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catfishtwelve to twenty-five a minute. “You have a group leader working with you,” she explains matter-of-factly. “You have to obey her, everything she tell you. You ask her when you need to go to the bathroom.” That March 13, the Department of Labor’s Judge Vittone adjourned the hearing at 6:30 P.M. Assuming the cut-and-gut line at Freshwater’s Belzoni plant ran ten hours that day, and factoring in the two breaks and lunch, Sherry Durst skinned between 8,100 and 10,800 catfish. If she went to the bathroom once, the count dropped by 120. Going to the bathroom is a problem. While a worker is in the rest room, the line continues to move, fish pile up, supervisors get angry. In 1990 rest-room breaks were the central issue in the strike at the neighboring Delta Pride catfish factory. Sarah White was a worker at the plant in Belzoni, where she is now the United Food and Commercial Union’s local rep. She recalled the strike’s hidden issue: “It came down to rest-room breaks,” she said in her small office across the street from the county courthouse. “We got another five or six cents an hour, but the strike centered on bathroom rights.” The company opened with an offer of six bathroom visits a week \(have you ever taken a road trip with a pregnant company’s position hardened. “They told us they gave us six breaks, but since we said no, we were going to have to go once a dayat lunchtime,” said White. “They added five minutes to our lunch break and said we would have to go then. We couldn’t abide it. We tired of it. The workers couldn’t abide it anymore.” The Mississippi Delta is full of stories about women who decide they can’t abide it anymore. The late Fannie Lou Hamer said, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” The civil rights leader was from Ruleville, sixty miles north of Belzoni. The workers at the catfish plants know just how she felt. In addition to the fixed number of bathroom breaks, there were other forms of degradation. Male supervisors would walk into the women’s rest rooms and tell women to get up off the toilet and go to work. “I’ve had a supervisor walk into the rest room and tell me, ‘Get up, Sarah.You’ve been sitting there too long.’ That don’t happen no more. The civil rights movement changed a lot of things.” \(Those of you who think the civil rights movement ended in the 1960s haven’t been to Belzoni Jazz artist Cassandra Wilson, another daughter of the Delta, said Mississippi women “will be as nice as possible until you cross the line.” In 1990 Delta Pride crossed the line. “They told us go on, go on out on strike,” said White. When the workers struck, the company brought in replacements and stopped negotiating with the union. “The company brought in scabs from Greenville and Cleveland, but they were too slow,” White said. Production slowed to a crawl. Black activistcomedian Dick Gregory joined the strikers for a day.The congressional Black Caucus supported them. Jesse Jackson came to help.Workers survived on sixty dollars a week in strike pay and a fifty-pound weekly ration package of rice, beans, and peas provided by the union. Supporters across the country prepared to travel to Indianola for a “civil rights/worker’s rights” march from downtown to Delta Pride’s Indianola plant. The company blinked first. The three-year-old local, made up mostly of African-American women, won concessions from a catfish co-op made up of the most powerful white men in the region. They won the right to privacy in the rest room, a reasonable lunch-break policy, an hourly wage increase, and overtime pay that kicked in at the end of each eight-hour day, rather than at the end of a forty-hour week. “Wages could be higher,” said White. For a forty-hour week skinning fifty thousand to sixty thousand catfish, Sherry Durst earns $240, an annual income that keeps her and her son $540 above the federal poverty level. “They tax us so hard, we keep only about $160 or $170 each week,” Durst said. Eugene Scalia and Baruch Fellner could spend that much on dinner at the Red Sage. “You got to decide if you are going to buy a car, pay your house rent, or buy your food,” said another Freshwater employee. Sherry Durst manages, as Bush once said, “to put food on her family.” She says she hasn’t been treated for carpal tunnel problems or tendonitis, but her hands do hurt at night. She plans to leave before the serious problems set in. “A catfish house is not a place for a young person to spend the rest of their life,” she said. “I want a job sitting behind a desk, like white folks.” Durst is young, smart, eloquent, and determined. But the unemployment rate in Humphreys County is 12 percent. The average income for households where women are the breadwinners is $15,833. The commercial catfish businesslike the plantation system to which it is sometimes comparedis feudal in structure. Workers and their bosses are bound together and locked in place in a relationship defined by land ownership. Up and down the Mississippi Delta the landowners have moved from cotton to catfish, but land ownership still shapes the social hierarchy. The more ponds a landholder owns, the larger his share in the local catfish co-op. At the bottom of the feudal pyramid are the African-American men who work in the catfish ponds and the African-American women who work in the processing houses. “You can go to a chicken house, but there’s not much else you can do around here,” said Carrie Ann Lewis. Lewis, like Durst, went to work in a catfish-processing plant when she was in her early twenties. For four years in the late 1980s she worked at Delta Pride. Today she is physically worn out. Each of her wrists has a large prominent knob on top. “Gangliatic cysts,” said Dr. Ron Myers. He is standing in the crowded space that doubles as a bedroom-living room in the four-hundred-square-foot house Lewis shares with her two children. Lewis was a “long gunner.” She spent her days grabbing fish off the conveyor belt and thrusting them into the vacuum “gun barrel” that sucks out the intestines. “Sometimes so many of those fishes go by you see fishes in your sleep,” she said. Within a year Lewis began to develop tingling and numbness in her hands. Pains in her shoulder joints were diagnosed as tendonitis. At night her hands ached. If the pain lasted all night, continued on page 26 10110103 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7