Eddie Steel Interview 2011


Material Information

Eddie Steel Interview 2011
Physical Description:
Oral history interview
Eddie Steel ( Interviewee )
Paul Ortiz ( Interviewer )
Publication Date:


Subjects / Keywords:
Oral history
Civil rights movements--Mississipi--History
African American packing house workers -- Mississippi -- History
Sanitation Workers Strike, Memphis, Tenn., 1968
Spatial Coverage:
United States of America -- Mississippi


Activist Eddie Steel talks about the unionization of poultry processing plants in Mississippi, the Sanitation Workers Strike in Memphis and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Places mentioned include Camden and Greenville, Mississippi. People include: Caroline Beeman, Linda Holmes, Rose Turner, Martin Luther King, Jr., Louis Scott, Milton Thompson, Michelle Bachman, Barack Obama, and Margaret Block.

Record Information

Source Institution:
UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
Holding Location:
UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
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All rights reserved by the submitter.
Resource Identifier:
spohp - MFP 094
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The Foundation for The Gator Nation An Equal Opportunity Institution Samuel Proctor Oral History Program College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Program Director : Dr. Paul Ortiz 241 Pugh Hall Technology Coordinator : Deborah Hendrix PO Box 115215 Gainesville, FL 32611 352 392 7168 352 846 1983 Fax The Samuel Proctor O ral History Program (SPOHP) was founded by Dr. Samuel Proctor at the University of Florida in 1967. Its original projects were collections centered around Florida history with the purpose of preserving eyewitness accounts of economic, social, political, re ligious and intellectual life in Florida and the South. In the 45 years since its inception, SPOHP has collected over 5,000 interviews in its archives. Transcribed interviews are available through SPOHP for use by research scholars, students, journalists and other interested groups. Material is frequently used for theses, dissertations, articles, books, documentaries, museum displays, and a variety of other public uses. As standard oral history practice dictates, SPOHP recommends that researchers refer t o both the transcript and audio of an interview when conducting their work. A selection of interviews are available online here through the UF Digital Collections and the UF Smathers Library system. Oral history interview t ranscripts available on the UF D igital Collections may be in draft or final format. SPOHP transcribers create interview transcripts by listen ing to the ori ginal oral history interview recording and typing a verbatim d ocument of it. The transcript is written with careful attention to refl ect original grammar and word choice of each interviewee; s ubjective or editorial changes are not made to their speech. The draft trans cript can also later undergo a later final edit to ensure accuracy in spelling and format I nterviewees can also provide their own spelli ng corrections SPOHP transcribers refer to the Merriam program specific transcribing style guide, accessible For more information about SPOHP, visit http://oral.histor y.ufl.edu or call the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program office at 352 392 7168. October 2013


MFP 0 94 Interviewee: Eddie Steel Interviewer: Dr. Paul Ortiz Date: September 23, 2011 O : All right. H ere this morning Mr. Eddie Steel, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1529. Thank you Mr. Steel for taking time out of your schedule to talk with me this morning, I really appreciate it. S: Okay, you re very much welcome. O : All right. Mr. Steel, we interviewed you last year when we came to Indianola, but a lot of thing s have happened since last year, a nd one of the things you were telling me on the phone the other day was this tremendous organizing achievement at the poultry plant. Would you mind talking about that? S: Yeah, hat about it poultry well, unionize d. And they went o ut of business about five years ago a nd I think at the time it was owned by the which is a poultry company that I think is out of California. So they opened the plant back up. I think they got about a hundred and fifty workers. They worked them long hours at a time. They had no insurance benefits, they have no rights because they terminate when they get ready. And this is a sad they started to organize it back in M ay of this year, and then we we re succ essful. They voted to vote the u nion in, I think it was something like eighty six to twenty three or something like that. So we got the union in up there and the folks, then they had no rights at all. And it was a sad situation to see, a lot of folks that working under those bad conditions, not to have no rights at all. O : I t sound s like that campaign,


MFP 094 ; Steel ; Page 2 S: ty thoroughly. I mean Rose Turner, of course she was involved and we had a couple international workers that came down, Caroline Beeman and Linda Holmes. Caroline and Linda Holmes is from Houston, Texas. They came down an d they worked it pretty thorough. Lot of times, we see them f olks three or four times a week and had a mee ting with them every other week, a nd they seen t he importance in having a union. B ecause , a nd in that part of the world it was funny when you went out to talk to d ifferent ones, their conditions, you know, were conditions that look ed like it was back in the 1960 s. I mean, t he homes that they stayed in, it was very . I was very saddened by it. But now they see that they have a voice. They have a voice. Then they brought one of the union busters in from California, who was showing them films and different things to try and deter them, but then they was unsuccessful. O: M m hm cause Calif ornia is supposed to be th is progressive, liberal state, r ight? S: Well what happened is, everybody target Mississippi, you know, for labor because Mississippi is a right to work state. So if you can come in to some remote part of the state and get a fe offer you something, as opposed to nothing, so you should be able to work under those conditions, because once the labor unions come around try to organize, it sheds a new light on what


MFP 094 ; Steel ; Page 3 state, they got a right th e emp but three things they got an obligation to do. They got an obligation to take taxes out the checks because they government said that because I mean, that is a law. So they not really under obligation to do a lot of different things for their employee, and they know that. So they use that against them, and then when you speed up when they hear about union, then they begin to promise them a lot of different things. But then the employee, I said, is only about visiting the people s helping them to see the taxes that the company is using. O nly by doing that, and reiterating that to them, will they see the clear picture. O: One of the things that Rose Turner talked abo ut, at the pan el at Delta State a couple of nights ago, was the connection between civil rights and labor rights. And I could tell a lot of people in the audience were kind of confused, because S: Well, yeah, yeah [Laughter] Well civil rights and labor rights, work hand in hand; he same. You know, civil rights where you have to fight to b e recognized be recognized as a . first of all, civil rights mean you have to fight to be recognized as a human be recognized as that. I got the same rights as another person, of another nationality or race here. And then the same things in labor rights. L abor rights mean that I have a right to work for decent wages, to be able to take care of my family like you take care of your fa mily, be able to have insurance, the same benefit s that you have. So, cause, see, you cause a distinction between


MFP 094 ; Steel ; Page 4 office, they got insurance. E verybody in the office make enough wages to take too. And I say this time and time again, I think that there has to be something mighty wrong with an y i ndividual whether it be white, black, pink, or brown, to think that they next person sitting beside them, or that they want. You know, you have to be s omething has to be wr ong E ven though everybody can not afford the same thing, but then what make you think that I make enough money to take care of my family? I live in a decent house I drive a decent car. M y kid goes to a decent school. W hat makes any individual on earth th You know, t and if a person think that in get the same thing, but t hen that person wan t the same thing, so, in essence, w hen you come to that person, that should be your talk to the individual. S o y a ll should be on the same level as to what you want, and then you could and then you being in that situation knowing that hey, if this was taken away from me, how would I feel? Now, how do a person feel they never had it in the first place? Do you not think they want it? So you can see how civil rights and labor go hand in hand, because everybody want to be able to tak e care of their families and everybody want to be able to make enough to do that. And then, most important of all, eve rybody want to be treated equal and treated with dignity and respect. So s like the same


MFP 094 ; Steel ; Page 5 the same thing. O : I guess, along those lines we just had, for years and years, people have been working o n putting together the monument for Dr. King in D.C. O ne of the things bout his work with labor unions a nd his support of do you have any thoughts on that? Like, why is that? Why . ? S: Well, a funny thing B ecause, when Dr. King went to Memphis, now, see the same thing that he was advo cating for civil rights, the same thing as labor rights. Cause see bor rights without civil rights, because t when he came to Memphis, see, a lot of folks think he came to Memphis to support the union, but then and in a sense, he did, but he came to Memphis on the civil right s cause, because the folks were getting treated unfairly. So you see, where civil right and labor right pretty much is hand in hand and pretty much the same in certain sense. So he You know, w hy is it that a black person can be afforded the opportunity to come in out the rain ? When it rains, you had to stay out the sanitation workers, when it rained, you had to stay out in the rain because you come in and shelter. See. Therefore, he was now, the thing about it, you ca n take that and make it be a labor right issue; m e and you working side ? So you see how that works hand in hand. And ironic you said that B ack in, I think it was


MFP 094 ; Steel ; Page 6 April yeah it had been April. We went to Memphis, the same sanitation worker s had their march to downtown Memphis to the federal building. They had a parade for Dr. King, and all the unions in the local area went up there. W e marched from the sanitation worker all the way downtown, s ure did. O: Wow. S: Yeah. It was very exciting to see how the sanitation union had . they cooked and they invited all the different unions that would want to come. A s a matter of fact, they had them all over the world. O: Wow. S: Sure did, i n April, the day that Dr. King got killed. O: Right, April 4 S: Sure did. S o we we nt to Memphis, and it was real nice. A nd it was real encouraging to see that, even though an i ndividual died in that process you know, not just him, but then a lot of individuals died in the process o f trying to secure civil rights, which is pretty much linked to labor rights. So like I said. Dr. King went to Memphis for a civil rights cause, but in the same time, labor was involved. O: Now M r. Steel, you have a really strong analysis where you tie toge ther labor rights, civil rights. Y ou talked about the Bible and Christianity and doing the right thing and when you present it, the argument for unions seems to be like,


MFP 094 ; Steel ; Page 7 airtight. But as you How did you develop your analysis, or your way of thinking about the world? S: Well, first and foremost, you have to attribute everything to God, because you stop and think s a part of the analysis, and I often share this with my wife all the time in conversation, I tell her a debt that I share with you, a debt that I originate with us. Say, e verything originate with God. See, moral standards, Bible standards on how you should live and treat one another. See God made all of us; we belong s to him. So anything that we expound on originate with the C reator. So when I talk, it ed on my originality. I based on what God think and people before me that laid the foundation, as to a proven foundation as to when I go to individual, I help them appreciate about working, and the fun of that idea is when you go to one a nd talk to them about the union and help them appreciate how, you show them a non union company versus a union company, they appreciate that the union company has more benefits, the union company pays better wages. A typical example : they have this Schnucks store looked at in Memph is, Schnucks. They got Schnuck s in St. Loui s, Missouri, which is unionized. Schnuck last week, Miss Turner, myself, and some of the reps went out to these orientation s, becau se Schnuck s pull up by them not having a union contract, the n they close nine or ten stores: have the thirty day warning, they got no service packet. They had no they lost their insurance, they lost everything.


MFP 094 ; Steel ; Page 8 O: That was in Memphis? S: Memphi s. B ut then gue ss what. P rior to that, Miss Turner tried to organize those stores on several attempts. T union. So anyway, we was organized, was when the orientation is, and we was talking to different ones about the union. And you know, everybody like it, like d the benefits. And this guy named Louis Scott, been a rep longer than I have, and he what I like about him is, where someone else might take the short approach to showing one why they shou ld be in the union, he go through the whole nine yards. He start from beginning. I mean, like where we might go in and, in thirty minutes be ou rty five or an hour. And he give them the whole picture of the unio n, because he want them to know. A nd s hard for me, is even after all B ecause see the firs him is, do I get the same benefit that they get ? When they tell them yes, they O: Really? S: Yeah All right. Like Schnuck s for instance. T his is the question I posed to them, I said, now, Schnucks in Missouri is unionized; N ow, a nd they preach family and unity. I said, it would really dishearten you to as a matter of fact, the cost of living in Tennessee, Memphis area is no lesser


MFP 094 ; Steel ; Page 9 than St. Louis Missouri. I said, w ould it hearten you to know that, you got that counterpa rt up there, worked for Schnuck s, been there ten years, the same number of I said, would it hurt you to know making fifteen dollars an hour and that person up there in Missouri making twenty that? A lot of them say yeah, but then they knew that was the case. O: Th e y already knew? S: They already knew. But then, the thing about it is so now, I asked the question because it was four of us there. Miss Turner she went first of course, and then Louis Scott went, and then Milton Scott Milton Thompson, he went. And I s tarted I said why a union? Why union? And then, just that simple a nalysis showed the question, why a union? Because see, your counterpart, they have better benefits, they have a pension plan, they get the dignity to be noted, hey I get thirty day s warni ng before you close down. I get a service packet. I get the chance to keep the insurance for ninety days. See these folks up here, their last payment their last check covers their insurance for another two weeks. That was it. O: No severance. S: No severance. O: Mm t


MFP 094 ; Steel ; Page 10 S: So now, but then that being hard, but the hardest part about that was to sit O: Why is that why do you . ? S: Because see, some folks just some folks just . and the sad part about it, most of those are Caucasian people that O: Really? S: No, t was drilled into them, no union, b sad to say that those folks get a free ride. They get a free ride. They get a free ride. But see in a closed days, your employment will terminate. So they are under no obligation to sign in a right to work state. O: Do you think now, when Caucasian folks about again towards the end of his life and he saw unions as something that could, in addition to all the benefi ts and everything, the contract, t hat a un ion could bring people together across lines of different rac e, different backgrounds, so on and so forth. But yet that S: But what you got . now you know. And, li ke y ou said unions, and when unions and union affiliation, they basically call one another brother. White or black, they call one another brother. Because see, a union is people coming together for a common cause. And you know as well as I know that the u nion is the reason we


MFP 094 ; Steel ; Page 11 got a middle class anyway. Because union is the reason that we got middle class, un ion is the reason we got a four day work week. Union is the reason that exis ts, and a lot of folks know that. And then the thing about it is that a lot of union workers tied to their family b you know, like a lot of, even some of the ones that signed, my d addy was in a union. My m ama was in a union. My grandad was in a union, so they know what unions all about. like you said about how this younger generation, a lot of them have no idea. A lot of them have no idea what the union all about. And then, even when you take your time and union is the reason why [Break in recording] O: Okay, now it seems to be working again. Okay so, we were talking about the whole si tuation with right to work, and you were saying Mr. Steele that if you have a plant with five hundred employees, if you just have a small majority signed up, management might think, oh seriously. S: ery true. And you try to convey that to different one. And They fight the union real hard because they wanna have their way. But the whole thing to me, seems like I did analyze this thing and up and down, the whole thing to me seems like


MFP 094 ; Steel ; Page 12 trying to get rid of the unions. I f they get rid of the unions they get rid of middle class and the rich and the poor. O: Like t he old Jim Crow s ystem. S: Yeah, they trying to get rid of the middle the rich and the poor, so now guess what, you pay [Break in recording] S: I can see, and I asked one lady in particular I said what hold back do you have S because y thing I could see that a they share by paying the union dues. I mean w ing they just see some folks see unions some folks see unions i s just for black conclusion, cause if y ou work there, you involved also. Yeah. O: Yeah. One of the other looking at the United Food and Commercial Workers website. It talks a lot about the importance of organizing immigrant workers, particularly from Latin America. s o is that kind of a new emphasis, on trying to organize immigrant workers, or is that somethi ng that you all have been doing?


MFP 094 ; Steel ; Page 13 S: doing a long time, but it just, because of . the new law, as it relate to immigrant, cause of border contr ol, you see a lot of immigrants becoming legal citizens now. So you go on jobs now. Like we h ad this plant down in Simmons Farms, near the city : they had about a hundred immigrants. All right ? T hey had to pay back retribution to the employees they had do wn there beca use the immigrants were illegal, a nd they had to pay, I think what happened was, they was paying the that wage. So I think the law stipulated they had to pay a certain wage, they they had to go back to pay some back fines. So they got r id of it, their illegal immigrant s worker. Now we got a couple plants in Camden, Mississippi that employ a lot of immigrant workers. So what we did was, the union took the liberty of hiring a Spanish speaking person, so he goes in on a daily basis and sig ns a l ot of those up, because by them not knowing about how the union operate, I mean, and then not having somebody to speak their language, so you was at a disadvantage. But then, I mean, we doing real well there now. O: What is the long term outlook in terms of unions and politics? I mean thinking earlier you mentioned Michelle Bachman, and everyone is starting t o think about the 2012 election. A s a person in the union, who you re on the ground eve ry day, working with the union and trying to spread the word. What is your viewpoint on the direction that the country is moving?


MFP 094 ; Steel ; Page 14 S: Well, for the most part . the c ountry itself, they wanna blame . hard times on unions, because unions fighting for equal rights and fighting for equal pay. You know, I mea n, b etter wages and better conditions for the folks, but then, on the flipside of that, the countries and companies wanna take their work abroad and give them to other folks in other countries and work them for a little bit of nothing. And they feel like if they pay lower wages and got rid of benefits, the c ountry might be in better shape. But then me, myself, personally, how can that be the improve none? How can that be the case? And then the thing about it is you got all these co mpanies, like Kroger for instance, you know record profit record Y ou know, y ears ago, and it was funny, with this c ompany years ago, back before the times got hard Ab out ten, twelve years ago, I think the guy ha d about four thousand employees and he laid off two thousand folks. And they asked him, they said, why is it that y ou laid off two thousand people? And they as ked him, why is it he laid off two thousand folks? And his company net a record profit. So, it It was because of labor see a lot of folks are getting greedy, they want more for themselves, and then it goes back to, the Bible make mention that those who are strong should carry the loads of those that are weak. And the Bible als o make mention, say how can you see your brothers lack means for living and not do something to help him ? A nd close your door on his tender compassion, and say So, you know the thing about it is, all these folks that doing this and


MFP 094 ; Steel ; Page 15 running the country, and doing different things to work agains t mankind, they Christian They T with no Bible scripture. So these are folks that, t hey c You know? rich, but then a person that have, should take care of the have that you give all of your money away. That means that you set up a company like you give your money up to nobody. But then you provide jobs for people at the same time you continue to keep your standard of living. And at the same time, you elevating theirs So or one ano ther, a ot means to be able to help you and close the door of my tender compassion on you, the Bible says that that how c an the love of God remain in a person like that ? O: Mm hm. S: And see Then anything by this here . President Obama approach: Obama is trying to do in t his country. President Obama says this here, he says


MFP 094 ; Steel ; Page 16 two hundred fifty thousand dollars just like you for instance. I just say right pay you the most in the world, but then you able to make a living out of it. Just say they came to you and said, Mr. Ortiz said, well, your insurance, I know you paying sixty dollars a week, but we got to raise your insurance to ninety dollars a week. What now? Guess what N insurance go nna get some insurance, man ry about their child being sick and not being able to take them to the emergency room, or they being sick and this here, the strong should carry is Biblical. So the thing about it is, so he said two hundred fifty thousand dollars. A perso n who make two hundred fifty thousand dollars should be able to live comfortable. T gave, two hundred fifty thousand dollars. O f course we know that you can make way less than two hundred fifty thousand dollars a year and liv e comfortable. So , in a sense E ven those folk, with two hundred fifty thousand dollars, if they got a certain family size, they not penalized tax wise. So how can what, I mean, g carry the load of the weak. It was said that all the millionaires, all the rich folk, billionaires in the world and I seen this on some kind of special all of them together could come up with enough money to get this country out of debt and it


MFP 094 ; Steel ; Page 17 ffect them at all. Not that they have to, or that they under obligation to, but then it just goes to sh ow you how, if people wanted to. You know, just l ike Jesus, he made mention about the widow might, which mean, how Jesus today was, they was all going to the temple, they was all just piling money into treasure chests. And t his woman, she put in two coins, Jesus said, of very little value A nd he said that she gave more than all of them, because she gave out of her want The other gave from their surplus, which mean that this woman gave from her heart. She gave it all she had, but see the thing about it is, if love for mankind Capitol Hill like you do. And one thing that I felt like Presiden t Oba ma did, if he do nothing else that shows his character, well when this whe n the unemployment, you remember when there was the unemployment conversation? And he went up against Congress on that ? A ncerned about what they th ought, h e was concerned about the American people. S o he voted to extend the unemployment conversation They were powerful, man. That was powerful for a man to get up there and say could you lay down at night? How could you go to a fine restaurant, get your clothes at the cleaner, not worry about gas prices? I wa s working at the fish plant, the other night, I worked in personnel I stayed in Greenville, which is about forty five minutes, forty five miles one way I made a round trip. I was burning quite a bit of money on gas . you know, I ot,


MFP 094 ; Steel ; Page 18 but I made more than the factory workers. Every time I would fill my car, it would dawn on me, I can afford it imagine man? C an you imagine what those folks went through? And they have to drive to work. Here it got so bad that they had Good Morning A merica come down and do a piece. W hen gas went up, Good Morning America came down to Isola Mississippi, which is twenty tw o miles they did a piece on the gas. Folk had to drive thirty to forty miles to work. They interviewed folks. So, you know, it goes back to our leaders. Our leaders, B ut at the same token, you got Wisconsin, Indi ana, all these different places try to break up the union because and then the thing about it, the funny thing about Wisconsin was, they want to break up all the union, but then the fire union and the polic e union, they wanna leave those alone, cause I guess t hey were in the public service. S o if I cut your union out, and my house on fire or I need you for crime, you might be inclined to show up. [L aughter] O: Right. S: So it goes to show you how but do y T making is here: that benefits you. See, that that benefits you y ou stick with it ; you find some kind of way to go around that. But that t you go nna take anything away from you. I mean, you not for that. My thing about it is, just seem to have compassion for one another, to have want to go on increasing and


MFP 094 ; Steel ; Page 19 they wa nt to have not to go on decreasing T he thing about it is, t hey really try to make the United States like a third world country. T middle feel like they can give you work you for wha tever they want to work you for; the government have no intervention in it, this is what I decided to do, you can go o ut there and get your arm broke. work put somebody else in your spot. O: A l l right Mr. Steel. W ell thank you so much for doing the interview today, I really appreciate it. Is there anything that you wanted to add or, in addition, any issues ed about that you would like to . ? S: Well, I just wanna add that that with all the issues that mankind has had for many years the Bible make me happening now. See they dominating man to their own injury, and see God that gave man yet, because God has given manki nd time enough to work out their own issues. They not doing it. See, he gave man time, long enough from the time Adam was see ing in the garden, who Adam seeing it, because he wanted to write the rule


MFP 094 ; Steel ; Page 20 himself ; he wanted sovereignty for himself. So God said okay, you want sovereignty for yourself ? S gonna let you rule yourself. But see, and then the thing about it, e ven through that, he give you God allowed it, and got a principle to live by, so as to show you how you should direct yourself and how you should feel for one another. But you see and I see, th at this thing is bigger than us give u p in our fight to make it right. B ut it bigger th an us, so you got folks up there that, when you get a person t fighting against something pretty powerful. And then guess what ? W hen you get to the point where you get all of them up there making rules that g overn us, then you gotta then you gotta n ow you have to start us peons got to start a fight that should have been over with a long time ago. This fight that we fighting now, we thought, in one sens e, O: It is. Well, it reminds me, Margaret Block, she was leading at Delta State, people in Freedom songs, that they sang in the [19]60s And one of the comments she made, is she said, we used to sing, we shall overcome all th e time, and she says, I feel like now we should be singing, we should have overcome. S: Yeah, really R eally now. Because see the thing about it is, things like medical advances, things is advanced man. I mean, cars and stuff and that I mean everything is went anywhere. You still feel like you got to have the rich and just the poor, will always be with us, because Jesus knows from the standpoint that everybody


MFP 094 ; Steel ; Page 21 en poor can mean poor in a lot of different ways. Poor can be literal poor, but poor can always mean poor in spirit. Once you crush with labor how you get rid of labor union They try to crush your spirit. And was a good thin g for us to come to orientation. A t least to offer them some kind of glimmer of hope. This is what he Schnucks. T his is a union company. They have to give you thirty day notice. They got to give you a severance packet. They have to be able to place you in other stores that they got exist. They have to be able to place you in anot her state if you decide to do so. But guess what? Even at that, some folk sign. So my point is this here : those folks that see a need to treat the folks right, they always equate to me, all equate to them, th be done, a be advanced, livi ng. And Paul and this organizing on this poultry plant, man some of the conditions that folks lived in was just deplorable man, here in 2011. But that all I wanna say and I really thank you for the interview. O: Okay, well thank you Mr. Steel. [End of interview]


MFP 094 ; Steel ; Page 22 Transcribed by: Anna Arm itage, January 31, 2014 Audit edited by: Diana Dombrowski, February 19, 2014