History and the People Who Make It: Eddie Steele

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler

This is the twentieth in a continuing series of transcript excerpts from the collection of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida.

Eddie Steele was interviewed by Amanda Noll [N] and Paul Ortiz [O] in 2010.

S: I’m actually from Isola, Mississippi. I was born and raised here.

My father, he was a farmer. My mother, she work at the fish processing plant, until her health fail her, from [19]74 up into 1996. She was able to send kids to college. I also started working there in 1987, I was a production worker and I was promoted to personnel counselor.

All those years I desired to be a union rep, but I just been a rep now for going on two months, and I’m getting the hang of it, kinda enjoy it. I deal with the employees anyway, over six hundred employees been to personnel counseling. So same six hundred employees that I reprimanded, terminated, and suspended, I represent them now, against the company.

When it started out, there wasn’t a union at all. They got to pay the minimum wage, but, vacation, insurance, and even a 15-minute break, that’s at the discretion of the company. My mother started working there, she had no benefits. When she left, she had insurance, she had a pension plan that she drew from every month after her health failed her, so the union improved things a whole lot.

It’s still a constant struggle, not just to get something new, but to keep what you got. What’s going on now with the fish companies, and I guess corporate America, a lot of ’em using the economy as a way to hold back, but, they run the same amount of fish every day. [Laughter]

I think we got about eight thousand members. That’s the local 1529. Here in the Delta, we basically represent the fish plants, but we also represent the Kroger stores, and nursing homes.

The South got a lot of history, continue to have a history, of — we wouldn’t say slavery ’cause, that been abolished years ago, but we just say cheap labor with no benefits. Knowing that Mississippi is a right-to-work state, you really have nobody to speak up for you. Just say, if they decided, hey, that Eddie Steele, he making fifteen dollar an hour, he been here twenty year, well, we can let ol’ Eddie go. We can have somebody and pay them eight dollar an hour, and still get work done. That’s what exists in a right-to-work state.

They actually don’t have to give you a 15-minute break, if they don’t want to try to work and exist [laughter] in an environment like that. You all be looking over your shoulders ’cause your job don’t feel secure. So, the union help people to gain job security. They want to do away with the insurance, that’s one of the things for employees, insurance, vacation time.

Some of ’em got up to five week vacation, and some of the benefits exceed that of the federal government, and other big corporations, because they negotiated that. They get their birthday off, it’s a paid holiday; they get seven or eight holidays a year off. It’s not a set time to get off because, you running fish. When the last fish is processed, then you go home—but, see, there was a time when they would come in at eight o’clock and it’d be ten, eleven o’clock before they get off. They took advantage of, hey, we can work y’all from can to can’t.

The union and the members got together and decided, this is unfair. If you gonna work us after eight hours, you gonna pay us time and a half, on a five-day work week. They had to pay overtime after forty, because the federal government require that.

It’s probably about ninety-eight percent women working the catfish plant. Can you imagine a woman that got kids have to come in at 8 o’clock in the morning and stay ’til 9 or 10 o’clock at night, day after day after day? The fact is, management gone home. These women staying up, they missing they kids, making sure they kid get they homework, miss cooking and stuff. Now, since they pay time and a half, they done restructured all that.

It was [19]88, [19]89 when we had a strike here in Indianola. I was working at the plant in Isola. I had to be at work at 7 o’clock in the morning, but I drove up at 5 o’clock, and I’d picket before I went to work. I promise you, it was real admirable of the folks. They came together as a peoples, and they got a lot of different things done, and that strike paved the way for other places.

O: Mr. Steele, was there a connection between the earlier civil rights struggles and labor?

S: Sarah White, she was really instrumental, ’cause she worked out there and she knew a lot of folks. Your minister always gonna come out, and some of your local civil right folks, NAACP folks, they also gonna lend a hand.

O: Mr. Steele, what’s the pay scale now in the plant, and how’s the union affected that?

S: When minimum wages went up, pay increase went up. It’s a big need to make adjustment on wages right now. I personally think that they would still be below standard, because the company’s not gonna do no more than they have to. I don’t understand where they feel like, they can’t take care of they family on $2,500 a week, how do they think the employees gonna take care of they family on $250 a week? That’s an unlikelihood they gonna be fair at all. Each year go by, the gap between the rich and the poor widen, because of greed.

O: What’s the political climate towards unions in Mississippi?

S: It’s the political climate here that they wish they would go away. [Laughter] A lot of companies made a record surplus, they just holding back on they money. Some of these fish plants doing extremely well, they don’t think we know it; but they are.

There’s a profit margin that they feel comfortable with. Once that get to be infringed upon, they get nervous, and the first thing they do, they cutting back with the employees. They never cut back with management. [Laughter]

Catfish plants, most of ’em try to follow the same pay scale and stuff. They got government contracts for school, they got all kinds of stuff to keep them in business, they just wanna put everything in their pockets, sure do. [Laughter] See, they think that we’re ignorant to their design, but we’re not.

We pretty much know what most companies run per day or per week. And when we go in to negotiate, sometimes you have to let ’em know that, hey, we know y’all doing this, and we just ain’t gonna take it. Because if everything was done in good faith, you wouldn’t need a union. [Laughter]

Before they got some larger plants, they had little small plants. In Isola, Country Select Consolidated Catfish, they started out working can to can’t. Working all night, they limit insurance, they limit benefits, and when the union came, all that changed.

O: Were there conditions with, say, repetitive motion?

S: A lot of that we had to do with, and a lot of that OSHA had to do with. If you didn’t have the union to make sure that they follow compliance, when a person began to have repetitive motion, they’d put them under heavy scrutiny, hoping that they mess up and I can fire them, so that I won’t incur a worker’s compensation bill. Your wrist hurting you, you gotta say that in an undertone. [Laughter]

I worked for the company, so I’m not ignorant of the design and the tactics.

Some of the typical grievances are, first and foremost, an invalid write-up; not being dignified as an employee because they talk to ’em any kinda way, and favoritism. In this contract we got, zero tolerance on stuff like that.

O: Could you describe what workers do say on the filet line?

S: First you got what you call a live receiving, where they unload the fish off the trucks. They come into the grading area, where the fish is distributed to the filet machine. Each filet machine is designed to run a certain size. The first machine is the deheader, it cuts the fish head off and then it rips the fish down the middle. Then it goes to what you call the 184 machine. It just splits it down the middle, take the skins off, and it come out as two filets.

The filet come out of the filet machine, it goes to what you call the filleters. They take the dorsal fin out the back of it, and the tail bone, it flips it off, and it’s a filet. It goes down the filet belt to the chiller. The chiller is thirty-two degrees or less, it takes all the film and grease off it. Then it goes through other sizers, to the filet pack area, and the sizers distribute them according to size. They bag ’em up and send ’em to the cooler.

Then you got the manual side. See, whole fish gotta be done manually. The fish come down—the guy, he can do probably, shoot, about fifteen or so a minute, just cutting their heads off, and then they go down the chute to what you call a ripper.

The ripper pick it up and take a knife and just rip it, at the top. Then, it goes to what you call the long-gone, or the eviscerater.

It’s some pipes that got suction to ’em. You take the fish, push it up against that pipe, and that pipe take all the viscera out of it. Then it goes on a belt, what you call a skinner. They take the fish and run both sides of the fish over the skinner, and get the skin off. Then it goes to the chiller, then, the sizer.

So, you got a whole fish area, and you got a filet area— ’cause different markets want different fish. Chicago likes whole fish, other markets like filets. Then they box it up and ship it out the back door.

O: How many people work at the plant?

S: The one in Isola, it’s about six hundred employees. The one at Delta is about a couple hundred. Then they got a plant in Belzoni got about sixty folks, where they got a freeze tunnel down there, because they use CO2 to freeze it hard as a brick. Then they can unthaw in five minutes. In Isola, they also take the offal, the remains, and make fertilizer out of it. They also make pet food product out of it.

On those operations, the fertilizer operation and the pet food product, you have very little overhead and you’ re making tons of money. Talking about Multibloom, this spray costs eight dollars a bottle in the store, and I bet you it don’t even cost a dollar and a quarter between the bottle and ingredients. You can take two cases of it and pay your labor for the whole day. This organic fertilizer, You got twenty-five percent overhead off that, if that much. And then you say that you not making money.

Well, hey, we’re human beings, too. We wanna be able to afford the same opportunity to send our kids to college and do things for our family you can do for your family. Twenty-five years later, we still doing the same thing? [Laughter]

That’s a bitter pill to swallow, sure is. And then you stop and think, now, if it wasn’t for organized labor, in particular, UFCW 1529, a lot of this stuff wouldn’t have come about.

I went through the same thing, seeing both perspective of it, me being in management, it really gave me an opportunity to do more for the folks. I was loyal to the company, and I was loyal to the employees.

A lot of times, I took initiative to do things out the norm to help them. And I’m gonna do all I can to continue to serve the folks, and try to build a legacy, like Rose Turner and Sarah White did here; try to be one of, hey, these are folks I know I can depend on, that I know that first and foremost they gonna be here as many hours as it take to make things right.

Search for “Eddie Steele” at http://oral history.ufl.edu/collection/ for the full transcript of this interview.

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