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Struggle, solidarity, strategy

Southern conference organizes for justice

Published Dec 22, 2008 7:14 PM

The 7th biannual Southern Human Rights Organizing Conference (SHROC VII) was held in Durham, N.C., from Dec. 12 to 14. The first SHROC was held in 1996. “Framing a Southern Human Rights Agenda—Strategies for Moving Forward” was the overall theme of this year’s conference.

North Carolina is a right-to-work state and the right to collective bargaining is denied to low-wage workers in the public sector.

WW photos: Monica Moorehead

The more than 300 conference delegates came mainly from the South, but also traveled from other U.S. regions, representing local, state and regional labor, community, and youth and student struggles and campaigns. The social composition of the conference was Black, [email protected] and white of all ages and political experiences.

Two important labor victories helped set the political tone throughout the two-and-a-half day conference as well as energized the participants: Workers at the Smithfield hog-processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C.—the largest of its kind in the world—voted in the Food and Commercial Workers union after a 15-year struggle, and the factory takeover by workers at the Republic Windows and Doors plant in Chicago was successful.

Plenary talks, strategy sessions and solidarity messages provided opportunities to connect current struggles in the U.S. South with these two victories. The gathering also acknowledged the historic Nov. 4 election of Barack Obama as the first African-American U.S. president and the impact that this development will surely have on the ongoing struggles for fundamental social change.

A simultaneous youth summit was held during SHROC to give youth and students the space they wanted to share their varying political views and strategies on issues affecting them.

In a welcoming message, SHROC organizer Jaribu Hill, an African-American lawyer with the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights, paid homage to martyrs of the struggle—including the Greensboro Five; Imperial Food Products poultry workers of Hamlet, N.C.; civil rights activist Rev. James Orange; and Coca-Cola Bottling Plant union organizers from Colombia.

In explaining the goals of SHROC, Hill stated: “Human rights defenders come to SHROC to retool, think, plan and build. In these critical times of unjust wars and economic decline, it is urgent that we forge a unity based on common struggles and experiences. It is this unity that will sustain the fight and ensure ultimate victory.”

‘Stroke capital’ of North Carolina

On the first day of SHROC, delegates took a 90-minute bus ride to Duplin County, known as the state’s “stroke capital.” Tour guides from the North Carolina-based Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help explained to the delegates that this county is home to two out of the 10 million hogs located throughout the eastern part of the state. Only Iowa has more hog farms than North Carolina.

Duplin also has one million turkeys. Smithfield Foods, which has a virtual monopoly on the hog and pork processing industry worldwide, also owns Butterball turkey production.

There are almost 40 hogs to every person in Duplin, which has a human population of 52,000. There are at least 500 large and small hog farms, which are either out in the open or hidden in forests. Each of the barns on the largest farms is occupied by between 3,000 and 5,000 hogs.

Next to these barns are lagoons which look like regular ponds, but in reality they are deadly cesspools filled to the brim with hog feces. Most of the lagoons are located near the homes of Black and [email protected] people, who compose 28 percent and 15 percent, respectively, of the county’s population. The mainly white Smithfield owners live in luxury homes at least 30 miles away from the hog farms.

The waste of two million hogs creates a horrific stench 24 hours a day. And worse than that, these lagoons have created an environmental health hazard. This includes polluting the air, water and earth for so many years that it will take generations to clean up.

Naeema Muhammad, a leader of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, led a discussion between SHROC delegates and two Duplin County residents. Elsie Herring and Violet Branch shared shocking stories about how their land had been contaminated with hog waste in an effort by hog owners to force them to move.

As a result of this racist environmental injustice, residents are suffering from high incidences of stroke, diabetes, cancer and depression, as well as asthma among children. That’s how Duplin got its name.

Farm workers, Moncure strikers demand justice

Baldemar Velasquez, leader of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee based in Toledo, Ohio, gave a moving speech at the conference on a very important campaign to organize tobacco workers, mainly immigrants from Central and South America. FLOC represents thousands of migrant workers harvesting 26 different crops throughout North Carolina.

The main target of this campaign is the powerful RJ Reynolds tobacco farms. According to a March 30, 2007, shareholders’ report released by Susan M. Ivey, president and CEO, RJ Reynolds’ 2006 combined sales amounted to over $8 billion. Ivey herself received $9.5 million in corporate compensation, including a 42 percent raise in 2007. (www.floc.com)

In sharp contrast, tobacco workers make on average less than $9 per hour for the back-breaking work of picking tobacco for hours in the hot sun.

Lewis Cameron, president of Machinists Local W369, spoke on an important strike that started this past summer against Moncure Plywood, owned by Atlas Holdings. These machinists were forced to go out on strike when the owners refused to bargain in good faith.

The owners have violated labor laws, including those under the International Labor Organization Convention, when they hired permanent scab labor to replace the strikers. To add insult on top of this injury, a hangman’s noose was found by strikers on Sept. 12. This current—and historic—threat is used by racists who want to keep Black workers “in their place” by not fighting for their political and economic rights.

Cameron made it crystal clear to the entire conference that the machinists will not bow down to the racist intimidation and will keep this very difficult strike going until they win. Out of solidarity with the strike, $1,000 was raised at SHROC for the Moncure workers’ strike fund.

‘Hey, hey, ho, ho! 287G has got to go!’

SHROC delegates held an emergency direct-action protest Dec. 13 outside the Wake County jail against immigrant-bashing edict 287G. This edict legalizes complicity between Immigration Customs and Enforcement, an arm of Homeland Security, and local police to target immigrants they label “illegal.”

Under 287G, 70,000 immigrants in North Carolina have been scheduled for deportation. Of 287G detainees, 63 percent are in city and county jails throughout the state, including in Raleigh.

When SHROC delegates held a picket line in front of the jail and began anti-287G chants, detainees waved to the demonstrators to show their appreciation for the much-needed solidarity. Organizations such as the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and the ACLU of North Carolina are organizing political and legal campaigns against this repressive law.

Go to www.shroc.org for more information. E-mail: [email protected]