Organizing in Yazoo, Mississippi
The Union Kids Come to Yazoo
By Lisa Belkin
It is the day before the union vote at the auto parts
plant in Yazoo City, Miss., and Joanne Bunuan, emblem of the last hope
of the labor movement in the United States, looks tired. She paces the
length of Suite 122 of the Comfort Inn, which also doubles as her union
office, wearing denim shorts, a vivid red T-shirt that says,
"Union, Yes!" and a pair of floppy slippers decorated with
neon-colored puppies. Exhaustion (or, perhaps, the slippers) has the
unlikely effect of making her look even younger than her 23 years. She
has slept for 9 hours during the past 48, and her meals today will be,
in order, from MacDonald's, Burger King and Pizza Hut.
Marc Panepinto, who at the grizzled age of 30 is a
union organizing old-timer and Bunuan's immediate boss, sits on the
couch across from her, beneath a wall-size chart filled with hundreds of
color-coded Post-It notes. He, too, could use some sleep. He knows,
without looking, that the layers of notes show a vote that is too close
to call, despite two months of nearly nonstop work to bring a union to
Yazoo Industries. He worries that Bunuan (pronounced bus-NEW-in), 17
months out of college, is feeling the pressure of running her first
campaign from start to finish. He worries that the company has something
up its sleeve at the 11th hour. He worries that the sky is alarmingly
blue, with no sign of clouds, a bad omen because he believes that rain
brings good luck. He worries that there is something he is forgetting to
Suddenly, the door to the suite is flung open by
Cathy Lowenberg and Paula Tusiani, both Bunuan's tutelage, to be union
organizers, too. They are back from the Sunflower Supermarket, where
Bunuan, with determined optimism, had sent them to order a "Union,
Yes!" cake for the hoped-for victory party the next day. Out of
breath, and trying not to giggle, they explain that while at the market
they spotted another cake, one that they assume could only have been
ordered by the company. Decorated with two white plastic cowboy boots,
it reads: "The Union Is a Game! And a Damned Good Show. Give Them a
Boot in the [expletive], and Kick'em Out the Door. Vote No."
Bunuan and Panepinto are fairly certain of when the
cake is to be served--at the company's Thanksgiving luncheon, scheduled
for this afternoon, the day before the union vote. Although the company
describes the luncheon as an annual gesture of appreciation to its
workers, the organizers see it as nothing more than bribery with turkey
and sweet potatoes, not to mention a potential violation of the rules of
the National Labor Relations Board, which prohibit a company from
campaigning in the 24 hours before an election. Bunuan looks at
Panepinto. Panepinto looks at Bunuan. They don't seem as tired anymore.
When they speak, it is almost in unison: "So go get that
If the American Labor Movement has a future--and the
debate is fevered and fractious over whether it does--then it is in the
young, exuberant, inexperienced hands of people like Joanne Bunuan.
Bunuan is a union organizer at a pivotal moment for organized labor.
More accurately, she is an organizer because it is a pivotal moment for
organized labor. Relegated to bit-player status in a pro-business era,
battered by scandals and mismanagement within its leadership,
hemorrhaging by an estimated one million members in the past six years,
the labor movement in the United States is trying to reinvent itself. In
1970, nearly 30 percent of all American workers in private industry were
union members. Today, that figure is just under 11 percent, the lowest
since the 1930's.
Finding their membership back at Depression-era
levels, union leaders have been adopting Depression-era tactics,
specifically the grass-roots formation of new locals. They take
inspiration from the fact that it is a terrible time to be a worker.
Real wages in the United states have declined 28 percent since 1973, and
eight million industrial jobs have been lost since 1980, a reflection of
the weakness of unions in a changing economy, but also a spark of hope
for their rebirth. In 1994, nearly half of the campaigns overseen by the
N.L.R.B. resulted in union victories.
"It's a crossroads," says Stanley Aronowitz,
a professor of sociology at the graduate center of the City University
of new York and author of several books on work and labor. "They're
saying, We've been down so long, we might as well fight, because they
have nothing left to lose."
To organize, you must have organizers, and that is
where Bunuan comes in. John Sweeney, a legend in the annals of
organizing, was elected president of the 40-year-old A.F.L.-C.I.O. last
October, largely on the promise of a huge organizing push. One of his
first acts was to give the equivalent of a blank check to the Organizing
Institute, the branch of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. created in 1989 at the
earliest signs of this sea change. In 1990, the Organizing Institute
spent less than $400,000 to recruit and train 25 organizers. Last year
it spent $2.8 million to display 150 new organizers, one of who was
Bunuan. This year, it may spend as much as $4 million for some 320
Because studies show that white, male organizers have
the least success in workplaces, which are increasingly not white and
not male, most of these new troops will be women and members of
minorities. And because organizing is a life only someone with few other
obligations can lead, nearly all of them will be young, often recruited
straight out of college, and comfortable with the fact that home is
whatever hotel room they are in.
Beyond that, they will be a diverse lot, if the group
at the Yazoo City Comfort Inn is any gauge. They will include longtime
union zealots like Panepinto, who grew up 'talking union' with his
father, a construction worker, then went on to earn a master's degree in
labor relations at the University of Illinois and to graduate from the
Organizing Institute's first class. They will also include new converts
like Bunuan, who moved to West Roxbury, Mass., from the Philippines when
she was a year old; whose parents, a day-care provider and an office
worker, distrusted unions; whose only career goal while at the
University of Massachusetts at Amherst was to "help people, but not
by giving them handouts," and who stumbled on the Organizing
Institute near the end of her senior year when she signed up for an
interview only because it was required for a career-planning course.
They will be like Cathy Lowenberg, the daughter of a
white father and a mother of Japanese, Spanish and Korean ancestry, who
has always identified with the outsiders and the have-nots and who, as a
student at the University of Washington, helped organize a protest to
make the history of people of color a required part of the curriculum.
But there will also be people like Paula Tusiani, the daughter of a
business executive, who for most of her life knew only wealth and
privilege living on the North Shore of Long Island and whose parents,
when she first announced her organizing plans, wondered where they had
They will, more often than not, never have worked in
most of the industries they set out to organize. None of the organizers
in Yazoo City, for instance, have any experience in an auto parts plant,
and they never did come to understand the exact meanings of the station
names that the workers used, like Pull to Seat and Regular Engine. But
at the same time, they will not care that they do not know. "We are
aggressively organizing industries we never organized before," says
Bunuan of her employer, the Laborers' International Union of North
America, an A.F.L.-C.I.O. group whose 750,000 members work mostly in
construction, not the auto industry, and which in the past year has gone
after health care workers and poultry processors. "We feel pretty
much free to organize anyone who wants to be organized."
They will, more likely than not, do that organizing
with only a sketchy knowledge of the historical trends that brought
their cause to this nadir in the first place. Bunuan was not yet born in
the 1960's, when baby boomers began seeking different types of jobs from
the ones their blue-collar, union-proud parents had. She was barely in
elementary school during the 1970's, when the United states solidified
the trend from an economy based in manufacturing, where unions were
strong, to one based in service, where unions were weak, and when
manufacturing jobs continued to migrate to the Deep South, where unions
were few, and overseas, where unions were irrelevant. She was only 9
years old in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan fired 11,400 striking
members of the professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, a move
that management across the country took as permission to play hardball
And although she has certainly heard of Jimmy Hoffa,
the Teamster president who went to prison in 1967 and disappeared in
1975, she sees him as a relic of a long-passed era, not as part of a
documented pattern of union corruption, one almost as old as the modern
union. She was just entering high school, for instance, in 1986, when
the Federal Government indicted Jackie Presser, then president of the
Teamsters, on charges of embezzlement and racketeering, a case that
would eventually bring to light stories of murders, car bombings and
cash taken away in suitcases by couriers for the mob. In short, she had
no reason to be paying attention during the decades when unions, to much
of the American public, came to stand not for uplifting workers but for
strikes, violence, impotence and greed.
Although the young organizers may not fully
understand how these forces lined up against them, they will do daily
battle with them nonetheless. Union campaigns are brutal affairs with a
veneer of civility over a deep, wide layer of animosity. They do not
allow for compromise, because there is no such thing as a little bit of
a union, and along the way, workers will find deep-seated beliefs that
they did not know they had. The union organizers will tell them that
management is abusing them and that their lives would be better if they
would stand together and negotiate as a group for their rights. The
company bosses will tell them that the union is misleading them and that
all a union will bring is membership dues to a bunch of outsiders who
will make a lot of new rules.
The union will call management "heartless";
management will portray the union as "outsiders." Family
members will stop speaking to one another, as will co-workers and
friends. Some of the most unlikely people will become leaders, and some
of those will be fired. When each campaign is over, win or lose, the
factory will never be exactly the same again, the workers will be
inestimably changed, and the organizers will be altered, too. Everything
will be different, including, over time, the whole of the American labor
Bunuan is driving her rental car along an unpaved,
unmarked road on the outskirts of Yazoo City, a community of 12,427
people, an hour north of Jackson. She passes acres of cotton fields,
which had been lush and white when she arrived back in September, but
which now, in late November, are scruffy and gray. Bunuan came to Yazoo
in the first place because 80 of the 310 Yazoo Industries workers walked
off their jobs to protest wages, and a colleague of Bunuan's, passing
through the region, happened to see a report of the walkout on the local
news. Bunuan and a scouting team came to town the next morning.
Piecing together what they could on the privately
held company, they talked to the workers and learned that labor
discontent was not new at the 16-year-old plant, a division of Hood
Cable, which annually manufactures a reported $16 million worth of
electrical systems for Cadillacs and Corvettes. In 1989 there had been
another walkout, and the workers had even elected a person to speak with
management on their behalf, but their representative was promoted to
supervisor and the effort went nowhere.
Wages for line workers, the organizers learned, were
between $5.55 and $5.70 an hour, which initially sounded low but which
they would gradually discover was a solid wage in this community. The
company, one of the area's largest employers, provided no pension and no
seniority, the organizers were told, and its work force is mostly black
and female, groups that tend to be more sympathetic to unions. So the
organizing campaign began.
Bunuan has spent the months since then doing what she
is doing now, driving around looking for workers. With her is Beatrice
Griffin, herself a workers at the plant, and the kind of companion
Bunuan likes best--an unswayable union supporter. In fact, Griffin says
she has already suffered for her cause. When the union first came to
town, Griffin was working in the office, close to management, handling
paperwork, not electrical wire. One morning, she says, she was told by
her supervisor to wear a "Proud to be Union-free" T-shirt but
she refused. Three days later, she was taken from her $6.40-an-hour
office job and given a $5.55-an-hour position on the line. The company
says she was demoted because her work was unsatisfactory.
Bunuan and Griffin pass a house as gray as the
surrounding fields, and Griffin says: "Stop. I think that's Jo Ann
Richardson's car." Organizers never call ahead. They
simply show up. Bunuan looks around for growling
dogs, her only real fear in this job, then heads toward the worker's
door. As she does, her steps lengthen, so she strides rather than walks,
and her shoulders square into her ready-to-tackle-all-comers stance.
Richardson, a wiry woman in white sweat pants and a pink sweatshirt,
answers Bunuan's knock.
When Bunuan starts to speak, she no longer sounds
like herself. Instead of her usual Boston-tinged tones, her words take
on a down-home Mississippi drawl. "I was hopin' we could talk for a
bit about the union," she says . And her grammar slips, too.
"If it ain't too much trouble, could we come in?" she asks
Richardson. She says she doesn't plan the transformation, it just
happens. "I think wherever I go I pick up the accent," she
says. "If I'm talking to someone in a very kind of college accent,
it just doesn't play right at all."
Most of her job as an organizer is about talking. The
talking is done during visits, called "house visits." Research
has shown that among campaigns in which workers are not visited in their
homes, the win rate is 17 percent, but when they are visited in their
homes at least once, the win rate jumps to 61 percent, which is why
Bunuan and her team of organizers make visit after visit after visit.
They go back to an address again and again, until the object of their
search is found. They stop by late at night and early in the morning.
They figure out who their target is dating, or where their target's
mother lives, and they try those places too. They fight for each vote,
face to face, one worker at a time.
One purpose of each house call is to teach workers
about unions--what a union does and what it can do for them. Another is
to teach the organizer about the workplace -- who in the plant is
related to whom, who is friendly with whom, who talks to whom, who
stands where on the factory floor and who stands near them. Bunuan has
never been inside the Yazoo Industries building, a squat
brick-and-chrome structure that looks like an elementary school. And she
has never seen the lines of workers that twist bundles of wires together
in ways that will eventually run radios and power windows.
Over the weeks, however, she has formed a mental map,
and on it Regular Engine is in favor of the union, Bay 6 is against and
Pull to Seat is unsure. Day shift in general is strong in its support,
while night shift is equally strong in opposition.
Similarly, Bunuan is a newcomer to Yazoo City itself,
never having heard of this place before the campaign. Yet she has mapped
the emotional landscape, too, and knows that Denise Boddy's mother and
stepfather are both in management at the plant, so Denise is probably a
lost cause, and that Deborah Pepper has a relationship with a Gates man
and that all the sisters in the Gates family are pro-union.
As she talks, she does so with the knowledge that
hers is not the only voice these people are hearing. The company's
counterattack began two days after she arrived in Yazoo City, and it
came as no surprise. The plant used its longtime labor law form Kullman,
Inman, Bee, Downing & Banta of New Orleans, as a consultant in its
campaign, a common practice in the years since the air-traffic
controllers' strike, and the campaign run by that firm was rich with the
images and trends that have been the undoing of unions in recent years.
"The union is a third party, an outsider, a big
business that exists only because it takes dues money" is how Sid
Lewis, the company's lawyer, sums up the message he tries to give to
workers at the company's weekly anti-union meetings. "To stay in
business they need to get more members. They're salesmen and they're
trying to push their product. That's what this is all about."
The company repeated that message in a storm of
letters and leaflets mailed to workers' homes. "The union wants one
thing," said one version, mailed Oct. 11. "A part of your
paycheck every month. For what? Keep them out. Vote No!" Another
mailing said: "$$$MONEY$$$. This is what the Laborers' is all about
-- getting a piece of your paycheck. . . . And with the risk of strikes,
you could go without pay, unemployment benefits, food stamps -- and you
could have to pay for your own health insurance, which costs a family of
four $300 each month. Can you afford to risk paying for your own health
insurance? . . . Keep your money. Vote No."
In still another mailing, the financial statement of
the Laborers' local in Jackson was enclosed with a letter that said:
"The union doesn't want you to know about 1) Union salaries. 2)
Union administrative and office expenses. 3) Union money paid to the
International union. 4) Union fees. 5) Union fines. 6) Union dues. 7)
Union 'other receipts.' 8) Union $300 initiation fees. 9) Union
buildings and cars. 10) Union cash in the bank. Your money pays for
their big expenses. Don't be fooled. Vote No!"
Shortly after that, the weekly pay envelope of every
worker contained the following message: "One bird in your hand . .
. is worth two in the bush . . . Suppose you had not gotten this
paycheck due to a union strike? Be safe instead of sorry! Vote No."
Bunuan has seen these mailings and she knew knows what is said in the
meetings, because workers tell her. What she hears worries her. More
than the supervisor, she has been told, has warned that the plant will
close if the union comes in, that the company was recording workers'
pro-union activities and that the union was not to be trusted because it
was composed mostly of Mexicans and other foreigners. Bunuan hears that
she, in particular, is regularly described as "young," with
the implication that she is too inexperienced to be trusted.
Lewis calls nearly all the claims
"nonsense." The company never threatened to close the plant,
he says, no one was being spied on, "and the only reference to
Mexico," he says, was when he told employees that "we need to
stay competitive because a lot of jobs are going to Mexico. That's
simply a fact." As for the descriptions of Bunuan, he says, she
"is very young. And I think something like that is an issue for the
workers. In my mind, I'm thinking, if I'm an employee: 'I've got 10
years on this kid. What can this kid do for me?'"
As she goes door to door, Bunuan hears echoes of the
company's arguments in workers' questions. She has had practice fielding
those questions, first at the role-playing sessions at the Organizing
Institute, keep them from sounding to pat. "Why does the union
require such hefty dues?" Dues are not hefty, she answers, only $16
a month, and they do not start until the first contract is signed.
"Why does the union spend so much money paying people to
organize?" If asked directly, she will say she makes $28,000 a year
(more than twice what the average like worker as Yazoo makes, plus
benefits and expenses), and those organizers who are not often on staff
receive $400 a week, on the theory that the only way to find good people
is to pay them. "Can the union promise to pay workers' salaries if
there is a strike?" No, but strikes occur in only 2 percent of all
contract negotiations. "Can the union guarantee that a union
contract will include a raise?" No, the union cannot guarantee
anything, but groups have more power than individuals.
It is too simple, however, to say that all workers
concerns about unions are planted by the company, and Bunuan wrestles
daily with doubts and hostilities whose roots are far more personal.
Over the weeks of this campaign, for instance, she has spent hours
talking with Linnie Williams, who has been a station operator on the
Corvette line for 13 years and whose two brothers, both union members at
other companies, have urged her to vote no. One of her brothers, she
says, received a raise of 50 cents an hour, followed by a commensurately
large raise in his union dues.
"I know what I do for a job," she says to
Bunuan. "I go out and make a product. What do you folks do for a
job? Do you go out and make anything? No. You make your living off of
hardworking people like me."
Her brothers, she says, tell her that unions bring
corruption, and she says she won't give money 'to fill union bosses'
pockets." Bunuan answers that "like any other organizations,
there can be some bad people, and it's the workers' job" to vote
carefully for their leaders. "There's corrupt politicians; there's
corrupt preachers," she continues by way of example. It turns out
to be a wrong example for a Catholic from Massachusetts to use with a
Baptist from Mississippi. "The union is not no church, I give my
tithe and I get my blessings. A union is not going to give me my
blessings, my strength, my life."
From conversations like these, Bunuan tries to
decipher how each worker will vote and who can be swayed, assigning them
a number that will determine their place on the chart on the Comfort Inn
wall. Those in the "on"' column are actively working for the
union, "twos" are people who seem to be in favor,
"threes" seem undecided, "fours" are probable
"no" votes, and "fives" are actively working to stop
Sometimes, the predictions are easy. Just before her
visit to Richardson, for instance, she stops in on Karen Anderson, who
is expecting her fourth child in February and lives in an old house with
a refrigerator out front and a striking lack of furniture inside. The
only decoration is a small plastic radio shaped like a TV set, with a
photo of New England foliage inside the faux screen -- the Christmas
gift the company sent to its workers last year. While her daughters play
nearby, Anderson complains to Bunuan that she has not yet received her
disability payment from her maternity leave with her youngest child, who
is now 2. She has little hope, she says, that she will be any more
successful this time. "Would a union help me with that?" she
asks. They would try, Bunuan answers, and feels no need to ask directly
what Anderson's vote will be. As Bunuan leaves, she mentally makes a
Some times, however, as with Linnie Williams, the
predictions are more challenging. Although William's questions are
hostile, Bunuan sees a pinhole, mostly because Williams comes to the
weekly union meetings and reads the union literature in great detail,
sometimes highlighting areas of particular interest, usually about the
possibility of strikes. After one 45-minute house call, Williams says to
Bunuan, "Maybe the union can be a good thing," and on
subsequent visits says, "Uh-huh, I'm still with you," leaving
the organizer hopeful but uncertain.
And sometimes, predictions are completely impossible.
Shondra Garner, for instance. A shy woman, about the same age as Bunuan,
she blossomed into a leader during the early weeks of the campaign,
under the persistent coaxing of Bunuan and Lowenberg. She came to the
weekly union meetings, she passed out leaflets in front of the plant and
she even rode along on house calls. To Bunuan's team, she became
something rare and risky during an organizing campaign -- she became a
Then suddenly, a week before the election, her
involvement stopped. She began to miss meetings, she was never home when
the organizers came by and she became unwilling to listen when other
pro-union workers approached her in the plant. "She's talking
against the union," Griffin told Bunuan, and Bunuan became
determined to find Garner. "It's my obsession," Bunuan says,
as if finding garner and saying just the right words to bring her around
would somehow bring all the other "no" votes around as well.
In fact, it is Garner they are looking for when they
spot Jo Ann Richardson's car and knock on her door. With some
reluctance, Richardson lets them in. "I'm busy," she says,
sweeping her hand over the worn linoleum floor covered with newspapers
in places where Richardson is completing a pre-Christmas ar project,
applying gold spray paint to plain wooden picture frames.
"So how are ya feelin?" Bunuan asks,
stepping around the newspapers and taking a seat in front of television
set so that Richardson is not distracted by the program. "How are
ya feelin' about the vote?"
"I'll be glad when this is over."
"Why is that?"
"I'm just tired of it, that's all.' She fidgets
and looks eager to end the conversation.
"Do you think you're worth more than $5.55 or
$5.70 an hour?" Bunuan asks, trying to get Richardson to talk.
"Yeah, but just because we get a union doesn't
mean we're gonna get no raise."
Bunuan knows that in recent days, the company has
been stressing that the union cannot make promises, that all contracts
are subject to negotiation and that the workers could possibly end up
with less than they have now.
"It's no guarantee," she says.
Griffin, who is sitting next to Bunuan, join in.
"But without a union, ain't nobody gonna give you no raise."
"I don't know that," Richardson say.
Bunuan leans forward. "You're been there 10
years, right, Jo Ann? In those 10 years, did they ever guarantee you a
raise?" she asks.
"No," Richardson says. "They ain't
guaranteed us nothing. They can't guarantee us nothing. I know what I
got now. I don't know what I get with you."
"Bunuan feels a vote slipping away. "With
the union, you're negotiating those raises," she says. "You
have a say in that. And they have to negotiate with you. If the union
weren't gonna do no good, if they weren't gonna get you those raises, if
they weren't gonna get you that contract, the company wouldn't care at
this point. They wouldn't spend the money on the 'vote no' buttons,
taking you off the line to have meetings for an hour, giving you
doughnuts at those meetings."
"We make an O.K. wage," Richardson says.
"At least we have a wage. Some people around town don't even have
"Some people don't, but some have more. How much
do you think you're worth?" Bunuan asks, then she tells Richardson
about the last big campaign she worked on, at the Sanderson Farms
chicken plant in Hazelhurst, Miss., where the union won and wages
increased by 30 cents an hour. What she doesn't tell her is how close
that election was -- a vote of 223 to 195, a margin of 28 votes, meaning
that 14 votes the other way could have brought defeat. And she certainly
doesn't tell her that the memory of that near loss is responsible for
today's frantic house-calling pace.
"If the union comes in, it's fine with me, and
if it doesn't come in, it's fine with me," Richardson says, showing
Griffin and Bunuan to the door.
Bunuan moved her from a "three" to a
The American Legion Post N. 201 of Yazoo City was
founded in 1961, and the building looks as if it has not been painted
since then. There are handwritten signs on the walls, so faded as to be
almost unreadable, that say, "Please No Profanity" and Please
Respect Our Ladies." At the front of the room there is another
sign, place there minutes ago by Bunuan, who is setting up for this
afternoon's rally. This sign says, "Last Meeting Before
Around her, the room is filling up with workers
arriving straight from the plant and talking about the company's
Thanksgiving meal: turkey, ham, stuffing, yams, rolls, apple strudel
and, someone says, "a cake that said something about how they'll
kick our [expletive]." The original cake, Bunuan knows, is wrapped
in packing tape and hidden in the Comfort Inn's refrigerator.
Apparently, custom-order cakes are easy to replace at the Sunflower
"Linnie Williams is not at this rally; Bunuan
had quietly hoped that she would be, that maybe she would truly come
around, despite her brothers' warnings. Of the workers who are here,
some have not come back from the job, because they have no job left to
come from. They have been fired since the union campaign began. By
Bunuan's count 11 people have been dismissed and 5 people have been
demoted in the two months since she arrived. Yazoo Industries' lawyer,
Sid Lewis, says the "actions in question had nothing to do with the
union activities of the employees, if any, and were all due to other
circumstances," but Bunuan believes otherwise.
Firings are a common event during union drives.
Academic studies estimate that they occur in one out of every four
campaigns. Federal law prohibits companies from terminating workers in
retaliation, but since appeals of such dismissals can take years and the
only penalty a company faces is reinstatement of the employee with back
pay, it is a law with few teeth. "A few well-placed firings, even
if they're illegal, can stop a union campaign in its tracks," says
Patricia A. Greenfield, director of the Labor Relations and Research
Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
It was during the chicken plant campaign in
Hazelhurst that Bunuan saw her first workers fired. She was devastated.
Her boss, Panepinto, was on that campaign, too, and he offered her his
way of coping with the firings. "I feel bad, but I don't feel
guilty," he said. "Because I didn't do it. I've never fired a
worker in my entire life. Companies fire people. And if you're on an
organizing campaign and someone is discharged for trying to exercise
their rights and to make something better, that was management that did
"If you get distracted on dealing with the
terminations, it takes away from the campaign. The best way to get that
person's job back is to win the election and then bargain that person's
Bunuan's emotional armor, new and fragile as it was,
was tested a year later, here in Yazoo City when the first firings in
this campaign began. Organizers advise all their supporters to stick
scrupulously to plant rules, to make it difficult for the company to
find a pretext on which to fire them, but there are always lapses.
Mary Henderson, for instance, a 28-year-old employee
with one year's tenure, was distributing handbills at the gate one
Monday morning until 6:50 A.M., then she left the leaflet line and
clocked in at the plant. She looked in her handbag for her protective
wraparound glasses she says, and when she saw they were missing, she
went out to her car, found them and came back within minutes. Her
supervisor, she says, was waiting.
"They said, 'I got you now,'" Henderson
says, speaking so quietly she can barely be heard. "They said:
'You're fired. Your work here is done. You clocked in and then left.'
But I did the same thing before, many times. Everyone had done it. I
wasn't even late. My record is clean. I always bring an excuse, and I
have never had a write-up. The only thing I did was be involved with the
"As the list of dismissals grew, Bunuan turned
once again to Panepinto, who told her a story that had been told to him
by a friend, an organizer who had been teacher in el Salvador. Sometimes
she would teach rural peasants to read and write, she said, and then
government soldiers would come after she had gone and kill some of those
newly educated villagers. "She said: 'I felt bad about that, but we
had to do it. We had to teach people what their rights were and had to
help them to improve their conditions.' That statement crystallized it
for me. It's a small price to pay when people are trying to better
Bunuan took that story and repeated it to Lowenberg
and Tusiani when they left their own levels of guilt at encouraging
workers to be visible in their support even if it increased the chances
that they would be fired. But although she delivered the same message in
many of the same words, she feared they did not have the same impact.
She was not even sure she believed them herself. Earlier in this
campaign, Lowenberg knocked on the door of a young female worker, but
the woman's mother answered and would not let Lowenberg in. "where
will you be when this is all over?' the mother demanded of Lowenberg
"You want her to stick her neck out, but how about you? When this
is all over, you'll still have a job. Do you think about that?"
Bunuan certainly does, but she tries not to now, even
as she sees some of the fired workers take their seats among the crowd
of 75 people in the American Legion hall. Instead, she picks up the
microphones and tries to project only confidence.
"Let's ask y'all are we gonna win
tomorrow?" she says.
"I can't hear you."
"Y'all are better people for going through what
you have the past few months," she says. "I just want to give
y'all a hand for that."
The she asks if any of the workers have any things to
"We'll all black," says Ben Sims, who has
been at Yazoo Industries for two years and who has been so affected by
his experience that he has approached Bunuan about become a full-time
organizer himself. "We all been slaves. Remember Dr. Martin Luther
King. Remember Malcolm X. And remember, you are black and you are not a
The rally ends with a prayer, given not by Bunuan but
by another worker. "Our heavenly father, " she says -- to
shout of "Say it sister!" and "Amen!" -- "we
are here to try to get a union. To try to better ourselves from our hell
hole out there. Touch all who are in doubt, Jesus. It's union time.
Bunuan feels the collective weight of every
historical trend against the union as she and Ben Sims drive around
Yazoo City looking for Shondra Garner. It is the night before the vote
and they are running out of time.
Bunuan has been hearing secondhand hints of what
Garner is thinking, but what she hears does not make her understand.
"She says the union lies," Sharon Cole, a friend of Garner's
and a union supporter, tells Bunuan "She says the union said they
got a wage increase of $4 an hour at another plant, but it was only 30
Bunuan does not believe that any union representative
ever said anything about a $4-an-hour raise.
"She says she was fooled but now a few people
she knows told her about the unions and how they really are," says
Sims, who talked to Garner at work earlier in the say, at Bunuan's
urging. "She says her friends say the union went and lied."
Bunuan feels helpless in the face of these nameless
friends. She has to find Garner and somehow win her back.
They stop first at the public housing project on
Woolwine, a collection of drab, unwelcoming single-story bungalows
directly across the street from the Yazoo Industries plant. This is
where they think Garner's mother lives. But there is no sign of
Shondra's maroon '83 Camry, so they drive over to Battle Street, an
equally grim neighborhood, where Garner once lived and can sometimes be
found. The car is not there, either, but Bunuan and Sims walk to the
door of the darkened apartment and pound loudly. "if she's asleep,
let's wake her up," Bunuan says. No one answers.
Next is magnolia, at another housing project. This is
the address Garner uses, but she never seems to be there. Bunuan drives
slowly past the house. The Camry is parked near the back of the
building, in the shadows. She starts to back up, and as she does she
sees a face at the window. Bunuan is sure it's Garner, but when she and
Sims knock on the door, it is her sister who answers, "She's not
here," she says, when asked about Garner. "I don't know where
she is. She's not coming back here tonight. I can't get her no
The mystery of Shondra Garner is the mystery of many
workers Bunuan meets on the campaign. Bunuan would never know for
certain what changed Garner's mind, just as she would never really know
what arguments reached, or failed to reach, each of the hundreds of
other workers she has met in Yazoo City. As much talking and listening
as the organizers do, they can only guess at what is going on in each
worker's head. Even as they calibrate the "twos' and the
'fours" they know that some people are lying outright and that
others are agreeing with them only for the moment, because it is easier
than arguing. Even though they describe the workers as
"frightened" or "angry" or "confused,"
they cannot feel that fear, anger or confusion themselves. With their
rental cars and expense accounts, the organizers can't completely
understand the details and decisions of the workers' lives.
As if by way of illustration, Bunuan yawns with
exhaustion as she drives away from Shondra's sister house call.
"Tired?' Sims asks.
"Tired," Bunuan says, waiting for sympathy.
Sims laughs instead.
"You're always laughing at jokes I didn't know I
was making," she says.
"You say you're tired," Sims says, kindly
but matter-of-factly. "You be tired, and I be the one running
behind the line all day."
Later at the Comfort Inn, Bunuan arrives to find that
Panepinto has just done a new tally of the wall, and his estimate is
that the union will win by a vote of 153 to 140, meaning that if the
house callers guessed wrong, and seven people they ranked as
"twos" are really "fours" then the union will lose.
"Our goal was to move five people today,"
Bunuan says. "If we did that, we'd be very comfortable."
"Very comfortable," Panepinto warns,
"is an extreme statement."
"O.K. We'd be comfortable."
"We're never comfortable. If you get
comfortable, you get lazy."
"Five votes and we win," Bunuan offers.
"We'd have a shot at winning," Panepinto
They leave the hotel at midnight for the night-shift
rally, which is very different from the day-shift version earlier in the
afternoon. From the first weeks of the campaign, the organizers have met
with hostility from the night shift, which was not involved in the
walkout and shows little sympathy for the union. It is half the size of
the day shift, and more tightly knit, and the organizers feel they never
found a way to burrow in and grab hold.
Few workers from the night shift have come to the
weekly union meetings held just for them at 12:30 in the morning. As a
result, the organizers had few nigh-shift workers to take along on house
calls to smooth the way with other night-shift workers. Their hostility
puzzles Bunuan, because Yazoo Industries does not pay night
differential, meaning the workers would be very likely to feel underpaid
and angry, but house calls have showed they do not. Bunuan has
essentially given up on the night shift, but she is still surprised when
only seven people come to this last midnight rally, a showing so
depressing that Bunuan worries that it will scare off some of those who
actually showed up.
"She ends things quickly and returns to the
hotel to give final instruction to Lowenberg and Tusiani. They are about
to drive one hour south to Jackson, tot he nearest Kinko's Copy shop,
where they will spend the rest of the night producing the leaflet they
will hand out at the factory gate the next morning, the last leaflet
before the vote. Bunuan stays behind, supposedly to get some rest. She
knows she should be sleeping. But she can't stop staring at the Post-Its
on the wall.
It does not rain on the morning of the vote, but it
is foggy and freezing. Two union organizers crawl across the lawn to
sneak a pro-union bumper sticker onto the plant manager's car, and they
return soaked with dew. The freshly
spray-painted bed sheets that say, "What Are You
worth?" and "You Deserve Better" are fluttering slightly,
not from any breeze but because the volunteers who hold them are
trembling in the cold.
Despite the fact that her teeth are chattering as the
paces outside the plant at 5:50 A.M., Bunuan refuses to put a jacket
over her red "Union, Yes!" T-shirt. If she did, then everyone
else would, too, and she has spent days pleading with workers to wear
those shirts this morning as a final demonstration of support. She
clings to the hope that the T-shirts, and the solidarity they stand for,
might be the last word in the debate for one or two workers, the thing
that sticks in their minds and maybe changes them. She would rather
freeze for an hour this morning than kick herself for weeks afterward.
She is losing her voice, but she raises what is left
of it to lead the group of organizers and workers in a determined chant:
"What time is it?" "Union time." "What time is
it?" Union time." The line of cars, headlights on in the
predawn mist, grows longer, and she stops each one to hand out a flier.
"Ya gonna come on out and help us leaflet, now?" she asks
every driver in a red T-shirt. Many of them do, and soon there are more
than 50 people hollering and celebrating at the Yazoo Industries gate.
Linnie Williams drives in, wearing a white T-shirt,
and for a moment, Bunuan feels even more of a chill. Williams clearly
has not changed her mind after all. What Bunuan could not know is that
Williams never came close to changing her mind. "I told them what
they wanted to hear," she would say later about her hot-and-cold
behavior. "I said, 'Yeah, I'm gonna join the union,' because then I
don't have to be bothered by them anymore."
It is the first morning in a long time that there are
no counter-chants coming from the steps of the plant. All week, about a
dozen workers in anti-union shirts have been in front of the factory
when the organizers arrive, dancing and shouting things with a far
better beat than the ones favored by the pro-union group: "pork
chop, pork chop, greasy, greasy. We'll beat the union, easy, easy."
The day before the vote, they had even worn cheerleader skirts and
carried pompons. "Go back," they yelled, 'go back. Go back to
the woods. We don't need no union and we know you're no good." They
drove Bunuan crazy.
But this morning, possibly because of Federal
regulations limited the company's campaign in the hours before the
election, they are not there. The only shouts, the only jolts of energy,
all come from the union. There are more red T-shirts than Bunuan had
expected, and more people distributing leaflets. For the first time, she
truly believes her side will win.
"At 6:50, the workers leave the line and walk
toward the factory to clock in. It is the moment Bunuan always hates, as
she watches them turn from "empowered grown-ups, my equals"
into "drones at the whim of some boss." A few workers,
including Griffin, have taken the day off and stay with the organizers,
but the enthusiasm of moments earlier is gone. They are all about to
leave, when at 6:59, Shondra Garner in her Camry comes barreling past,
not stopping to take a leaflet, and not looking at Bunuan. She beeps the
thinning crowd out of the way and drives on through.
The voting begins at 12:30 P.M., and only the N.L.R.B.
representative and two workers chosen as observers are allowed in the
room where the ballots are being marked. The organizers fill the hours
with superstition and last-minute details. They send an anonymous fax to
the company that simply says, "D.O.G.," which stands for
"Death or Glory," and which Laborer's International organizers
have faxed to companies since there were fax machines, although no one
seems to know why. They send Tusiani to the Sunflower market with an
intern to tell the bakery that only the intern can pick up the union's
victory cake later that day. They field calls from workers inside the
plant who tell them which "twos" are absent; they find those
workers and drive them to vote. They also give rides to those fired
during the campaign, whose votes will be sealed in separate envelopes
and counted only if the union wins an appeal of their dismissal.
At 3:30, they go back to the plant to leaflet the
night shift. It is a sobering experience. Almost no one is wearing the
union's shirts, and only one worker joins the leaflet line. Bunuan's
voice is completely gone, and Griffin takes up the chants. Bunuan is
pleased with the symbolism -- the workers taking on the role of leaders
-- but there simply aren't enough people to make any significant noise.
Things improve a bit as the day-shift workers come out and join the
chant, and someone pulls a car onto a grassy area near the leafletters,
opens the doors and turns up the volume on the radio so everyone can
dance. But almost immediately, an anti-union group forms on the steps
and all but drowns out that effort. Few cars, if any, are stopping for
leaflets. Panepinto says leadenly: "It's over. We're going to lose.
Bunuan refuses to accept his pessimism. "I still
think we're going to do it," she says. "This morning's vote is
locked in. These nigh-shift folks don't change that. These people now
are people we never counted on. It feels bad, but we knew this was
coming. It doesn't change how great it felt this morning."
"There are more highs and lows in a day in this
job than most people get in a career," Panepinto says, not
convinced but seeing no purpose in a debate.
The vote begins at 4;15 P.M., and ends at 5:30, just
after the sun sets. As Bunuan and Panepinto march up the steps and into
the plant, a group of pro-union workers prays in the parking lot.
"Don't let them come back here in the dark with nothing,
Lord," someone says.
The organizers are led by the company's lawyer into
the plant's lunchroom, where the N.L.R.B. representative stands behind a
table, on top of which is a cardboard box. About two dozen plant
managers, in white anti-union shirts, are in a semicircle around the
table. Bunuan and Panepinto walk past them, saying nothing, and stand at
the front of the group. The representative explains the voting
procedure, makes a list of the votes that the union or the company plans
to challenge and opens the box. As he reads the votes, the two observers
-- one worker chosen by the company, one by the union -- record them on
paper. Linnie Williams is the observer chosen to represent the company.
The union is behind from the start and never pulls
ahead. The final vote is 160 against, 146 for, a difference of 14 votes.
The numbers do not include the 15 challenged votes still sealed in
envelopes, meaning that technically, this is still a contested election
and not a loss for the union. But since only 13 of those votes, by
Bunuan's count, are expected to be pro-union, a union victory is not
very likely. Someone runs to the lunchroom door to shout the news to the
workers on the line, and moments later there is pandemonium as more than
100 people leave their stations and run, screaming wildly, toward the
front of the factory. Bunuan and Panepinto get caught in the crowd and
cannot reach their troops who stand on the other side of the parking
lot, waiting for news. But the pro-union workers don't really need their
leaders to tell them what happened. The realization dawns as dozens of
people in white shirts stream onto the factory steps and begin to dance.
Bunuan spends the rest of the evening at the American
legion hall, consoling the workers, taking statements that could be used
to challenge the company's conduct and therefore overturn the election,
and promising to return to Yazoo City for another vote as soon as
N.L.R.B. rules allow. Eventually, the crowd goes home, and Bunuan does,
too, or more accurately, to the hotel room that has come to pass for
home. "We fought a good fight," Panepinto tells her, "but
you can's pull the lever for people. You can't step in the box for
They have planes to catch in the morning (a brief stay at home, then
back to Mississippi to organize some chicken plants), and they have a
lot to pack, but first, there is one thing left to do. They go to the
hotel refrigerator, remove the purloined cake and carry it back to the
union office. There, using a plastic knife from a fast-food restaurant,
they hack the cake into bits.
Source: The New York Times Magazine (January 21, 1996)
posted 24 July 2008
* * *
* * *
Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in
By Melissa V.
According to the
author, this society has historically exerted
considerable pressure on black females to fit into one
of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the
Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless
Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to
white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of
those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the
relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable
temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as
an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the
characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television
shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
points out how the propagation of these harmful myths
have served the mainstream culture well. For instance,
the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for
black females to feel a maternal instinct towards
As for the source
of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their
own bodies during slavery given that they were being
auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless,
it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate
the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate
* * * * *
Salvage the Bones
A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
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Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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update 16 February 2012