As both a gracious Southerner and a professional poultry venter -- someone who knifes open the stomachs of chickens to remove the entrails -- Gloria Jordan of Laurel, Miss., respects the sensibilities of her Northern listeners.
This black woman, the mother of three, is intelligent and on fire with a sense of social justice. She is talking about her past labors at the Sanderson chicken processing plant in Laurel. She begins with the less gruesome tales first. There is "line hypnosis," the dizziness and fatigue caused by 68 beheaded carcasses passing by every minute. Then there is "blood caking," a stiffening of the venters' aprons from the encrusted blood that gathers.
If your stomach can take that, Jordan tells you about the heat, and how, amid the spilled chicken guts, malodorous gas rises from the abruptly gashed stomachs and the workers breathe it in.
These were some of the complaints that led Jordan and some 200 other workers -- mostly black women -- to strike Sanderson 15 months ago.That this plant remains open and the company can draw on a labor pool that includes friends and relatives of the picketers is indicative of what one national labor leader calls "a new spirit of assault against unions in the South."
The climate for employers was already balmy. Compared with Northern work sites, wages in the South have always been lower and the percentage of union shops smaller. But a new boldness exists now.
"The strike is not a union weapon anymore," says Chris Marston, a labor official in Mobile, Ala. "It's so easy to come up with workers now, because the economy is so bad. In many places, the strike is almost a management weapon. It gets rid of the so-called agitators and brings in the docile workers."
In Congress, the current push to pass legislation that would weaken an already mild Occupational Safety and Health Administration provides Southern comfort for managements that have been regularly breaking or ignoring health and safety laws. "People are getting maimed and hurt," reports Jim Sessions, a staff member of Southerners for Economic Justic, a Knoxville, Tenn., group. "It's the old routine: less protection for the workers and more production for the owners. People can't afford to lose their jobs, so they stay and risk losing their lives and limbs."
State development councils, chambers of commerce and local politicans have been successful in getting Northern firms to relocate in Dixie and enjoying its soothing "union free environment." A company has to be flagrantly hostile to unions before its practices are criticized. In March, a group of Southern Catholic bishops, in a daring move, endorsed the national boycott of J. P. Stevens Co., the textile firm with more than 75 mills in the South.
Not only did the bishops' endorsement break with the traditional unconcern of Bible Belt religion to Southern business ethics, it also angered large numbers of Catholics in management positions. This antilabor labor faction struck back at the collection plate. The National Catholic Reporter noted that, following the bishops' statement, contributions from one prosperous North Carolina church to the hierachy's annual fund-raising drive dropped from $33,000 to $25,000.
This form of retaliation is in keeping with other sophisticated antilabor tactics. Instead of goons being brought in to do the bidding of owners, labor-management consultants are the new breed of union-busters. Some 300 firms, according to an AFL-CIO official, "are now in this field. They take control not just of the campaign against the union, but they tell individual supervisors what to do.They tell the supervisors how to spy, how to coerce, hot to interrogate. This is a totally new kind of service, and it's widespread."
In all, the purpose is not to break the heads of workers like Gloria Jordan. Just break their spirits. Throughout the South, the effect is the same: unaccountable managements.