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Delta Strike: Civil Rights or Just Plain Economics? : Labor: Moving from cotton to catfish has saved many a farmer from foreclosure, but there may still be a touch of the old plantation involved.

November 18, 1990|Richard Schweid | Richard Schweid, a reporter for the Tennessean in Nashville, is working on a book about the Mississippi catfish industry to be published next fall by Ten Speed Press in Berkeley

INDIANOLA, MISS. — Rosa Walker spent eight years filleting catfish at Delta Pride Catfish, Inc.'s processing plant in Indianola, Miss. She stood all day on a cement floor, wielding her razor-sharp fillet knife at a table with 24 other black women, and she was required to cut 800 pounds of fillets during her shift.

In 1989, when Delta Pride's personnel manager told her not to come back to work, she was making $4.40 an hour and had developed carpal tunnel syndrome, a nerve disorder affecting the hand and wrist brought on by repetitive motion.

The company paid for surgery on her hand--severing the afflicted nerve is the only known relief--but told her she could not come back to work because there were no "light" duties for her.

"They hire you, cripple you, fire you," Walker said. "They treat people like dogs out there. It's like being back on the plantation."

It's an oft-heard story in Indianola. Delta Pride is the largest employer in rural Sunflower County, deep in the Mississippi Delta. The company hires almost 2,000 people, most of them workers in the processing plant, most of them black women making close to minimum wage.

There is a bitter strike currently in progress against Delta Pride, and striking workers have called for a national boycott of the company's products. What began as a labor dispute between Local 1529 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, and a catfish processor in an out-of-the-way part of northwestern Mississippi may turn into the first national civil-rights rallying point of the 1990s.

"Your cause is generating more than sympathy; it is generating anger against those who have turned a plant into a plantation," wrote Jesse Jackson, in a letter of support to the 900 workers who walked off their jobs on Sept. 12.

"That anger will be heard resoundingly at checkout counters across America ringing up 'no sale' on Delta Pride products."

Delta Pride's management accuses the union of distorting the situation. "This is not a civil-rights issue," said Larry Joiner, Delta Pride's president, in a statement released after Joseph Lowery, of the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference, spoke to the strikers.

Instead, Joiner said, "It is an economic issue that plagues the entire farm-raised catfish industry, which is facing rising costs, excess processor capacity and softening sales demand."

The wholesale price of catfish has, indeed, been low for the past 18 months, cutting into processors' profits, but people are wrong when they say the Delta Pride strike is not a civil-rights issue, Lowery said. "The civil-rights struggle is now in the arena of the economy. Ninety percent of the workers in the catfish industry are black and 90% of the money in the industry goes to the whites."

Sunflower County certainly has had its share of civil-rights issues. The White Citizens' Council was formed in Indianola in 1954, to defend white supremacy in the face of the U.S. Supreme Court's order to integrate the public schools.The county also has its place on the map of the march toward racial equality. In Ruleville, which is about 20 miles north of Indianola, Fannie Lou Hamer, a heroine of the civil-rights movement, waged her struggles.

The prospect of a boycott of Delta Pride products has sent shock waves through the Delta's $300 million farm-raised catfish industry. It is particularly worrisome to the dozen or so other processing plants in the area, where the fear is that the public may boycott catfish in general, rather than only Delta Pride's product.

African-Americans consume a disproportionately large amount of the catfish eaten in this country, so an effective national black boycott could wreak havoc on the industry, a real loss. In the past 20 years, catfish farming has become the most successful aquaculture ever developed in this country.

There is reason to wish the industry continued growth. Satisfying the hunger of the nation's meat eaters with catfish makes good sense, particularly with health-conscious consumers buying more seafood while overfishing and pollution reduce the nation's supply of fish caught in the wild.

Catfish turn feed into meat much more efficiently than other kinds of livestock, so fewer resources are used to grow them. Catfish feed is normally unmedicated, so there is no antibiotic residue in the meat as there frequently is with cows, pigs and chickens. The fish are grown in ponds where the water has consistently tested squeaky-clean.

Catfish feed floats, which means that the fish do not root for food in the bottom of the pond--as they do in the wild--and their meat is white, firm and has a neutral, bland flavor.

A sophisticated advertising campaign and growing acceptance by restaurants nationwide induced many Americans to try catfish, and they liked it. The annual U.S. consumption of pond-raised catfish has grown from virtually none in 1970 to about 400 million pounds last year.

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