The joke making the rounds in this southeastern Mississippi town is that Sanderson Farms has done more for racial equality than a peck of federal civil rights laws.

"Ever'body who worked there was treated like a nigger." said Mary Newell, a black who worked at Sanderson for 12 years. Now she is on strike against the poultry processing plant.

"Lil' Massa Joe didn't treat nobody different, no matter you black or white. He treated all of us worse than he treated his chickens," Newell said of her boss, Joe Frank Sanderson Jr., the grandson of the company's founder.

The strike at Sanderson Farms is one of the number of bitter labor-management battles taking place in the rapidly industrializing South as unions, and unions in the making, struggle for a share of the region's new wealth.

In a way, labor unions trying to organize the South have picked up where the civil rights movement left off -- but the economic struggle for low-wage blacks and whites is much more difficult and frustrating. Whether it is textile workers in the Carolinas or chicken processors in Mississippi, the South's antiunion tradition and the continuing surplus of willing workers ready to fill jobs in the midst of strike make for slow change. w

In Laurel, a town of 25,000 in the least unionized area in the state, the strike at Sanderson has gone on since February. It has cost the International Chemical Workers Union $130,000, but the plant continues to churn out thousands of chickens every day, plucked and cleaned and packaged by hundreds of workers who filled the striker's jobs.

"Nobody likes a strike," said Owen L. Neathery, president of the Laurel Chamber of Commerce, but this one hasn't caused a great problem except to the people involved in it."

Robert Chinn, an ICWU organizer and civil rights veteran on loan to the strike committee, reluctantly agrees.

"What people have got to remember is that when they go on strike, they have declared war on the man," Chinn said. "Only the strong survive any war so you've got to have your s--- together when you declare. In this case, we didn't."

The union has represented Sanderson's Laurel workers since 1972, when it won a hard-fought battle with Joe Frank (Big Joe) Sanderson Sr. to set up shop in the plant.

But, as Chinn indicated, the local union was always weak.

The strike centered mainly on non-economic complaints -- of the dizzying work pace on the production line, of a hypnotically endless stream of chicken carcasses, of charges of sexual harrassment by male foremen and of company rules declaring, among other things, that employes could go to the restroom no more than three times a week during nonbreak hours.

"People just got tired of being treated like dogs," said 23-year-old Mary Jones, who has found other work and quit the union.

About 80 of the factory's workers -- most of whom are black women getting $2.95 an hour -- refused to join the walkout. Of the 211 who did strike, only 80 or so are still actively supporting it. Twelve of these are white, the rest are black.

For the strikers, one of the perverse twists is that more whites have gone to work in the Sanderson plant as a result of the walkout. But they do not see any racism in this. Said striker Katherine Collins, "Hell, honey, lil' Joe's just grabbing up anybody he can get to pluck his damn chickens."

Sanderson, who twice refused to discuss the employe complaints, referred questions to the company attorney, Andrew Partee, a New Orleans lawyer who firm is frequently retained in union-organizing struggles.

Partee said that "high fluctuations in attendance" had led the company foremen to monitor trips to the to restroom but negotiations with the union have ended that practice. Partee acknowledged that "disrespectful language and certain kinds of jokes had been problem in the past," but said management has curbed that behavior. While several strikers described sexual advances by foremen, the company's lawyer said he had never heard that complaint.

"A lot of the women had it made," said striker Mabel Ingle, "because they were going with the foremen."

Gloria Jordan, vice president of the union local, described the harassment: "Some of the foremen would come up to you and rub you and hug you and everything. It happened to me a lot. When I'd say, 'No, stop it,' they would say: 'Aw, Gloria, you know you want to do it. You just trying to be hard.'"

The work itself is hard enough in the Sanderson Farms plant, according to workers and ex-workers. Sanderson's three plants in Mississippi and Louisana turn-out 180,000 chickens daily, though production at Laurel is down about 20,000 because of the strike, according to a Chamber of Commerce estimate.

Live chickens move from crates to revolving hooks at the rate of 140 a minute. A "killer machine" slits the throats, then the beheaded carcasses are cooled, plucked and washed. The chickens are then "vented" to remove entrails and packed.

Line workers complain of dizziness and fainting spelss, induced by watching the stream of chickens and chicken parts. Federal Department of Agriculture inspectors have complained to their own union, the American Federation of Government Employes, about "line hypnois." The federal occupational safety officials have also cited the plant for a number of health and safety violations, including excessive noise. Partee, the company lawyer, said the noise problem has been corrected.

In any case, the union is not preparing to quit, despite its sinking strength among the workers. ICW President Frank Martino has styled the Sanderson Farms strike as "a fight for the soul of our union." The national AFL-CIO has called for a boycott of Sanderson products.

The explanations vary as to how the chemical workers union wound up representing chicken processors who have little to do with chemicals. The most common version is that the ICWU was one of the few major unions to take a chance on organizing people from poor and rural homes, with little education and no experience at union organizing.

Bob Kasen, ICWU spokesman, said: "We've believed for some time that we ought to be functioning with people who get banged around the most -- blacks and women."

When the national union pours in support money, strikers without jobs try to scrape by on strike benefits ranging from $15 to $35 a week. In the old spirit of the movement, the black workers also received help from local black churches -- but barely enough to keep the body going and not enough, they say, to sustain the spirit.

"The ministers came out to the picket lines when the cameras were there," said local union official Ellen Chinn. "But when we asked for some sort of solid, hard support, all we got were promises."

The Rev. J. T. Hall, president of the Baptist Conference of Laurel, insists the complaints against the black churches are unfair.

"We tried to do what we could," Hall said. "We've asked our members not to buy Mr. Sanderson's chicken and not to cross the picket line to work in his plant. But Mr. Sanderson had found ways to get a lot of our people into the plant. He's even gone out and brought them in with trucks. I don't know how we can stop him from doing that.'

Indeed, there are plenty of workers white and black, who will grab a $2.95-an-hour job in Laurel. Lawrence Goodwyn, a history professor at Duke University who has specialized in southern populist movements, said this is the classic strike-breaking pattern -- "if the strike is by blacks, you hire whites. If it's by whites, you hire blacks."

In this part of Mississippi, the question is not so much white or black but poor. Some of the people who have answered Sanderson's employment ads are relatives and friends of people on the picket line.

"You just hurt, hurt, hurt to see it," said Jordan, the local vice president, "They're using people from out in the rural areas. They're getting in a lot of blacks and they're pulling in some poor white people from as far away as western Alabama to scab our strike."

Jordan believes taht work in the chicken factory is about as nasty as it always was, but still the plant finds plenty of workers.

"These people are so poor," she said. "They don't know much about unions and they just don't understand."