In December of 2004, while working at a massive poultry plant in Alabama, Delores Smith slipped on the greasy floor and collapsed into a heap. In considerable pain, she limped over to the nurse’s office. The company nurse, however, didn’t even bother to look at the injury, instead sending Smith home with ibuprofen. When she got to her car, Smith looked down and noticed that pieces of bone were poking out through her sock. She had broken her ankle in three places.
That episode stirred Smith to help lead an organizing drive, with support from the United Food and Commercial Workers. Elections at the plant, located in the small town of Russellville, were held in 2006. (At the time the plant was owned by Gold Kist; it was later purchased by Pilgrim’s Pride.) “They don’t respect us at all,” Smith told the New York Times prior to the election. “That’s why I’m praying for a union.”
The union, however, was easily defeated: 844 workers voted against joining, with only 486 in support. But after years of struggle, last month the prayer for a union was finally answered, when more than 70 percent of the plant workforce voted to unionize. It was the largest victory for organized labor in Alabama in a decade, and a closer look at the two campaigns—the 2006 defeat and the 2012 success—has much to teach about both the challenges and opportunities the labor movement faces.
I worked at the plant during the summer of 2008, and spoke to a number of people about the 2006 campaign. Many of the men and women I met initially supported the union, and even in a union-unfriendly state like Alabama there was some cause for optimism. Workers had a long list of grievances—abusive supervisors, poverty wages, negligent on-site medical care, and, especially, the oppressive line speed. Then, as now, the poultry workers at the plant were responsible for killing and processing nearly 1.5 million chickens a week, a burden that makes pain a constant companion. In fact, Pilgrim’s Pride admitted as much. “It’s fast and it’s hard and your hands are gonna swell and ache,” I was told during orientation. An entire wall in the break room was lined with pain killer dispensers.
On the debone line, which was staffed primarily by Latino immigrants, men and women cut up tens of thousands of chicken carcasses whizzing by on cones. I was stationed nearby, responsible for either dumping tubs of chicken meat or tearing breasts apart by hand. During a shift spent dumping tubs, I would lift, carry, and empty more than thirty tons. When separating breasts, I was responsible for tearing through about 7200 every eight hours. For such superhuman feats, most employees earned between $8 and $9 an hour.
But if workers had plenty of grievances and pent up anger, the union underestimated the opposition and failed to identify leaders, especially among Spanish speakers. Gold Kist launched a vigorous counter-offensive, holding a number of captive audience meetings and bringing in bilingual company reps from out of state. (The workforce was roughly divided equally among Latino, white, and black employees.) Immigrant workers were reportedly promised $2-an-hour wage increases if the union lost. Others were told that, as a reward for keeping the union out, the line speed would be decreased.
But what really hampered the drive, I came to believe, was the union’s failure to build bridges between Spanish- and English-speaking workers. When I lived in Russellville, my neighbor was a Guatemalan named Dagoberto who had organized, in one day, a 500-person march through town in support of immigrant rights. This was the kind of leader—unafraid and widely respected—that an organizer would kill for. But Dagoberto had voted against the union in 2006. “To be honest, I didn’t really know what a union was,” he told me. “I never even saw anyone from the union.” I would speak with dozens of immigrants who expressed similar sentiments.
Without the support of many Latinos, and with anti-union rumors going unchallenged, management scored a decisive victory. After the vote, Gold Kist passed out Krispy Kreme donuts to thank the workers. Then it sped up the line speed. Raises never materialized.
“That’s what we got for voting the union down: a single fucking donut,” remembered Kyle, who worked alongside me at the plant. Kyle originally supported the union but was eventually convinced to vote no. “I’ll admit when I’m wrong—they suckered my ass.”
TWO YEARS PASSED. Pilgrim’s Pride, which had bought out Gold Kist, filed for bankruptcy and was purchased by JBS, a Brazilian-owned meat and poultry giant. (The name of the company was retained.) Then, in September 2010, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspected the Russellville plant and issued $135,500 in penalties for safety hazards, finding that workers were exposed to “acid burns and electrical shock.”
At about the same time, Randy Handley, an organizer with the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, began receiving calls from upset plant employees. Familiar with the previous attempts by the UFCW, Handley proceeded cautiously. (The RWDSU is a division within the UFCW, but hadn’t been involved in the previous campaign.)
“Organizing a union in a shop is like growing a garden,” Handley tells me. “Fertilize and sooner or later it starts growing.” After two years of cataloguing complaints, building relationships, and developing a leadership group, a group came together over breakfast this past spring and decided to go public.
The first meet-up was to be a small, early morning affair in the parking lot of a gas station. Handley expected a handful of people; more than 50 turned out. Dozens more came back after the day shift, fired up. “Folks kept showing up, handing over union cards and driving away,” he says. Soon, four out of five workers at the plant had signed union cards.
But names on cards can represent a false sense of strength: too often, as occurred in the 2006 campaign, people retreat in the face of company opposition. This time, Handley and his organizing team, which included Jose Aguilar, an immigrant from Honduras, were quick to build bridges within the diverse workforce. Organizers took care to hold bilingual meetings and translate all documents, and set up shop at intersections around the plant. “We wanted to make sure that workers knew they could find us at all hours and ask anything they wanted,” he says. (Management tried, unsuccessfully, to enlist the Sheriff's department to evict them.)
“This time, we made sure that the Latinos understood what a union is all about,” says Aguilar. “I told them, the union is you. You’ll fight and negotiate for a contract that will protect you.” They were quick to counter management claims that the plant would close or workers be fired if the union came in. And anyways, many of the workers that had been through the 2006 election had already heard the same threats. (Alternet asked Pilgrim’s Pride about worker allegations that management issued such threats, but the company didn’t respond.)
“Bosses always say the same old bullcrap,” states Christy Ray, who works nights in the chicken breast department. “They say they’re gonna close the plant down. They say that we should work it out amongst ourselves. But when I go into the office and tell them about something that isn’t right, they pat me on the back and do nothing. They treat us like dirt.”
Sensing that the situation called for more than donuts, Pilgrim’s Pride ordered up 2,000 “Vote No” T-shirts. But the last-ditch effort had little effect: in June, workers voted 706-292 for the union.
Ray remembers a time, not too long ago, when a supervisor dressed her down in front of her coworkers. “I turned to her and shouted, ‘I am not a dog. Don’t you ever yell at me like that.’ You could hear a pin drop, the place got so quiet.”
Now, Ray says, supervisors aren’t yelling anymore. “It wasn’t about the money,” she tells me, explaining why she voted for the union. “I honestly don’t care if I get a raise. And it’s not about what a union can do for me. It’s very simple—I want a voice, and now I have one.”
Photo Credit: RWDSU
Link to original article from AlterNet
Gabriel Thompson is the author of three books: Working in the Shadows, There’s No José Here, and Calling All Radicals. He has written for The Nation, New York magazine, The New York Times, and other publications. Thompson is the recipient of the Richard J. Margolis Award, the Studs Terkel Media Award, and a collective Sidney Hillman Award.
The federal judge who oversaw the political prosecution of former Democratic Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman was arrested over the weekend after allegedly beating his wife in a posh hotel room in Atlanta...
U.S. District Court Judge Mark Fuller was charged with misdemeanor battery and taken to the Fulton County jail around 2:30 Sunday morning. Fuller, 55, is a judge in the Middle District of Alabama and presided over the 2006 bribery trial of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman and HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy.
Police responded to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel at 181 Peachtree...
Brad Friedman | The Brad Blog 12 Aug 2014 Hits:841 Alabama
For the second time this year, prisoners in Alabama are planning a nonviolent demonstration and work stoppage to protest conditions inside the state’s prisons.
Melvin Ray, an inmate at the St. Clair correctional facility in Springville and founder of prison-based group Free Alabama Movement (FAM) says this weekend’s strike is an effort to improve education programs and end overcrowding, harsh sentencing, and what he calls “the free labor system” in which prisoners work for little-to-no monetary compensation.
In an interview with Salon, Ray said, “There is not even a pretense of doing...
Nick Ramsey | MSNBC 20 Apr 2014 Hits:465 Alabama
Alabama's 7th District Congresswoman Terri Sewell just released this press release a few moments ago. We are delighted that she has joined with Progressive Democrats of America, Greater Birmingham Ministries, and the Birmingham Metro Chapter of the NAACP to urge Governor Bentley to accept federal Medicaid funds and has herewith shown her convictions on this issue. From Rep. Sewell...
Statement from Congresswoman Terri A. Sewell Urging the State of Alabama to Expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act
December 10, 2013
“Beginning in January, millions of Americans will begin receiving health coverage under...
Edward Savela 10 Dec 2013 Hits:589 Alabama
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) - Frigid temperatures Saturday afternoon didn't keep a group from rallying in protest of Governor Robert Bentley's decision not to expand the state's Medicaid Programs.
For months, Alabama has stood firm behind its decision to opt out of the Medicaid expansion set to go into effect next year as part of the Affordable Care Act.
Among the diverse group was recent Samford University graduate Elizabeth Milne.
Milne is currently working two jobs, neither provide options for healthcare. She's also a foster child, and cannot get insurance through her parents.
Tiffany Westry | cbs42 08 Dec 2013 Hits:562 Alabama
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama - Representatives of Greater Birmingham Ministries, the Birmingham chapter of the NAACP and the Progressive Democrats of America gathered Monday in Birmingham's Kelly Ingram Park to urge Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley to expand Medicaid coverage in Alabama under the Affordable Care Act, known colloquially as Obamacare.
"Medicaid expansion is the right thing to do now," Scott Douglas, the executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries, said. "Now is the right time to do it, and Alabama's working families need it, and that should be reason enough. If the governor refuses...
Madison Underwood | AL.com 28 Oct 2013 Hits:577 Alabama
Listen to our show with Dana and Joseph Siegelman
Former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, now in federal prison, is coming up on his one-year anniversary of unjust incarceration. Don is not a criminal. He is an American political prisoner—targeted, prosecuted, and jailed unjustly.
We need your help. Please join us in asking President Obama to pardon Don and set him free now!
One hundred and thirteen former and current Attorneys General (Republicans and Democrats) signed an amicus brief to the US Supreme Court stating that Don's "crime" was no crime at all.
Mimi Kennedy 30 Aug 2013 Hits:765 Alabama
In the past two years, one state party chairman was investigated by the local bar association. Elsewhere, an about-to-be-ousted party leader changed the locks at the headquarters. Two more state parties were threatened with eviction.
Traditionally, state parties have been the meeting point between the national political organizations and the local ground game. But in recent cycles, many of them have become so dysfunctional that they are now irrelevant — or even worse, detrimental, to the national party’s efforts.
The reasons behind their ineptitude vary: Some parties struggle with finances, others with...
Abby Livingston | Roll Call 24 Jul 2013 Hits:873 Alabama
On Thursday, August 15, 2013 at the Birmingham Sheraton in Birmingham, Alabama, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund (Federation) will honor the legendary C.T. Vivian at its Estelle Witherspoon Lifetime Achievement Award Dinner. William Nelson, President of the CHS Foundation, will serve as honorary chair of the event. The Annual Meeting will be held on August 16 & 17 at the Federation's Rural Training and Research Center in Epes, Alabama; however, some events and workshops will also take place in Birmingham on August 15 (please see the agenda for...
Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund 23 Jul 2013 Hits:805 Alabama
Exactly one week after a Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty in the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, hundreds gathered for another march and rally in Birmingham, part of a nationwide effort spearheaded by the Rev. Al Sharpton.
More than 500 people marched, chanted and sang this afternoon outside Birmingham City Hall and in Kelly Ingram Park to speak out against Zimmerman's acquittal.
Sharpton's National Action Network organized "Justice for Trayvon" rallies in at least 101 cities Saturday, Birmingham's rally among them. Sharpton called for the rallies to be in front...
Kelsey Stein | al.com 21 Jul 2013 Hits:659 Alabama
MONTGOMERY, Alabama -- Voters without photo identification will have two options for getting a free ID from the state before the state's new photo voter ID law kicks in next year, Secretary of State Beth Chapman announced today.
Alabama’s new law requiring people to show a government-issued photo ID to vote is scheduled to go into effect with the party primaries in June of 2014. The law -- to get around accusations that it's a modern poll tax to make people buy ID -- also requires that the state have...
Kim Chandler | AL.com 30 Jun 2013 Hits:662 Alabama
In case you haven’t heard…
The Robert's Court just dealt a hostile and destructive blow to democracy. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 has stood as perhaps the greatest triumph for democracy in modern times. Prior to the passage of the VRA of 1965, many states routinely, and blatantly discriminated against voting registration of African Americans. As just one example, in Dallas Country Alabama--home to Selma and where the Bloody Sunday march for voting rights began--of 15,000 eligible black voters in 1965, only 338 were registered. Devious methods were employed throughout the South, and some...
Edward Savela | PDA Alabama 25 Jun 2013 Hits:1775 Alabama
(NaturalNews) When a group of uniformed men wearing guns sets up a road block then ask you to "volunteer" a DNA sample and blood sample, it stretches the definition of "volunteer." But that's what happened in Alabama yesterday as off-duty cops in two counties set up DNA collection roadblocks and stopped cars to ask if drivers wanted to "volunteer" DNA swabs and blood samples.
It was all part of a study being conducted by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, which is probably studying what percentage of the sheeple population...
Mike Adams | Natural News.com 12 Jun 2013 Hits:1817 Alabama
The Nuns on the Bus, led by Sr. Simone, is on a 6,500 mile journey through predominantly Republican states to encourage our Senate to pass immigration reform. Sr. Simone and others gave inspirational talks calling us to action and reminding us that Christian doctrine commands us to welcome strangers. She and the others reminded us that we first discriminated against the Native Americans, the Irish, the Jews, the Catholic immigrants. This is in our history. It is time to extend the welcome mat to the Hispanic community too through responsible...
Edward Savela | PDA Alabama 05 Jun 2013 Hits:671 Alabama
As some of you might know already, Nuns on the Bus will be making a pass through the south in June. Below are the dates in our states:
6/3 - Orlando, FL, 3pm - Daniel Webster - lobby visit
6/4 - Tallahassee, FL, 10 am - Marco Rubio - lobby visit
6/5 - Birmingham, AL - civil rights rally
6/5 - Atlanta, GA - Chambliss - lobby visit
To give you some background: Sister Simone, who runs NETWORK (a Catholic social justice lobby in DC), and other nuns will be taking a bus tour along...
Edward Savela 14 May 2013 Hits:751 Alabama
On April 15, 2013, the Northeast Alabama Labor Council in Gadsden endorsed HR 676, national single payer health care legislation sponsored by Congressman John Conyers.
President Garry "Gabby" Frost brought the resolution before the council in response to an appeal from the All Unions Committee for Single Payer Health Care--HR 676 and from Pippa Abston, MD, Ph D, a board member of Physicians for a National Health Program and a Huntsville, Alabama, pediatrician.
"Health care is a necessity not a privilege," said President Frost after the adoption of the resolution for HR...
Kay Tillow 22 Apr 2013 Hits:786 Alabama
The 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" was observed with events throughout the city and extended to Washington D.C. where Rep. Terri Sewell marked today by reading an excerpt of the famous treatise.
Sewell, D-Birmingham, used her time on the House of Representatives floor to read a portion of the letter.
"The letter became one of the most preeminent documents of the civil rights era," Sewell told her colleagues. "Letter from a Birmingham Jail stands as a reminder of how far we have come in our nation in...
Jseoph D. Bryant | AL.com 21 Apr 2013 Hits:992 Alabama
MIDLAND CITY, Ala. (AP) — Police SWAT teams and hostage negotiators were locked in a standoff Wednesday with a gunman authorities say intercepted a school bus, killed the driver, snatched a 6-year-old boy and retreated into a bunker at his home.
The gunman, identified by neighbors as Jimmy Lee Dykes, a 65-year-old retired truck driver, was known as “the crazy man” of the neighborhood, a paranoid and menacing figure who once beat a dog to death with a lead pipe, threatened to shoot children...
Phillip Rawls | Associated Press 30 Jan 2013 Hits:756 Alabama
When Diane Derzis shut the doors of the New Woman All Women Health Care clinic in Birmingham, Ala., last May, she did not expect the clinic to be shut for good.
Derzis, known as the “Abortion Queen” by both her opponents and her supporters in the Deep South, was under investigation by the Alabama Department of Public Health after two of her patients were given an improper dosage of medication. Though Derzis self-reported the incident, which resulted in transporting the two women to a hospital via ambulance but no...
by Lauren Barbato | Ms Blog 22 Sep 2012 Hits:1087 Alabama
The former Alabama governor was perhaps the highest profile victim of Karl Rove's political machine, sentenced to six years for bribery. Now his last hope for freedom is a presidential pardon
Don Siegelman, the former governor of Alabama, has a particular reason to be lobbying for Barack Obama's re-election at this week's Democratic national convention.
Siegelman is in Charlotte at the pleasure of a federal judge, and is just days away from resuming a six-and-a-half-year prison sentence, following a widely publicised conviction on bribery charges stemming from...
Andrew Gumbel | The Guardian UK 10 Sep 2012 Hits:1509 Alabama
Protestors from Tuscaloosa and as far as California gathered in front of the Federal Courthouse Building on University Boulevard to sound off over the Alabama anti-immigration law on Monday afternoon.
The demonstrators included several undocumented Hispanic immigrants, who said so via megaphone on the courthouse steps as they called the Alabama law an injustice to immigrants living in the state.
The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals today ordered a lower court to block enforcement of a section of Alabama's immigration law that required ...
Ben Flanagan | Blog AL.com 21 Aug 2012 Hits:940 Alabama
NEWSFLASH: A federal appeals court struck down key sections of Alabama’s immigration law in a ruling released today, including a provision mandating that school officials check the immigration status of newly enrolled students. And the 11th Circuit ruled that Alabama and Georgia cannot punish people for harboring or transporting an undocumented immigrant. Following the Supreme Court’s ruling that allowed a somewhat narrowed version of Arizona’s “Show-Me-Your-Papers” provision to go into effect, the appeals court letAlabama and Georgia to begin enforcing a law allowing state and local police to investigate the...
Amanda Peterson Beadle | Think Progress 20 Aug 2012 Hits:889 Alabama
I guess most people know that I have been working with Governor Siegelman for over seven years. I'm very proud that we have a very close friendship. I…
Following years of appeals and a vocal campaign by supporters, ex-Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman is heading back to prison after being sentenced Friday to more than six years…
In December of 2004, while working at a massive poultry plant in Alabama, Delores Smith slipped on the greasy floor and collapsed into a heap. In considerable pain,…
Thanks to the John Birch Society, "environmentalism" is no longer an issue in Alabama -- by state law. Who knew fixing it all would be that easy?
Immigration violations are civil, not criminal infractions. But for many non-criminal immigrant detainees living alongside criminal inmates at the Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama, that distinction…
When is an anti-choice group actually for abortion? When it comes to defending a law that could help them in their endless quest to give full legal rights…
AL Senator Linda Coleman
A little over a week ago, Alabama pediatrician Pippa Abston had enough.
In response to Alabama's forced vaginal ultrasound bill, Abston posted a video expressing her outrage,…
Numerous organizations and leaders who identify themselves as pro-life have assured the public that their efforts to re-criminalize abortion and establish the unborn as separate legal persons…
TV images are searing reminder of disenfranchisement of African American felons.
CNN’s Dana Bash stirred Twitter election watchers Tuesday when she tweeted, “something u (sic) don’t see every day. Inmates will…
For support in organizing within your state, contact:
State LeadershipEdward Savela
Email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Birmingham (forming)Tuscaloosa (forming) Want to bring progressive change to Alabama? Start a PDA chapter; send us an email and we'll get you started.
PDA is organized around several core issues. These issues include:
Each team hosts a monthly conference call. Calls feature legislators, staffers and other policy experts. On these calls we determine PDA legislation to support as well as actions and future events.