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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 >>

Successes and failures in organizing workers for Amalgamated

Russell discusses successes and failures in organizing workers in North Carolina under the Amalgamated Meat Cutters. Here, as elsewhere in the interview, Russell explains that the 1955 merger was somewhat limiting for the more radical activists of the former Fur and Leather Workers. Nevertheless, he argues that he almost always had the supported of Amalgamated in organizing workers and in determining whether or not strikes were necessary.

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:
When you started organizing and building this union from three hundred people on up to four thousand, did you feel isolated in North Carolina, or did you get good support from the amalgamated?
JOHN RUSSELL:
Yes, we got good support. I can't quarrel. I can't quarrel with the support we got, I don't say we got every kind of support we should have got. There were times we should have had strike sanction coming and we should have got it without any hindrances. We got it, but it was always a conditioned deal. Instead of saying, here's strike sanction for you people, now we've got enough respect for you, we know you and understand you, you go ahead and if you have to make the strike, you make the strike. I don't have that problem now. First of all, Don Smith is a guy who unequivocally says, okay you got a strike, here's my sanction. That, of course, is okayed by the international. I got it out of Leon in practically every place. Maybe it was because Leon didn't trust us old fur and leather wotkers any more than he did somebody else. But we always got it eventually out of him. We always got pretty good support out of Leon in many other ways too. I got to hand it to this guy, I may disagree with him politically, but god damn, he's a pretty good trade unionist.
WILLIAM FINGER:
So it doesn't ever sound like you felt hindered by the Amalgamated in a way.
JOHN RUSSELL:
No, I felt hindered, but you go ahead anyway. You take your chances of maybe doing something they'll go after you for. This is something you had to do. You had to take your chances.
WILLIAM FINGER:
How did you feel hindered?
JOHN RUSSELL:
You knew that if you made big mistakes that cost them money, they could easily make an argument, dump your butt, what you got? You ain't got no protection.
WILLIAM FINGER:
Your own job, you mean.
JOHN RUSSELL:
I'm not talking about that personal part of it. But they never bothered us. You felt it, but you go fight it. I guess everyone in their right mind has got to consider something like this.
WILLIAM FINGER:
But what was happening in the state? We talked about the international. Things that kind of influence your work. Anything outside the meatpacking industry? The strike, the textile strike in Henderson.
JOHN RUSSELL:
The textile workers strike in Henderson cotton mills, we supported it. Our local sent money, we sent people up there. We saw it as a very key strike in this state. We never, that was in 1958, even though we were individual locals, we always saw the inadequacy of having little locals trying to develop money, they couldn't do it. Maybe this is one of the things that helped shape our opinion on certain things. We helped all we could, all we had the force to do. There was no question of the impact on my thinking and a number of other guys, Manny about losing the battle in Harriet-Henderson cotton mills. This is one of those things. If you got a licking, you know why you got a licking, you know what's happening. At that time you had a merger with AFL-CIO for about four years. You'd hoped for a lot more, and you didn't see it. I don't think it broke any backs, it didn't ours at least. We got a licking there and went on and did our own thing.
WILLIAM FINGER:
It broke textile's back in a big way.
JOHN RUSSELL:
I'm not saying it didn't. It all depends. I'm sure all the money they spent, all the time, all the energy, losing it was a tremendous demoralizing factor for many many years. We lost tremendous struggles too. Our union in many other areas. You know here. But you don't say, what the hell, I'm going to fold up and quit working. You don't do that. I see that out of the Henderson Cotton Mill strike, the same thing we see out of a Rose Hill, or the same thing we saw out of a Southeastern, or the same thing we saw out of Carolina Meat, or the same thing we saw out of the Gerber strike, it was right here. We do a lot of things you don't count up in terms of money, you don't maybe even count it up in terms of what we get in the contract. You establish your credibility with every employer. When I wrote an article a couple of months ago in our paper, where we said, we want to tell all the employers, we're not a strike-happy union, we're not foolish. But if strikes are necessary, that's what we're going to do. I pointed out to them, that in 1973 or 1972, a couple of them, Colonial Stores, that thought they could just disregard the real, legitimate demands of the workers, and they had to face struggles. In seventy-five and seventy-six, we hope they'll take a realistic look. But if they don't, we'll consider seventy-five and seventy-six as strike years too. That's how we feel. We're not going to run away from it. If we're going to have struggles, we're going to have them, that's all there is to it. I don't know of any better way to educate workers than through struggles.
WILLIAM FINGER:
Do you think the people are willing to go with that too?
JOHN RUSSELL:
Oh, I think so.