Justice  /  Vignette

Black Women, Sanderson Farms, and the Strike for Better Conditions

Derrion Arrington explains the strike against Sanderson Farms in Laurel, Mississippi.

“Try Miss Goldy Chickens, and try a little tenderness”,” chorused an advertisement jingle for Sanderson Farm Inc., a poultry integrator headquartered in Laurel, Mississippi. The tenderness symbolized the hundreds of chickens being scalded and pushed down the assembly line for processing. The work on the line was bemired and dangerous. The birds were killed and hung on conveyer racks. The workforce—mostly black women—made plant operations possible. But what the women described as “15th century working conditions”, led to 22 months of boycotting and labor unrest.   

Since the first strike of unionized workers in 1972—organized by the leadership of the International Chemical Workers Union (ICWU) Local 882—conditions never improved. Workers accused the owner, Joe Sanderson Jr., of running the plant “like a slave plantation.” The entirety of the foreman and supervisors were white men—including Charles Noble, former Klansman who was acquitted of the murder of Hattiesburg civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer.— Qualified women with seniority were being overpassed by male workers who needed extensive training to execute the job. Moreover, workers were only allowed to use the restroom three times a week, were sent back home if they were even a minute late, made only $2.95 an hour, and white supervisors would attempt to cajole the workers with sexual advances. With the workforce segregated, the most dangerous jobs were located in the front of the plant and worked primarily by Black people. Workers would end their shifts covered in feathers with cuts up their arms from the beaks of the chickens and sheeted in gore that spurred them with rashes down their necks and arms. However, the women didn’t view Sanderson’s segregationist attitudes as a slight to the black workforce. “Lil’ Massa Joe didn’t treat nobody different, no matter you black or white,” said Mary Newell, a Black poultry worker of twelve years. “He treated all of us worse than he treated his chickens.”