BY VED DOOKHUN
BELZONI, Mississippi - Catfish Workers of America activists, along with supporting unionists from the region and others from their families and the community, brought a strong message of labor solidarity to this small Delta town April 9 and 10.
The first day of activities to back the catfish workers began with a spirited picket line at the Freshwater Farms catfish processing plant. Nearly 70 workers were fired from this plant last November for protesting miserable working conditions and discriminatory treatment. The fired workers, all of whom are Black and most of them women, have been fighting since then to win their demands and regain their jobs. They formed the Catfish Workers of America to better organize their struggle, in face of inaction by the officials of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which organizes the plant. For the past four months, they have been in the forefront of labor solidarity actions around the South, as well as backing farmers fighting for their land. Meanwhile, they have been denied unemployment benefits and many have been blacklisted at other processing plants in the area.
Willie Evans, a member of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) on strike against Titan Tire in Natchez, Mississippi, and his wife Joan Evans, drove up to Belzoni to spend the two days with the catfish workers. Two locked-out oil workers, members of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers, from Crown Central Petroleum in Pasadena, Texas, and their supporters, also came along with other unionists from Birmingham and Pittsburgh.
The picket line of two dozen, which took place during the lunch hour at Freshwater, caused quite a stir at the plant. Chants of "We are the union! Mighty, mighty union!" and "What do we want? Justice! When do we want it! Now!" rang across the parking lot. Evans, who helped lead the picket line, appealed to the Freshwater workers who stood in the parking lot to join the protest.
Many passersby, especially truck drivers, honked in support of the picketers. The driver of a small pickup who came to bring lunches to workers in the plant spoke with picketers and then turned around and refused to cross their line. Another young man who came to the plant to put in an application also turned around after talking with the protesters. Meanwhile, pickets confronted management personnel and workers they knew opposed their fight as they drove out of the plant. One worker driving out darted toward the picket line at high speed, almost hitting two people. Others were friendly and stopped a moment to talk to the protesters.
Shortly after the line was set up, picketers noticed an unknown person was videotaping the protest. He claimed to be from "the media," but refused to come over to the picket line. When workers walked toward his vehicle, parked several hundred feet from the plant driveway, he backed up. Finally one catfish worker drove her car behind the man's van, while others approached him from the front. Since he couldn't back up without hitting the other car, he drove away.
Freshwater bosses sent most workers home at the end of the lunch hour, shutting down production in much of the plant for the rest of the day. This brought cheers from the picket line, especially the catfish workers. It's very unusual for workers to be sent home early, explained CWA vice president Joann Hogan, because the shifts often run to 12 hours, and sometimes longer.
After the picket line, everyone returned to the CWA headquarters, located in a church next to the plant, to relax and enjoy a barbecue lunch prepared by the catfish workers. Someone noticed the supposed journalist lurking around the bushes in back of the church, and he again was driven off.
March through Belzoni
After lunch everyone piled into cars and trucks and drove to downtown Belzoni. They marched two abreast through town, with police escort, to the Catfish Museum -an institution created by the area's wealthy catfish producers and local government to promote Belzoni's image as the "catfish capital of the world."
Dean Cook, a leader of the locked-out Crown workers, spoke at a short rally at the museum. "I came to support this fight because it is just," he said. "It is a fight for dignity.
"You face the same enemy as we do in Texas," Cook said. "It is the rich man, and it's the same enemy the people face in Iraq and in Yugoslavia. No matter what happens, we are going to fight with you - that is how we are all going to win justice."
Dr. Ron Myers, who runs two local health clinics, also spoke. He reviewed the history of racist discrimination by the Delta's catfish producers.
The march then proceeded to the local SuperValu supermarket, which is owned by one of Freshwater's stockholders. Protesters stood by the two main entrances to the parking lot, waving signs, chanting, and talking with passersby. Many people who drove by raised their fists in solidarity and one shopper, Joyce Chew, joined the protest.
The next day, April 10, the African-American Heritage Buffalo Fish Festival was held in Belzoni. This was the fourth annual festival, which was started as an alternative to the overwhelmingly white, corporate-sponsored "Catfish Festival" held in Belzoni the same day. "This year the Buffalo Fish festival is in honor of the Catfish Workers," Hogan explained.
The Buffalo Fish Festival drew about 150 people from the area's Black community. Local musicians performed and another rally was held. Evans told the crowd that the Steelworkers' strike at Titan Tire "remains strong," and urged "all working people to stand behind the locked-out catfish workers."
Hogan spoke about the "unsanitary and unfair working conditions" at Freshwater that led to their protest last year, such as being denied the right to use the bathroom more than three times per shift. "Freshwater is no different than any other catfish processing plant in the area," she said. "We are going to continue to fight for our rights."
Cook also spoke. To an enthusiastic crowd he said, "It is the rich who create racism to divide us. The Catfish workers are out four months, the workers at Natchez eight months, and at Crown for three years. We have to learn to fight together; don't let them divide us." He urged local residents to go out and help the catfish workers win their fight.
Dan Fein, a UFCW member who works at the Hormel meatpacking plant in Atlanta, came with a letter of solidarity signed by 52 co-workers there. "We came to show solidarity with catfish workers," he said. "We face some of the very same conditions the workers here do."
Ardy Blandford, a member of the United Auto Workers (UAW) at PEMCO in Birmingham, Alabama, was introduced as the Socialist Workers candidate for mayor of Birmingham. She brought greetings from fellow unionists of UAW Local 1755, who had bought 75 tickets for a raffle to support the catfish workers. The drawing was held during the April 10 rally.
The fired workers are members of UFCW Local 1529, an amalgamated local that represents workers at several catfish companies in the Delta. Recently, some 20 CWA members traveled to the UFCW district office in Memphis to meet with union officials about their fight. They were told that the union will take their grievance against Freshwater to arbitration.
As the two days of solidarity actions drew to a close, CWA members began making plans to travel to Iowa, along with striking Steelworkers from Titan Tire in Natchez, on May 1 to mark the one-year anniversary of the strike at Titan's Des Moines plant.
Susan LaMont, a member of the USWA in Birmingham, contributed to the article.
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