Date: Tue, 18 Nov 97 16:37:27 CST
From: Workers World <>
Organization: WW Publishers
Subject: Two women, two fighters, two fronts
Article: 22198

Two women, two fighters, two fronts

By Bob McCubbin, Workers World, 20 November 1997

San Diego—Sarah White proudly proclaimed, Our victory was the biggest victory Black workers have ever experienced in the Delta. White is a Mississippi catfish worker organizer.

Elvia Alvarado, a Honduran peasant organizer, explained, We are fighting for a society where men and women have the same rights.

These two dynamic and farsighted leaders, each fighting on different fronts in the class struggle, provided fascinating accounts of their battles at a recent San Diego meeting organized by the Support Committee for Maquiladora Workers.

Sarah White explained that when the Delta Pride catfish processing plant opened in Indianola, Miss., in 1981, local African-American women were excited about the prospects of getting a job there. It was a chance to put the welfare lines behind them. A chance to escape from lives lived on the edge of poverty.

The work, though, was terribly difficult. The workers beheaded, gutted, skinned and cleaned catfish in 12- and 13- hour shifts. They weren’t given time to wash off blood spattered on their faces. The bathrooms didn’t have doors, and the male supervisors would come in and say, Come on! Let’s go!

Although many women developed carpal tunnel syndrome, the company refused to provide medical benefits. Women who took off work to see a doctor were fired.

Sometimes there were no fish to process for hours and we had to sit there and wait, White explained. We weren’t paid for this time, but if we left, we were fired.

‘We can change any unjust system!’

White recalled, We knew about Martin Luther King and Fanny Lou Hamer and what they had done, but at first we didn’t connect it to unions.

But in 1987, when a co-worker approached White with the idea of organizing a union, she immediately agreed to help. They got the other workers to sign cards, won union recognition and negotiated a contract. They won job security, wage increases and, most importantly, medical coverage.

But the struggle wasn’t over. The contract specified bathroom privileges. But later the owners said they’d only allow five minutes six times a week. During contract negotiations in 1990, the bosses demanded workers only use the bathroom during lunch breaks.

As a result, the workers struck for three months. When the company brought in scabs, caravans of supporters from all over the country arrived to stand with the workers on the picket line.

We told everyone that we were striking to let the owners know that the plantation mentality had to go, White said.

As a result of the struggle, In 1996 my local, UFCW Local 1529, helped organize nearly every major catfish plant in the area, more than 5,000 workers. We did all this despite the right-to-work laws, high unemployment and propaganda from TV, the newspapers and the government.

I’m here to tell you that 11 years ago we were oppressed, humiliated and degraded. Today we are proud, Black, beautiful women who will never tolerate that type of abuse again, White concluded.

It took women in action to change that workplace, and if enough of us get together, we can change any unjust system.


For 25 years Elvia Alvarado has been at the forefront of human rights and land-reform struggles in Honduras, the poorest country in Central America. She is the author of the best-selling book Don’t Be Afraid, Gringo, which highlights the U.S. role in the exploitation and oppression of the people of Honduras.

Speaking in Spanish with translation, Alvarado described how the land has been taken over by U.S. companies for banana plantations, seized by rich Hondurans and confiscated for use by U.S. military bases.

Agricultural products grown on the big plantations are exported. The profits go to the rich of Honduras and the U.S. The peasants have been forced into the mountains, where the land is least productive and there are no roads, health facilities or schools.

Alvarado condemned the austerity policy, known in Latin America as neoliberalism, that U.S. imperialism is forcing on Honduras. As a result, the military budget has gone up while money for social services has disappeared.

The Pentagon military base at Palmer ola trains U.S. soldiers for wars abroad and trains Honduran soldiers to threat en and harass the peasants. Alvarado asked, What is the Palmerola base doing in Honduras? We’re not at war. We don’t need arms. We can’t eat bullets.


Alvarado said that young Honduran women aged 14 to 20 who work in the foreign sweatshops established in Honduras in the last five years are dying of lung diseases because of the bad air.

In some maquiladoras women are actually forced to wear cloths over their mouths to prevent them from speaking. Unions are prohibited.

One of Alvarado’s daughters who tried to organize a union in a maquil adora was fired without compensation, although she had developed asthma and sinusitis.

Alvarado concluded, Our value as women and as mothers is not acknow ledged. Women are treated as objects or servants. We are always discriminated against. This is why we as women have sought to organize and we feel we should incorporate men into our struggle for social transformation. Their resistance to equality for women must be overcome.

Capitalism wants us divided so we will be weak. Out with capitalism!