented by Local 1529.
In the three years after unionization, however, wages remained only slightly above the federal minimum, and working conditions did not substantially improve. In 1989 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that Delta Pride had failed to implement controls to reduce repetitive motion disorders, ignored employees’ injuries, and knowingly exposed them to safety hazards. With their first union contract set to expire in the summer of 1990, the workers hoped to raise wages and push for health and safety improvements. The company, still smarting from the union victory, aimed to stall negotiations and break Local 1529.
On 10 September, following several weeks of negotiations, workers voted 410–5 to reject the company’s final contract offer of a wage increase of 6.5 cents an hour. Three days later, more than nine hundred employees walked off the job at the plants in Indianola and Inverness. The strikers’ efforts initially focused on stopping strikebreakers from crossing the picket lines and taking jobs, but by the end of the first month, the union shifted strategy and began framing the strike more broadly as a civil rights issue. Union leaders pulled together sympathetic churches, labor unions, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and carried out an effective campaign to pressure Delta Pride to negotiate. Donations of groceries and cash sustained the strikers, and Local 1529 leaders, among them Sarah White and Rose Turner, traveled across the country, promoting a boycott of Delta Pride and addressing a hearing of the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C.
Delta Pride officials tried to downplay the strike’s racial dimensions and continued catfish production at reduced levels using replacement workers. But a series of miscues in late October forced Delta Pride back to the bargaining table. First, the National Labor Relations Board cited company officials for threatening picketers and encouraging employees to quit the union. The next day a federal grand jury indicted two shareholders for attempting to bribe a union negotiator to end the strike. A nationally televised interview with Delta Pride board chairman Turner Arant on NBC’s Today show may have been the final blow to the company. During a segment on the strike, camera crews followed Arant as he walked proudly around his catfish ponds and through his large family home, where he pronounced that catfish had been very good to him. These scenes were contrasted with an interview with a striker, who spoke of the challenges she faced trying to feed her family of eight and pay her bills on Delta Pride wages. Arant resigned under pressure from the board of directors, and both sides returned to the bargaining table. On 12 December the company and Local 1529 reached an agreement that gave a sixty-cent hourly raise to every worker who had been employed for one year, provided for the rehiring of the strikers, and established a health and safety committee that included workers. The contract was ratified the next day by a 479–1 vote.
Employer-employee relations improved in the years after the strike, though overproduction and foreign competition have forced periodic layoffs at Delta Pride. Several key union leaders have been involved in other efforts to organize workers in the South’s growing food processing industries.
- Eric Bates, Southern Exposure (Fall 1991)
- J. Todd Moye, Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945–1986 (2004)
- Richard Schweid, Catfish and the Delta: Confederate Fish Farming in the Mississippi Delta (1992)