African American Women in Industry, 1939-1945 (New York Public Library)
“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.
Around 7:48 a.m. on February 27, the day after the contract expired, workers took to their respective areas like to any other day. During the mid-shift, at approximately 10:45 a.m., without notice to the Company, some 200 black women walked out and began picketing and marching down Sanderson Drive wielding signs that read “Dignity and Equity”, fifty feet away from the company’s new electronic gates. Beyond the gates a new guardhouse was manned by a member of the Wackenhut security company, who Sanderson had hired in case of a rebellion. The strikers’ coats were pulled tight around their throats as a chilling, brisk wind forced them to burn pine boards in an old oil drum to stay warm. Though intense, the moment was celebratory as the women expressed liberation for “leaving the plantation.” The union bureaucrat who helped orchestrate the Laurel march was William Magee. “This is the first we have ever walked out”, said Magee. “We have all worked very hard for the company and we just got to the point where we had to do something to get better working conditions.”
Immediately after the workers went on strike the company hired new people to fill the positions left by the strikers. Black workers from the rural areas of Jones County and poor whites from as far as western Alabama were hired by management to scab the strike. Sanderson had strategically avoided labor laws, threatening essential workers to keep them on the job, and gave raises to workers who decided to not join the strike. According one striker, “Hell, honey, lil’ Joe’s just grabbing up anybody he can to pluck his damn chickens.” As the strike went on, new strategies were implemented to pressure local food markets who sold Goldy Chicken to pull the poultry from their freezers. Strikers and their supporters leafletted the Piggley-Wiggley and Jitney Jungle stores that frequently carried Sanderson’s chicken. In an attempt please their consumers, the companies would repackage their chicken under their own labels to avoid a potential boycott.
By December 1979, the strike had garnered national attention. The Michigan Education Association, Florida State University, the Bedford Labor Council, The Boston Committee to Support Laurel Strikers, and the National Lawyer Guild Convention had become staunch supporters in Local 882’s fight for better working conditions. Gloria Jordan also emerged as the union’s spokesperson. In speeches she gave across the United States, she urged supporters to give the Laurel strikers a “vote of encouragement” by sending letters, donations, and children’s clothing for striking mothers. Her gift back was profound enlightenment. “I’ve learned a great deal,” said Jordan, “and I feel my travels would be a big help to the South, because I have no intention of sitting back, keeping my knowledge of what I’ve learned about how to keep people’s survival and [yet] not be repeating a life and history. What the Laurel strikers are doing is a great move for the South.”
With the bulk of the 1980s consisting of a combination of grassroots organizing and rigorous courtroom battles, the National Labor Relations Board administrative law judge, Jim Fitzpatrick, ruled that Sanderson Farms would have to reinstate the 200 workers as they resumed negotiations. On May 17, the “March for Dignity”, sponsored by the Committee of Justice in Mississippi, was held at the Local’s union hall. Populist organizations from throughout the United States accompanied the 200 striking black women with chants of “Freedom.” The rally of over 2,500 signified the call-to-action that strikers hoped for.
Soon after, the poultry was charged with violating Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations and breaking child labor laws for allegedly hiring a 13-year-old. The workers of Local 882 also won in a contract, albeit a weak one, but that received little sustained support from its international union. They received considerable national attention that highlighted the plight of Black workers in the post-Civil Rights South. Over time, companies around the state spent large amounts of time and energy to undercut growing labor unrest, aiming to keep unions out at all costs.