Immigration Issues Real in Delta: Struggle to hold on to what we have

Dawn Turner Trice
Date Published: 
June 20, 2006


Immigration issues real in Delta `Struggle to hold on to what we have'

In Mississippi catfish-processing plants, the nation's poorest citizens and its newest arrivals are competing for low-skilled work

By Dawn Turner Trice

INDIANOLA, Miss. -- In 1983, when Sarah Claree White joined the kill line at the DeltaPride 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 African-American 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 fledgling industry, demanding medical benefits, job security and a work environment free of sexual harassment. The workers accomplished what few believed was possible for poor African-American 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.

Far from the Delta, from Los Angeles to Chicago to Washington, the debate about immigration reform often centers on people coming to this country to do work most Americans don't want to do.

That may 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," says 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."

Having lived in the Delta all of her life, White sees the stamp the fast-growing immigrant population is making on a landscape still colored 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. Local businesses have begun stocking their shelves with Hispanic merchandise.

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 to date is divining a way for black and Hispanic workers to find common ground.

"I guess all of us are tired of just getting by," White says. "They used to say the richest thing about the Delta is the soil. Now we got to live on this land together and try, as best we can, to wring a livable wage from it."

- - -

In the Delta, it used to be that cotton alone was king. Now cotton has ceded a good portion of the land to catfish.

Along U.S. Highway 82, on the way to White's union office in downtown Indianola, that transformation is apparent. Where rows of cotton once stretched out for acres, now catfish ponds, man-made and almost perfect squares, have been carved out of the clay soil.

Indianola, a town of about 11,500 residents, hails itself as the birthplace of blues musician B.B. King. Downtown, on one side of the railroad tracks, whites own many of the stately homes, boutiques and restaurants. On the other side of the tracks, blacks occupy the new government-subsidized homes and the old shotgun shacks.

In her office, White juggles telephone calls from shop stewards and union members, but also from residents seeking work at the catfish plants.

"Times can get pretty rough down here," she says. "Ain't so uncommon to see somebody sneaking down to a catfish pond and holding a slice of Wonder bread over the water. If the fish are snapping pretty good, you can catch you some dinner."

White, a grandmother, is a heavyset woman with a big voice that can convey calm or command attention with equal effectiveness. She grew up poor in neighboring Inverness, about 6 miles from her office. Of her 10 siblings, she was one of only two to complete college.

Though she studied to be a teacher, she failed part of the licensing exam. In 1983 she 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.

"When I worked on the line, the women would call me sanctified because I was so shy," she says. "I wore these long dresses that draped down to my ankles. I wasn't no sanctified. I was quiet because my dresses was hand-me-downs. My weight always made me ashamed."

With the opening of the catfish plants in the early 1980s, the workers believed their lives and their lot would change. Many had picked cotton or worked as domestics. 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."

Because doors had been removed from the bathroom stalls, women had to provide privacy for one another. 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," says White.

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 named Mary Young decided to organize the workers. They knew that talk of a union could get them fired.

"We feared for our livelihood, but also for our lives," White says. "But what does a job mean when you can get fired for wanting to take your baby to the doctor or refusing to let the supervisor run his hands up your thigh?"

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, led in part by Chicago's Operation PUSH, 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 contract 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, executive 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 all employees fairly.

"The industry has always gone through a cyclical period of high and low prices," he says. "And that has affected wages."

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

"You always had one foot in and one foot out," she says. "Now with the Hispanic workers, it's getting harder and harder as far as concessions go. What more can you pinch off, when you don't have but a pinch in the first place?"

- - -

Along U.S. 82, White drives past Supermercado El Mexicano, a grocery and restaurant that opened a year and a half ago. Some nights the green metal building transforms into the area's only Hispanic juke joint.

A few miles down the road is Indianola's lone Wal-Mart. In January it began to stock items for menudo, a Mexican stew. Before that, customers had to drive 170 miles to Memphis to buy the ingredients.

"You got social services agencies, schools, grocery stores and hospitals posting signs in English and in Spanish," White says.

The Hispanic population is growing faster in the South than in any other part of the country, according to the Washington, D.C.-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 report in February, the state auditor said Mississippi's undocumented population could be as high as 100,000.

For years workers have come primarily from southern Mexico but also from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia and Argentina.

"We would see the [migrant farmworkers] traveling through Mississippi on their way to and from Florida and the Carolinas," White says. "They stopped in the Delta for years to pick cotton right alongside us. They'd pick sweet potatoes or corn before moving on."

But in the mid-1990s, more employers in the growing hospitality, poultry, forestry, construction and catfish industries were taking advantage of the U.S. Labor Department's program that allows them to hire foreign workers to fill jobs if they can show Americans aren't clamoring for the work. Foreign workers are supposed to stay for a set time, often five to six months, and then return home. But many have been staying on.

Dickie Stevens, part owner of ConFish Inc., was one of the few Delta-area catfish plant owners willing to talk to the Tribune about hiring Hispanic workers.

He 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 says ConFish may be the exception among the Delta's major catfish-processing plants. She estimates that about 30 percent of the 5,000 catfish plant workforce is Hispanic, yet only one Hispanic catfish worker belongs to Local

1529. That's why White spends much of her day trying to recruit. Many Hispanics are reluctant to join because of their illegal status.

In addition to her union work, White is board president of the Mississippi Workers' Center for Human Rights, which fights for workers' rights around the state and teams with other groups fighting immigration legislation viewed as punitive.

White pulls off the main road and into a parking lot. About 25 row-house apartments and a small church that's been converted from a trailer are clustered in a field. A sign reads "Iglesia Nueva Vida Y Esperanza, Bienvenidos," or "New Life and Hope Church, Welcome."

A catfish company maintains the apartment complex for its immigrant workers.

Once a month, members of a predominantly white Baptist church drive out to provide medicine, clothing and other necessities.

At the apartment complex, a Hispanic woman stands in a doorway. Feral dogs roam the parking lot, and the afternoon sun glints off the windshields of a couple of aging pickups.

In Spanish, the woman says her name is Catalina Aguilar. She says she was fired from the catfish plant for talking too much and not filleting fast enough. She now stays home and cares for her toddler.

Aguilar, 25, came to Mississippi from Mexico four years ago, joining her husband, a catfish pond worker, who has been in this country for nine years. Both are undocumented.

The two had been saving money to send for their 8-year-old son. But recent rumors of an illegal immigrant roundup have unnerved residents and put their plans on hold.

"We don't know what to do," says Aguilar. "People think we take, take, take. But we give too. We give back in taxes and in sweat."

White says that when Hispanics started coming into the plants, some union members would call immigration officials to report them.

"We were jealous," she says. "We thought they was being treated like gold. Even though that wasn't so, nobody wants to hear talk about [the two groups] banding together if the baby needs diapers or you can't afford the rent."

- - -

At noon at the Delta Pride plant, workers converge on the cafeteria.

White stands before a long table assembling stacks of grievance forms, applications (in English and Spanish), the union contract, company policies.

A group of older African-American women joins her at the table and begins dining on hot dogs, hamburgers and leftovers.

"You won't see much catfish here," says Charlene Wade, a shop steward. "Maybe on the weekends, but not now."

At another table, a couple of Hispanic workers have their lunch near a bank of lockers.

During a cafeteria appearance at any plant, White has to straddle two worlds. In a few minutes, she'll approach the Hispanic workers. But she admits that these days her union pitch feels a bit perfunctory.

As in other industries, the Hispanic catfish workers face great uncertainty.

With attention trained on immigration reform legislation and tightening the borders, undocumented workers are more vulnerable than ever, she says.

On May 12, the owner of one processing plant sent letters to some of his immigrant workers, advising them that they have 30 days to prove they're documented or they will lose their jobs.

White says African-American and Hispanic workers believe it may only be a matter of time before other plants follow suit. There are no signs now of a Hispanic exodus. But White says black union workers--facing contract negotiations next year --can't help but wonder whether pay and pensions would improve if large numbers of undocumented workers do pull out.

"It's like there's a rumbling and a quake is coming," says White. "One group got their ear to the ground, waiting to see how it all shakes out. The other group is waiting to be shaken, and we don't know where they're going to wind up. But that ain't just in the Delta. Right now that's everywhere."

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