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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John Russell, July 19, 1975. Interview E-0014-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Organizing North Carolina poultry workers under Amalgamated Meat Cutters

Russell offers an overview of strategies and tactics used to organize poultry workers throughout various locations in North Carolina following the merger between the Fur and Leather Workers and Amalgamated. In particular, he focuses on organizational struggles and describes how they organized poultry workers in bigger companies as well as in small, independently run companies.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with John Russell, July 19, 1975. Interview E-0014-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

WILLIAM FINGER:
So from fifty-five to sixty-one, you built those six locals.
JOHN RUSSELL:
Yah, and I guess when we first came, when the merger took place between the Amalgamated and the Fur and Leather Workers in this state, I mean in the nation, in this state they had thirty-five people, and that was in Swift Oil down in Charlotte, North Carolina, that was all they had. We built the other ones, and this was the beginning of our organizational work, and in that period of time we had some fantastic struggles. Organizational struggles, for instance, we had an NLRB election against Watson in 1956 …
WILLIAM FINGER:
That's Watson poultry?
JOHN RUSSELL:
Watson Seafood and Poultry. We had one a couple of years later. We had another campaign another few years later than that, and finally in either sixty-one or sixty-two. These were the beginning where we had to make it very clear to the employers that we're going to organize the plants one way or the other. The same thing with Jesse Jones, the same thing with the Farmers Exchange, which is now Goldkist in Durham, a very solid group. And in many others, A&P all the way down the line. It became a question of establishing the fact that we were going to organize their people come hell or high water.
WILLIAM FINGER:
How did you establish that with someone as big as A&P? These other ones are small independent ones compared to A&P.
JOHN RUSSELL:
The same way we do with these other ones. I don't think it was any real difference in our approach. If we won an election, we laid down our own position. We said if you want to fight over checkoff or over arbitration, which in those days were the issues used to destroy unions even if you won elections. In other words, they wouldn't give you a checkoff, they wouldn't give you arbitration, and they would let you just set there and die a natural death. They've done the same things with textiles recently …
WILLIAM FINGER:
They still do that now.
JOHN RUSSELL:
Right, they still do it too. We took a position though, that if we win your place, we don't give a god damn if you offer the highest wage rates in the world, we're going to keep our sites high enough that we're going to take you on over checkoffs and arbitration, and you're going to pay. If you lick us, you're going to bleed too, until you're sick and tired of the battle. And that was our position then. We went eighteen months in a fight with Southeastern.
WILLIAM FINGER:
Southeastern?
JOHN RUSSELL:
Southeastern Poultry in Charlotte. We went six months with the Carriker Poultry which preceded that, in the same plant, over the same issues even. We fought that, and B&B Poultry up in Burlington, North Carolina. And finally, Rose Hill, we went four years down in Rose Hill, North Carolina.
WILLIAM FINGER:
Four years people were out on strike?
JOHN RUSSELL:
Four years we had picket lines in front of the place. I don't say it was an effective strike, it was a boycott, picket line operation, you know? But they bled too. In fact there were many times in that long four years that they were in the process of trying to make peace with us.
WILLIAM FINGER:
When were those four years in Rose Hill?
JOHN RUSSELL:
That was in, it must have been about sixty-five, sixty-six, give or take a year or two either way.
WILLIAM FINGER:
People that went out were still there four years later?
JOHN RUSSELL:
We had a picket line, that's about all you can say. They could get scabs in any place, you understand, and those places was no exception. But we had struggles against them, we carried on consumer picketing. We picketed Colonial Stores, we picketed the A&P stores, we put out out hundreds and hundreds of thousands of leaflets as well as creating problems for them in these places. Until the time came that it was an accepted fact, in our area at least, that we were not going to buy a contract that did not have a checkoff, that didn't have arbitration. We were not going to buy a contract that did not at least take care of the minimum needs of the workers in terms of money. It took a long time, because we were dealing with the worst rednecks in industry in the South at that time. Many of these towns used to get some group, a little group of people who could put up forty or fifty thousand dollars combined, and go to the small businessmen's organization in Washington and pick up another hundred and fifty thousand bucks, and put up a poultry plant, in order to get a payroll in town. The result was, of course, that we had all these problems to deal with. Fortunately our history is evolving and history is going to show that we drove out many of these small, cheap independents who would have hung on paying minimum wages or less.