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Growing a Southern interracial labor movement from the seeds of the Black freedom struggle

by Julia Tanenbaum, Robert F. Smith Intern



By 1966 the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) prioritized building Black economic and political power autonomous from white organizers. SNCC asked its white members to build antiracist consciousness and interracial coalitions within white communities instead of working in Black communities.(1) During this period civil rights movement leaders from Martin Luther King Jr. to Huey Newton emphasized grassroots labor organizing as a force for racial and economic justice.(2) Alabama born and raised Robert “Bob” Zellner was the child of a former Ku Klux Klan member whose Methodist principles inspired him to join the civil rights movement and to become SNCC’s first white field secretary.(3) He and his wife and fellow SNCC member Dottie Zellner proposed a new organizing strategy they hoped would galvanize working class Southern whites to join the civil rights movement, to struggle in solidarity based on their common interests as exploited workers. While SNCC’s executive committee rejected their proposal in favor of only hiring Black staff members, the couple joined SNCC’s allies in the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF) to organize and fund the Grass Roots Organizing Work (GROW) project.


The interracial group of GROW organizers began their efforts to convince white workers to fight against the discrimination faced by their Black peers in the heart of Klan territory: Laurel, Mississippi. When Zellner, New Republic of Africa member Walter Collins, and their colleagues arrived in the summer of 1967, members of Local 5-443 of the International Woodworkers of America were waging a bitter wildcat strike against the Masonite corporation in protest of a new automation plan.(4)

Gulfcoast Pulpwood Association workers with tractor, Mobile, Alabama, 1974
Gulfcoast Pulpwood Association workers with tractor, Mobile, Alabama, 1974, Gulfcoast Pulpwood Association, Patricia Goudvis Photograph Collection

Soon pulpwood workers that were organized under the Gulfcoast Pulpwood Association (GPA) reached out to GROW, and over the following years they built a powerful interracial union.(5) As Patricia Goudvis’ photographs illustrate, pulpwood haulers performed backbreaking labor under conditions GROW organizers compared to sharecropping.(6) In 1971 Masonite’s price cuts prompted a strike involving thousands of Black and white workers extending across Alabama and Mississippi.(7)



Worker hauling logs, Mobile, Alabama, 1974
Worker hauling logs, Mobile, Alabama, 1974, Gulfcoast Pulpwood Association, Patricia Goudvis Photograph Collection

The strike not only forced the paper companies to raise their payments to pulpwood producers but also fostered antiracist consciousness. Zellner recalled how Collins persuaded an elderly Klansman to join the civil rights movement.(8) By 1973 GPA’s leaders, white president Delbert Carney and Black vice president Reverend C. L. Kimbrough, reflected its interracial strategy. That year, GPA and SCEF waged a legal battle against the Scott Paper company, which sued the union to classify its members as independent contractors and delegitimize the union. The Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the workers, which established workers’ right to unionize. Workers continued to organize and eventually influenced the passage of the Mississippi Fair Pulpwood Scaling and Practices Act.(9)

Rev. C.L. Kimbrough, vice-president of the Gulfcoast Pulpwood Association, with a woodcutter, Mobile, Alabama, 1974
Rev. C.L. Kimbrough, vice-president of the Gulfcoast Pulpwood Association, with a woodcutter, Mobile, Alabama, 1974, Gulfcoast Pulpwood Association, Patricia Goudvis Photograph Collection

Beginning in 1972, GROW organizers attempted to replicate GPA’s successful strategy in the local poultry industry. They brought staff and resources to support the independent and interracial Mississippi Poultry Workers Union (MPWU) in Forest. The union formed on May 10, 1972 after sixty Southeastern Poultry Packers workers led a spontaneous six-week strike to protest low wages, brutal working conditions and policies such as expecting workers to work for free during equipment failures.(10) Union president Merle Barber described the grueling and dangerous work she and others endured in the script of Patricia Goudvis’ 1974 slideshow about the union’s ongoing struggle.


Workers on poultry processing line, 1974
Workers on poultry processing line, 1974, Mississippi Poultry Workers Union Slideshow, Mississippi Poultry Workers Union, Patricia Goudvis Photograph Collection
Merle Barber, MPWU President, 1974, Forest, Mississippi
Merle Barber, MPWU President, 1974, Forest, Mississippi, Mississippi Poultry Workers Union, Patricia Goudvis Photograph Collection

The workers won an initial 10 cent raise and pay for breakdown time and an order from the National Labor Relations Board reinstating workers fired for organizing, which spurred workers in local plants, Poultry Packers Inc. and Gaddis Packing Co., to join the fledgling union.(12) While Barber argued that “poor white as well as poor black” workers were “riding the same boat,” white workers often stymied the organizing efforts of the Black-led union by breaking strikes. In a workplace like Gaddis Packing in 1973, where 60% of workers were Black and 40% were white, each worker’s vote and actions mattered.(13) The company stoked racial divisions by hiring white workers as strikebreakers. GROW organizer Tony Algood faced violent intimidation from both local police and a white driver who nearly ran him over with his vehicle as he organized workers at Gaddis Packing.(14)


Mississippi Poultry Workers Union picketing with signs demanding increased wages, vacation and fair labor practices, by Louis Marcelli, 1974
Mississippi Poultry Workers Union picketing with signs demanding increased wages, vacation and fair labor practices, by Louis Marcelli, 1974, Mississippi Poultry Workers Union Slideshow, Mississippi Poultry Workers Union, Patricia Goudvis Photograph Collection

By the summer of 1974, when Goudvis traveled to Forest, the union had failed to negotiate a contract and its membership was declining.(15) With the help of New Orleans law firm Kullman, Lang, Inman and Bee, the company’s management insisted on a no-strike clause and other stipulations in bitter and protracted contract negotiations.(16) Management harnessed preexisting racial divisions and the looming forces of flexible production to defeat the MPWU.(17)



Although GROW’s vision of a working class united across racial lines did not come to fruition, their work alongside Mississippi and Alabama unions still resonates today. As Zellner remarked in 2015, young white organizers are not eager to talk to and work with white supremacists. Yet, “When we were organizing in Laurel we were organizing in the mouth of the Klan, and we went directly at the Klan members and we organized them away from the Klan. So it could still be done today.”(18) Although changing economic conditions make labor organizing challenging, workers’ common struggles can still be a force for racial and economic justice.


 

(1) SNCC Legacy Project and Duke University, “Dottie & Bob Zellner Present GROW Proposal,” SNCC Digital Gateway (blog), accessed August 29, 2021, https://snccdigital.org/events/dottie-bob-zellner-present-grow-proposal/.

(2) Thomas F. Jackson, From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013); Lauren Araiza, “‘In Common Struggle against a Common Oppression’: The United Farm Workers and the Black Panther Party, 1968-1973,” The Journal of African American History 94, no. 2 (2009): 200–223; Jennifer L. Standish, “Grassroots Organizing Work (Grow)” (M.A., United States – North Carolina, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2018), 7, https://www.proquest.com/docview/2059154945/abstract/1E76C3F9A3B747F7PQ/1.

(3) SNCC Legacy Project and Duke University, “Bob Zellner,” SNCC Digital Gateway (blog), accessed August 29, 2021, https://snccdigital.org/people/bob-zellner/.

(4) Standish, “Grassroots Organizing Work (Grow),” 14–16.

(5) Standish, 25.

(6) Michael Fields, “Walters Says Woodcutters Are Akin to Sharecroppers,” Bay State Banner (1965-1979), May 10, 1979.

(7) Standish, “Grassroots Organizing Work (Grow),” 26.

(8) Bob Zellner, 50 Years of Poor People’s Organizing: An Interview with Bob Zellner, interview by Shailly Gupta Barnes, June 17, 2015, https://kairoscenter.org/50-years-of-poor-peoples-organizing-an-interview-with-bob-zellner/.

(9) Standish, “Grassroots Organizing Work (Grow),” 37–47.

(10 Roy Reed, “Split Gizzards for Living? Pay Is $2.10,” Minneapolis Tribune, July 22, 1974.

(11) Patricia Goudvis, “Mississippi Poultry Worker’s Union Slideshow Script,” 1974, 1, Mississippi Poultry Workers Union, Patricia Goudvis Photograph Collection, Amistad Research Center.

(12) “Poultry Workers Win Strike,” Afro-American (1893-1988), July 15, 1972; Patricia Goudvis, “Mississippi Poultry Worker’s Union Slideshow Script,” 2.

(13) Patricia Goudvis, “Mississippi Poultry Worker’s Union Slideshow Script,” 6; Angela Stuesse and Laura E. Helton, “Low-Wage Legacies, Race, and the Golden Chicken in Mississippi: Where Contemporary Immigration Meets African American Labor History,” 2013, 7; “Poultry Union Wins Victory in Mississippi,” Afro-American (1893-1988), January 20, 1973.

(14) Stuesse and Helton, “Low-Wage Legacies, Race, and the Golden Chicken in Mississippi: Where Contemporary Immigration Meets African American Labor History,” 7–8.

(15) Reed, “Split Gizzards for Living? Pay Is $2.10.”

(16) Stuesse and Helton, “Low-Wage Legacies, Race, and the Golden Chicken in Mississippi: Where Contemporary Immigration Meets African American Labor History,” 8; Reed, “Split Gizzards for Living? Pay Is $2.10.”

(17) Stuesse and Helton, “Low-Wage Legacies, Race, and the Golden Chicken in Mississippi: Where Contemporary Immigration Meets African American Labor History,” 9.

(18) Bob Zellner, 50 Years of Poor People’s Organizing: An Interview with Bob Zellner.


 

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