James Madison University
Shenandoah Valley Oral History Project, SdArch 29
Oral History Interview With: Mabel Johnson
Interviewer: Hayden Van Dyke
Place: Harrisonburg, VA
Date: March 21, 2006
Audio File Size: 29.3 MB
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General topic of interview: The focus of the interview was to get a personal record of a labor union representative’s story of her experiences working with union members and management. The content of the interview covers her experiences between 1977 and 1986 in the Harrisonburg, Virginia area.
NARRATOR: Mabel Johnson
DATE: March 21, 2006
INTERVIEWER: Hayden Van Dyke
PLACE: Harrisonburg, VA
Birth date: 1925
Spouse: Delmer Johnson
Occupation: Labor Union Representative/poultry factory worker
Mabel is an 80 year-old retired poultry plant worker that represented her fellow workers in the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 593 for nine years. She represented workers from plants in Alma, Moorefield, Rockingham, Elkins and Marvel. She has Indian ancestry and Western European ancestry. She was raised in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. She had three children, two of which passed away at early ages. She currently lives alone in a single family home off of North Route 11 right outside Harrisonburg. She is 5’4, Caucasian and has white curly hair with glasses.
The interview is important because it gives the researchers an opportunity to hear the oral history of not only a poultry plant worker of the 60’s-80’s but also the experiences of a labor union representative during the same time period. There is not enough records of the experiences of union workers in the Shenandoah Valley especially during that time. This interview not only gave Mabel a chance to voice her thoughts and experiences but also allows for researchers to have a better grasp on the perceptions and experiences of those workers in those plants as well as those individuals who represented them.
March 21, 2006
Hayden Van Dyke – Interviewer
Mabel Johnson – Interviewee
Hayden Van Dyke: This is Hayden Van Dyke a JMU student interviewing Mabel Johnson today for history 339 Oral History class. Today I have Mabel Johnson. Say hello Mabel.
Mabel Johnson: Hello.
H: Okay, I think we are good to go. Umm, Mabel can you tell me where you’re from and or where you were born?
M: I was born in Huntersville, West Virginia and in Pocahontas County.
H: Pocahontas County and what year was it?
H: 1925, umm can you tell me your father’s name and your mother’s maiden name?
M: Emmit Walter Wheeler and my mother was Crystal Thomas.
H: Did you have any siblings?
M: Yes. (laughs) I had seven sisters and three brothers.
H: (whispers) seven sisters…wow.
M: There were eleven of us.
H: uhh, Where were your parents from?
M: Well, my mother was born in Pocahontas County and I’m not sure about my father because they moved around so much. His mother died when he was six years old. But he was born, the way I understand it, up here in Mt. Summit (unclear). And I’ve been trying to get our family history together but uh, I’ve run into some problems with people that I found that knew it they past on. Going to meet a lady not to long…when it gets warmer she’s supposed to take me where uh my grand mother was buried. Which my grandmother was half Indian. There’s her picture. Is there somewhere?…
H: All of these pictures…(looking at the wall)
M: Oh, up there.
H: Oh yeah, oh wow. Do you know what type of Indian she was?
M: I’m not sure if she was Cherokee or Choctaw.
M: I haven’t really found out, you know, all the history yet.
H: There are a lot of Cherokees down…
M: I hear that she was a Cherokee princess…
M: mmmhmm. So uh, you know, and I have royalty on the other side of the family. (laughs) So…you, my my grandmother on my father’s I mean my mother’s side. Uh, her grandmother I think came from England and she was royal family. And ran off with the groom. (laughs) Married and worked her way through on the ship and stuff and they were what you would call indentured. And they got here and it’s quite a history if I could get I all together.
H: (background) That’s amazing…What about um I know you touched on it before we started the interview. But can you tell me a little bit about your current family like your immediate family like your husband and your kids and uh where they’re from and maybe how ya’ll met.
M: It’s kinda funny how my husband and I met. I had been working in Baltimore for the Social Security Board. And this was back when, I can’t remember, VJ Day believe it was that they said that we were going to be replaced by people that we had taken their jobs when they and gone overseas. So umm, I came back to Elkins West Virginia, and uh, that’s for where my mother and father lived at the time. And uh…they moved from down on the farm into Elkins and were living up on Wist Street (spelling) and my mother had a cow that they had, she was going to, or had a calf. And got milk fever. And mother was up on the hill with the cow, you know, because Dad hadn’t told her to keep her pinned. So she had fallen down and placed. And my brother was up there with her and I had just gotten back from Baltimore, and I had a party for my kids in the neighborhood you know. And when we came back, coming down the hill, my husband’s cousin was walking with me and he said “I hear my cousin.” And I said “Boy that’s mom I hear talking,” you know. So he had walked my mother down the hill to the house and mom told me, “You got to take some coffee and stuff over to your brother.” Well, he walked back up with me and that was the first date I had with him and I stood him up. (laughs). My aunt had come in from the service and wanted me to go with her but he played fiddle. He was um…umm…well around the area of Elkins. He was a champion fiddle player for a while. So…it was kinda funny the way we met you know. He walked mom home and met me.
H: Wow…uhh, and uh, can you tell me a little bit about your children?
M: My children? Well, I had a son, (clears throat) he was uh, had open heart surgery when he was eleven and half years old. And he got killed at twenty-one. By a motorcycle-car accident. And then I had a daughter, Mary, that uh, was killed. Run over by her own car when she was twenty I guess she was. She would have been twenty-one in June. And then, I have a son named Jerry that, he lives not to far from me. He works here. We moved over here…in 1966, we moved to Burktown. And there was the house burned my husband, my youngest son. My youngest son lost his life in the fire and my husband died thrity-three hours later. And uh, my son that’s living, he jumped out an upstairs window so he got out. And he’s lucky he didn’t get hurt. But my youngest son, I opened up the door to let them out from the upstairs and uh I let my daughter out and I stepped back and so that my son could come out. And the door blew shut and when I tried to open the door the door knob came off in my hand. So I couldn’t get the door open. The last thing I heard him say, I told him I said ” go to the other house, to the other side of the house, to the door” and i heard him say “I cant get out ma.” And that’s the last thing I heard when I went around the house. My husband broke through a window and fell out. Well, I momentarily forgot about my son, Randy, but after things started coming to me you know, i said “Where’s Randy?” they said “He’s in the house.” And they held me. I had black and blue marks on here (points to arm) where they held me to keep me from going back. And I would have been burnt up too probably. But uh…he died in the fire and of course when they were buried we had, had to take to Elkins, West Virginia. And uh, they were both buried in the same casket because you know, my uh, youngest son only just part of him was left you know. And then my husband burned over 90% of his body. So…you know…they said I think my husband had worked for the funeral home back where a couple of times you know and gone and got bodies and uh, the guy told me, said “I think Delmer would’ve wanted them buried together.” He said, “We can’t have open casket” Which is a hard thing when you don’t see someone. It’s hard for you to comprehend they’re gone. It really is, you know. So uh, but he was shop steward at Rockingham when he died. He died in January, and I can’t remember whether it was uh March or April that they asked me if I was going to the meeting they was going to pick someone for shop steward. And when I got over there they already had me picked. They say “Truth Shut. Steward. We already had, you know.” So I took over his place. And I worked during plant during uh…almost ten years. And uh, they come and ask me to uh take the business agent’s place and go to visit all of these poultry plants while he went to California for a convention or something. So I got a leave of absence from the company for a month. And I visited three Rockingham poultry plants, and Marvel, and Shenandoah, and Swift and Company. And uh, Rockingham plants were Alma, Moorefield, and Broadway. And Swift and Company was near Harrisonburg, Marvel was near Dayton. Let’s see, was that all of them? (Laughs) It’s been so long ago. Anyway when they came back, he came back, I had an arbitration case going because they fired someone from Moorefield and you know I didn’t think it was right. So uh, they got his job back. And then, in 1977, uh, I was put on leave for a year to take a temporary job as um union representative over the poultry plants. And uh…not too long after I took the job uh, I didn’t even drive until 1972 and so I didn’t have a car, my father helped me get a car. And then he passed away in 1977. But uh, that’s how I got started in it you know. I would go to the plants. I’d have certain days usually a week that I would visit the plants. And I would walk through the plant and people would tell me their problems you know. They had problems and I went tot he management and tried to work them out. You know.
H: What were some of the common problems you typically hear?
M: One of he most common problems was “I don’t get to go to the bathroom when I want to go.”
M: And uh, yeah, and uh, of course they worked on a line and someone had to come take your place, if you had to go to the bathroom. I had one woman in particular I said, “Hey don’t .stand there until it’s too late. You know, go. Somebody will catch your birds till you get back.” Well, one time she waited too late and then she had to go home and get clothes you know. But I don’t know…and a lot of it was nit-picking stuff but most of it was they would need to get off for something and they would have a problem you know, getting someone to take their place. Because usually only one person did the job on each line. Now where I worked on the pinning line there was three of us but I was the head pinner so if too many got by me, they went on through the…
H: Can you elaborate on like what exactly was the job description of a pinner? What all did it encompass in the plant?
M: Well, of the people who were in there, well of course they started out, the catcher would go them and then they would bring them in trucks and would pull the trucks into a conveyer type thing outside and there was two men who would unload the coups onto the conveyor belt or belt stroller type thing. And they would go in and they would come to the hangers. The hangers would hang them on the shackles and then they would go through the killers, would cut their throat. They gone on down through and come through scalders. Which would scald the feathers. And then they came around and came through the pickers. Automatic pickers. Of course that got the majority of the feathers if they were scalded right. But then the first job after that was the pinners, which I was a pinner. I had a little knife that I, lots of times you had to scrape their back, if they you know didn’t come clean and uh let’s see…they went through….a singer. Which was a fire coming in. Now this is back when I worked there. It’s changed a lot since then. But uh, now then they went through and they cut hawks by hand with a knife and they cut hawks. And went on down and someone dropped the entrails out of them. Pulled across and dropped the dentures out. Then they went out to, to the, out through the next room and through there they were cut up or whatever you know, they needed to do. The gizzards were skinned by little old rollers that went around you know. You put together on there. If you were, had a, bad hand or something, they would send you out there. That was supposed to be work you know that you could do without too much problem. I had a run a knife in my hand at home one time and I had to go there. And that’s what they put me to doing. Well I’d rather be back there pulling feathers. It was this hand that run the knife in. I said I can pull this many feathers as I can put these gizzards through there and might get my fingers caught you know. Which could get your fingers caught in there…
H: Would that happen…would something like that happen often? Was there a lot of like injuries…
M: Uh, well, they got your fingers scraped a couple of times. Nobody uh…one guy several years before I went to work there, uh he was working over, I don’t know it just exactly what he was doing, but anyway he cut his finger in a shackle and pulled his finger off you know. And uh at Moorefield, they had uh ice room for they had a yogger (spelling) they put the ice in the plant. And uh, they were told not to climb up on to the ice pile, to take uh a thing they had there and dig it down. One time, had a guy who climbed up on there and he got caught in the yogger just lucky they got him out. Now here there three or four years ago, somebody went clear though that yogger and uh, wasn’t anything left of him you know, at the time they got there…so….it’s kind of a dangerous job you know in a way. Because there are places you can get really hurt. But uh, you know a lot of it now is done by automation and their machines do this stuff and there’s people that sees this done right you know. Anything that’s left in the chicken they take out by hand, something like that you know. Chicken dropped on the floor would have to be washed up before it can be put back. I don’t know now somebody said they throw them away now if they drop on the floor so I don’t know. You know it’s been…I retired in 1986 so been a lot of changes since then. Yeah, it’s kind of a grueling job you know. You went in to work. I started fifteen to six in the morning and if we worked 8 hours, we got off at 2:30 I think it was. It’s been so long ago I can’t remember. But a lot of times we had turkeys we had to run or uh…hens that they took out of a land place you know and then we killed them. We had to do those. And at one time we had turkeys in there that I could hide behind…they were that large, yeah. And uh of course I wasn’t quite as big then as I am now but (laughs). So, but it was interesting but it was hard work. Hot work. Back where I worked, the scalder was right over where I stood. And it got a 120 degrees in there sometimes when it was hot outside you know. But it’s uh, quite a job.
H: So you can tell me like you say it’s really hot in there like if you were, if I was a stranger and were to walk into one of these chicken plants like what would I see? What would it look like? Then you’re talking about alot of these different kinds of machines and like lines and people were doing different jobs. Was there like assembly lines? Were like chickens coming through different stations?
M: Mmmhmmm. Yeah it’s uh, the shackles came around like this and came through like I said uh fire like then it went to another place that put water on them. People stood in different places along that line.
H: How many workers would you say were in there at any given time? Like…
M: Let’s see. I think that at the time I worked there…I don’t remember if it was 900 or some. There was a lot of people. Of course they did the chicken from the beginning to the end. They had the packing and the, uh downstairs, in the Rockingham plant and uh, they packaged you know and put them on the line to go out. But, like I said, it’s been so long I can’t just remember exactly how many were in Rockingham. Now, Marvel had more people than that. Because uh they run turkeys. They didn’t run any chickens. Marvel run turkeys. But Rockingham used to run uh even layers that would come in off of the farm. Farmers would bring them in you know. They would run those and then they would run the ones for the houses. They only lay eggs so long you know and then they butcher them. Put new flock in and uh, quite interesting. Like I said it was hard work.
H: I bet. So…(Books crash on the floor) Oh…
M: That’s all right. That’s all right.
H: I’m so sorry.
M: I’ve been busy this last six weeks and haven’t got to.. to straighten up like I should.
H: It’s my fault.
H: Can you take me through uh, a typical day. I know I remember we, I, I don’t want to lie, I know some of these things are going to over lap but like you know you get there in the morning at like what time to a typical day. I know you said some days you get off at like 2:30 and you work about like eight hours a day. But like you know, how is it, with you know, your breaks? Do you know, you got…
M: Well, we got a break I think it was 8:30. We went in at quarter to six, got a break a 8:30 and then went to lunch at 11:30 and went back at twelve. You got a half hour for lunch. And then you, if you worked to 2:30 you didn’t get a break.
M: You cause that was you know. But if you needed to go to the bathroom there was usually someone you know who could take your place. They had guys who could run the lines you know made sure that everything was going right and uh, they called the where I worked, the pinning room, killing room, pinning room. And then the eviscerating, where they would take all the entrails out you know. Then they went on back to the cold storage thing, run though ice then they went downstairs, packed…uh at time that I went to work there you could get a pound of gizzards for five cents.
H: Oh wow.
M: And uh you know you put in your order and put in your order on a Thursday and.on Monday I mean. You get it on Thursday. Thursday was pay day.
H: Okay, were y’all paid weekly, biweekly, or how often were y’all paid?
M: See you worked one week and then the next week you got paid.
M: But from then on it was every week. You know. So they had a week back on you. So when you left there you had a week’s pay coming you know. We had vacations. I forget now…we got a week’s vacation. I’ll have to look up my old contract books (laughs) I think I still got them in here. But uh, when I went to work there they were paying eighty cents an hour….That’s what they’re paying. What a minute…I was making eighty cents in shirt factory and come over and was making a dollar an hour. First raise we got was three cents. And that’s the way it went for a long time you know until the union could get built up so they could negotiate more.
H: How often would you get a raise? Would you…
M: About every…I don’t remember if got one a year…the contract usually ran 3 years. And I think we got three raises in that time but it was usually 3 to 5 cents. You didn’t get much raise.
H: Hmm…Did you have to have any kind of prior training to come into them…
M: No, No.
H: You didn’t.
M: No…when my husband told his boss that he was going to bring me over he said “Tell her to come work for me.” And uh I went in then later he told me…well when I left there he said “I don’t want to let you go.” I said “I’m sorry, I got a better job.” (laughs) So…I see him occasionally yet…picks on me.
H: So when you left there where did you go next?
M: I went to work for the union, local 593.
H: Okay…can you tell me about that.
M: These poultry plants around here and in Moorefield, West Virginia. Then when they merged, I can’t remember what year we merged, but with the local 400. But uh, we had a convention one time in Washington and then one time we went to um, Canada…Montreal, Canada, to a global, I guess you call it, where all the unions got together.
H: Yeah, a convention type of thing.
M: You were always studying for you know how to get ready for contracts and stuff, you know. I went to several different colleges for two week sessions you know or a week session on labor. And um it was pretty interesting. My cousin, I mean, my son tell someone said “Well mom’s gone to several colleges.” I said, “Yeah, Labor Colleges.” (laughs).
H: So before, I don’t mean to keep backtracking a little bit, but before you got into the plant and before you got into the working for the union, what was your educational level coming into there?
M: I had two years in high school.
H: Two years in high school.
M: I had some bad health and missed two months of school. When I went back, one teacher told me she said “You’re not going to make up your work.” and it was history. And I told the principal that I was quitting. And he said, “Don’t you quit. You’ll never come back.” Well, he was right because uh, my brother called me and wanted me to come and stay with his wife because she was expecting a youngster. And I went and stayed with them. But then later on my son and I went together and got a GED. (phone rings)
M: I made you lose your track.
H: A little train of thought. So you went to two years of high school. Umm, I’m trying to think, uh, and then from there you went to live with uh your brother’s wife or girlfriend and they were expecting. Am I right?
M: Yes. I went to Fairmount, West Virginia. And while I was down there after the baby was born, my sister’s husband was overseas. And uh, she said “Well, I’ll come to Fairmount with you.” And we got a job in a restaurant. And from the restaurant, I went to a bakery. And I had worked in a bakery in Elkins before I was married. And she went to work for Westingham…Westinghouse, making light bulbs you know. Then her husband was wounded so I went with her to Silver Springs, Maryland. Well first to Washington, D.C. to the Veterans Hospital down there you know. Then he was moved out to Silver Springs so I stayed there with her for a while and came back. And uh, that’s when I took a civil service test and went to work for the Social Security Board.
H: Okay. And what did you do for the Social Security Board?
M: File Clerk.
H: File Clerk
M: When President Roosevelt died, I was working at what you called the morgue. This is where all the people, you know you had to file cards for people who that had died someone you know. I was working in the morgue and it was really everything was just so still that you know…I fell while I was there. Back then I wore leather sole shoes. And they had uh, steps, of course they had elevators but there’s so many of us you know you couldn’t all get on the elevators so you went down the steps. Well the steps had this uh, iron or whatever along the edges of them, and we were going down those steps and all at once my foot slipped. And I parted people clearing out of the thing and on my back. And I didn’t quit working though. They sent me to the hospital you know, took tests to see if I had broken my back or anything. But then they gave me a job where I could sit up and could work without too much bending over. But uh, I worked there, let’s see…I think it was only about four months that I worked there before they said “Well you know your job will be done away with. We won’t need you because the person you replaced will be back.” Cause if you went into the service, your job, when you came back, was there you know. And so that’s when I came back to Elkins, but I had to ask for Mother’s Day off. Uh, leave to come home for Mother’s Day. And they said we can’t spare you. And uh, I said “Well, I haven’t had a leave since I’ve been down here. And I’ve accumulated some leave.” You accumulate um a day a month. Is what you accumulated. They said, “Well, we can’t spare you.” Well, I was young and didn’t you know…first time I had been that far away from home and even though I was almost 21 but uh, well I was 20 I guess. And so a girl that lived uh in Cocksford, West Virginia wanted to come home too. So we told them we were coming home. Well they sent my check home. I had to borrow money from Burks (laughs) and I hadn’t known her that long but you know she was..I said, “I’ll send it to you as soon as I get my check.” And I sent it to her. But uh, that was you know, I guess I was supposed to come home to meet my husband to be. It wasn’t too long before I met him.
H: Funny how that works out. Okay, so, fast-forwarding again. We’ve heard about the poultry plant, your experiences there. From there you became involved with the union, working for, you said, it was local 5…
M: I started out with local 593.
H: 593. And what was, like, from the beginning, what was your job description, like, what like, can you elaborate? What all were you supposed to do and who were you looking out for?
M: Well uh I would go into the plant, different plants you know. And if they had any grievances, I handled their grievances. Whatever it would be you know. Whether it was “they won’t let me have my vacation.” Or “they won’t let me go to the bathroom.” or you know, whatever. In fact I met a girl, last summer that I had even forgotten about. Uh, my daughter had broken her wrist real bad and I had to go over there and stay with her and go over there every morning and come back every evening. And one day when I was over there she said, “I met this girl that really thinks a lot of you.” And I said “you do? You did?” And she said, “I’m going to rent her my house down here.” And I said “Who was it?’ And I won’t give you her name because she probably wouldn’t, you know. Anyway this girl come up to pay her rent one day and she come in and she said, “Oh I’m so glad to see you. You saved my job one time.” I said, “I did?” She said, “Yeah.” (laughs) And I said, “Well, I’m glad I could save it.” You know. They would remember me, but there was so many people that worked in these plants you know. The five different plants that you know, I couldn’t remember all of those people. I remembered some names and the shop stewards name you know. But uh I never forget a face, but I can’t place names to those faces you know.
H: Were all of these plants that you were working for were they like, chicken poultry?
H: They were?
H: Uhh, what is being a uh, well what is one of the most memorable stories you have in terms of, like I know that is a great story in terms of the girl that you said you know you helped her and she remembered you. Is there one that sticks out in your mind that umm, that maybe had a major problem or that you really helped someone?
M: Yeah…Well, uh, the guy that, from Moorefield, that later got caught in the yogger, I saved his job one time. I can’t remember right off the top of my head what he did, but I got his job back and then later I regretted it when he got hurt you know. I visited him in the hospital, he was in pretty bad shape in there you know. He later came back to work at the plant, but he was crippled of course. Then uh, but uh, I don’t know…there’s so many things happened…I should’ve kept my books of course I’d take a pad with me and write it all down and all that. But …. I finally got tired of them laying around so I destroyed them. I don’t know it’s a…it’s just several things that happened that really shouldn’t have happened but then when you go to the company and talk about sometimes they were agreeable to uh, forget it. And you know, bring the people back to work.
H: What were some of those things? Do you remember some of the main issues that you said like that maybe some of the workers were having trouble with management and were there any race, or gender issues that you ever, you ever had to deal with? Or were they mainly low key…
M: Well, uh, it was in the contract what…we worked, all worked for the same price for a long time. But then we got job subscriptions and the raises would be the difference in their pay would be in the contract you know. And the company pretty much stayed to that because they knew they had to you know…because it was a contract. But uh a couple of times when I was in the Broadway plant, I’d be in there with chief steward. I was chief steward of the plant for a long time. Then I went to work as a business agent, business representative, whatever you want to call it. We had an election in, and, elected another person to be chief steward you know. You had several stewards but there was one that went to the office with the problems you know. And would go with the shop stewards. But uh, I know one time I went in there after I had gone to work for the union and the plant manager said, “Now you better forget…don’t you forget you work for me.” I said, “No, I don’t. Not anymore I don’t.” (laughs) And I said, “And you can’t hold it over her either that she worked for you because we’re representing the people, and we’re representing this worker.” And they said, “I was just kidding.” Of course he caught himself see?
M: But uh, as usual thing, it was pretty much talk to you, you know. See what they could work out. And if you didn’t we went to arbitration. Like I had that arbitration case back in Moorefield.
H: Yeah, can you tell me a little bit about that case? Like what all do you remember? A lot of the details about it?
M: Right off the top of my head I can’t remember why the guy was fired. But uh, I was in that month’s leave of absence and taking over for the regular business agent. When he come back, he about had a fit. He said, “You got an arbitration case going?” I said, “Yeah, you told me to do your job didn’t you?” Of course, I did it. I did a better job at his job than he did. But anyway…he finished the arbitration case of course I had to set in on it, because I was the one who filed the arbitration case you know. But uh, I guess the most interesting part was when we were on strike. I stayed at the Alma Plant and walked the picket, picket over very you know. Then we would come to the Broadway plant once in a while. Some of us. But uh, we had to go into arbitration over that you know. And meeting with all the company and company uh, big whigs I call them. And of course all the union representatives. My president…the president of our local and the vice president was there. And uh, just last week I guess, one of the guys from Rockingham died, Jim Kelly. But it was interesting just sitting and listening to them you know how they, cause the ones that was president and stuff they’d been in the business for a long time you know. And uh, so, but uh, you had some times when you would get pretty angry you know (laughs). This thing wouldn’t go the way it did. I know one time uh, I wore a patch on my shoulder showing I was a steward you know so people would know. You had to wear a white uniform at that time. And uh I had a patch on my shoulder, and I had to go to the bathroom and I went out to the hall, some woman grabbed me and said, “Wait a minute.” And I said, “No.” And she took the patch half way off because when I had to go, I had to go. (laughs). The boss said, “I know when you have to go, you have to go.” But uh.
H: What um, what would you say like your typical relationship was like as a steward? Or an agent of the unions? What was your relationship with the management people that you had to address? You know…
M: Well outside of the plant, like just talking like me and you. But in the plant they kept their place, and we kept ours. Because we knew we had to, uh, argue with each other sometimes. And uh…
H: Was that a hard process like you know, for especially if you were these people you would normally see outside like on the daily basis that you were also dealing with inside the plant?
M: Well you just meet them once in a while on the outside. Now we had a couple foremen that you know, just didn’t want anything to do with you. When you went into their department they were right there making sure you didn’t do anything you weren’t supposed to you know.
M: And uh, which I tried not to doing, if someone wanted to talk to me I’d say, “Can you wait till break time?” And lots of times even when I worked at the plant when I was chief steward, I would get up and leave my lunch and go talk to someone about their grievance you know. And my daughter and she would get so angry. She’d say, “Mom at least they can let you eat your food you know.” But uh…
H: What was the expectations of your job, were that you were supposed to take the grievances from people but you also saying you’re not, you didn’t want to break the rules with your management. So were you only supposed to take these grievances during break time? Umm, you know instead of doing it on the call.
M: Yeah. Yeah. Break time, lunch time, you know, or sometimes they would let you take somebody off of the line you know. And they’d say, “Well bring them in here and we’ll see if we can work this thing out.” You know. And uh, but, most of the time you had to take care of it during break and lunch time. And it’s like I said I’d get up and leave my lunch and …
H: And would, how does that process work? Did they come up to you, is it just like they tell and then you tell the management? Or is it something that they would actually have to document and you…
M: Well, I would always write down what their grievance was.
M: You know. And I would go into management and I’d say, “I have a grievance by so and so.” And we had papers that we had them fill out just like you have a paper there you know. And what their grievance was and then if I could work it out then the employee didn’t have to come in. But lots of times they’d say, “Well I want to see so and so.” I think they thought they could kind of, had the word in my mind, and now it slipped…if they came to face to face them, they wouldn’t say what they wanted to say really. But uh, I told them before I took them in I’d say, “Don’t pay attention to them,. Just think you know they’re just something over there.” I said lots of times you know it helps if you think well there they stand they don’t have any clothes on, you know. Get your mind you know, on something like this. And uh, so you know it was really a lot of the people would kind of back down when you’d get them in front of management. You know, and that’s where my job was to see that it was taken care of anyway.
M: You know, like the girl that always didn’t get to go to the bathroom you know. She would call me at home on the weekends. And I had one at Marvel. She would call me on the weekends and it was the same thing over. And she was drinking. Lots of times my grand daughter would laugh at me. I’d lay the phone over, I had a piano at the time, I’d lay it over on the piano and sat it there and watch television. I’d pick it up and she was going over the same thing over and over and over. But, she wouldn’t hang up you know. So I just left it over there and let her talk. (Laughs)
H: How many grievances…oh I’m sorry.
M: One night at 11:30, I just gone to bed and I forget where I’d been that day but I was really tired, just gone to bed and the telephone rang. Picked it up and it was the shop steward, chief steward of Moorefield. She said, “We’re on a sit down strike.” And I said, “You’re what?” She said, “We’re on a sit-down strike.” And I said, “Well why you doing that?” “Well they fired a couple of guys this evening.” “Well, what were they doing?” “They were fighting.” I said, “On property?” “Yeah.” I said, “Well, you know, there’s not much we can do about that if they’re fighting on company property you know.” “Well, they’re going to stay on sit-down strike till you get over here.” So I said, “alright.” I put my clothes on and I came over well, the vice-president happened to be in town at the time so I called him. He was a black guy. And I called him and I said, “Don, we have a sit down strike in Moorefield.” And he said, “Why?” And I told him. “Well you go on over there and I’ll be over there later.” So I go to Moorefield, by the time I got there, there was one of the management from the Broadway plant over there and uh, I talked to him for a while and got people to go back to work. I said, “You know it’s against the law for you to go on sit-down strike. You could all be fired.” I said, “So go back out on the line. Give us a chance to work it out.” You know. I said, “You don’t just walk off the line and sit down.” I said, “Because…” Uh I said, “Here in West Virginia you can have a union, but your main office is in Virginia which is a “right to work” state so you got to be careful. So I was over there for a while. Got them to go back to work and of course we had to work out the thing you know about the two guys later. But when Don got over there I had everybody back to work you know. And I missed him after a bit. He was in the nurse’s office laying there asleep. I was up all night and didn’t get away from there until 4 o’ clock that day. And I’m telling you, but I would come, I would get sleepy and pull over and park. Well all the truck drivers drove the poultry trucks back and forwards, they knew me and they go on and blow the horns. Finally I said the heck with this. (laughs). They’d call you anytime, it didn’t make a difference. Weekend or when you know.
H: Do you know what year that strike actually occurred? That little sit down strike…
H: The one you were just talking about. The sit down strike. Do you know when that occurred?
M: Indeed I don’t. It had to be between 77 and 86. But I don’t remember exactly what year.
H: Right. Was there any other strikes that you can remember being involved in?
M: No, well, we had the Rockingham strike and then we had the Marvel strike you know. Which is two entirely different things. Of course Marvel run turkeys and we had those people. They went on strike on Friday while they were going on strike on Monday. Well on the weekend the company got a hold of them, and talked a lot of them back in you know. And that’s why they didn’t get up there what they really went out for. If they stayed out they would have gotten what they had asked for. But back at that time, strike pay was only 35 dollars a week. Of course you didn’t make that much you know…about an hour in the plant.
M: So, that took care of part of it. Then we got food for them from food bank, places like that you know. And uh…
H: What was that strike over?
H: Was the Rockingham one…you said they were different. You know the Rockingham one and the Marvel one.
M: They were at different times.
H: They were different times. Were they for the same, like I know you know, the sit down strike was over two employees fighting. What was the Rockingham strike over? What was the reason…
M: Wages, and benefits, benefits. Mostly health care and stuff like that.
H: They weren’t offered…
M: They wanted the company to pay part of it and all of this but, you know but uh, like I say, if…excuse me, if the people had stayed out like they were supposed to, you know. Like they started. But they kept, their balloon died. Few at a time. So it was a waiting game for the company to see how many people can I get back in here you know? And that was the main thing and uh a lot them uh didn’t join the union until when Val went on strike. Which wasn’t very nice on their part you know. Because we had to pay strike benefits and got nothing out of it. So but uh…
H: How did…how could someone join the union? Was it really easy?
M: We had a little card that they would sign. Authorizing us to take dues out of their you know, authorizing the company to take dues out of the paycheck. The dues were two dollars and a half a week.
H: How much were wages per week? Like what would say on average?
M: Well like I said when I first started here it was a dollar. A dollar an hour. And uh, so that made you forty dollars a week.
H: Oh ok.
M: I don’t think the union dues…they were only a dollar and a half…a dollar and half, that’s right. Then later I think they raised them to two dollars. While I was in as uh, chief steward, the company, and the union negotiator, the union negotiator of the company that the chief steward would go into the office when they hired someone and then talked to them about joining the union and you know, and tell them the benefits and so on. And you could sign them up then or they would come back to you later and say, “Well I want to join.” And uh, but you didn’t turn that card in for thirty days. Sometimes they’d come back, like one woman came back and she said, “I don’t want to belong to the union. The company won’t think anything of me.” I said, “You think they think anything of you now? Other than you know, you’re doing a job?” And uh, but, we let her out you know. So, but, it was uh, that’s why the Rockingham strike they didn’t get what they wanted, because they kept going back and the Marvel strike too. The Rockingham strike was in November when it was so cold. I’d go over and walk that road over Alma along the plant there and big trucks would come by and about freeze to death.
H: I bet.
M: But we had a guy there that had a filling station and a little restaurant. He would let us come in you know and take breaks you know. Which made it…
M: My daughter worked at a plant one time. And I was on vacation. I can’t remember what they did to her. But she….you wore rubber boots…she threw her rubber boots at the person or the manager and said, “You can take this job.” He said, “You can’t quit. Your mother is on vacation.” She said, “You just watch me.” And so she quit, but I never got her back there. She went to work for Marvel, but she would never go back to Rockingham.
H: Was there ever any like cases like I…you said you didn’t remember why she quit but were there…as a union worker and uh a representative of the people, did you ever have problems with like sexual harassment or any of those things in the plant?
M: Uh, a few, a couple of cases I had you know. But those cases are hard to really get through to prove. Because you got to have a pretty good witness to whatever happened you know. To get them. But uh, usually it worked out peacefully.
H: Uh, have you ever like, with all your work, as a union representative, have you ever felt like you were judged differently from the time you became a union rep as to before like you know did you ever feel like you were being viewed differently?
M: You mean when I was shop steward. When I was a shop steward when I still worked for the company?
M: Well uh, like I said, few of the foremen you know was, “well you work for Rockingham” you know, and I’d say, “Not while I’m off on this hour. Because we negotiated an hour that I can walk around here you know. Right now I’m working for the union.” You know. But as a usual thing they were pretty nice about it you know. Sometimes they’d pick at me, “Well you’re bothering that person’s work.” You know. Then they’d grin and go you know. But uh, all in all the lower part of the management was pretty good you know.
M: Foremen’s were on the lines so they understood you know. Cause a lot of them worked on lines before they got to be the foremen.
H: Right, so they kind of knew what it was like.
H: Out of, you were saying earlier that like a typical plant would probably have somewhere 900 people working at a given time and that you know, as a union worker, you said you were covering five plants. Uh, many of those people, you know, if it’s, let’s say it’s, for whatever sake it’s five times 900, it’s 4500 people. How many people out of those you know approximately 4500 people would you say were actually unionized or part of the union?
M: Oh I doubt if we had ten percent.
H: Oh really? That low?
M: Especially here in Virginia…
M: You know, cause uh, one lady that was later, well I worked right beside her, then later she was made foremen at the Alma Plant. She said, “I get the same pay you do but I don’t pay nothing.” And I say, “Yeah, but if you would belong, maybe you would get more.” The more people you have that belong the stronger you are, you know. But uh, some of them just didn’t want to give up that dollar and a half.
H: Was there any other, was there any ways that like as the union as a whole, did y’all ever try to like to like…like you know word of mouth is a great way to advertise to people to say, “Hey, you should come work the union.” Did you ever have any kind of like advertising or like anyway like outside word of mouth that said, “Hey come to the union. Here are the benefits.” You know that…
M: Well we always would, when we negotiate the contract we held a meeting. And every month we had a union meeting you know. But uh, there again, people say, “Well I got things to do at home. You know, I can’t stay or I can’t come. I don’t have a babysitter.” Well lots of times we let them bring their…even when we were on strike, they’d bring their kids and we’d watch their kids while they were out walking picket lines. You know, had somebody watch their kids you know. And uh but uh, now I worked for a shirt factory back in Elkins one time and I was fired, for uh trying to organize a union. And uh, I later got the job back and got some pay out of it you know.
H: They fired you for trying to organize a union?
M: mmmhmm, see that’s strictly against the law in West Virginia. But my father was a coal miner, and he was pro union because they really needed it in those coalmines you know. And uh, he was trackman.
H: What is that?
M: He was more or less, kind of, I guess he was president of the local at the time. I can’t remember. United Mine Workers in that little area there in West Virginia. But he said one time he was trying to talk this guy into joining. And the guy said, “Well I don’t want to join.” He said, “I’m satisfied with what I get.” Dad said, “Well that uh, track might not be lacked as far back as…” But he was tickled to death when I got the job you know being a union representative. Of course I wasn’t full time when he died.
M: But uh, he knew that I was working at it you know. But if someone would have told me when my husband died that I would have driven down into Maryland and driven to Richmond and every place, I’d say, “You’re crazy I don’t even drive!” But uh, I had a friend after my husband died that taught me to drive. My husband couldn’t teach me because he’d say, “Do this and Do that.” You know, he’d be always you know.worse person to teach something (laughs).
H: Yeah, Well, so for I mean, what took you so long to learn it? You just are like it was hard with a husband trying to teach or was it just….
M: Well, I worked and I didn’t have time to, we didn’t have two cars you know. First time didn’t have a car at all and uh, I just didn’t need to drive I reckon or thought I didn’t. After I started driving I thought, well you should have done this years ago. I have a sister, she’s two years older than I am, and she never did drive. Now her husband died in 1997 I guess, and she has to depend on someone else to…you know…
H: Pick her up.
M: She has one daughter and one granddaughter that will do anything for her. The rest of them you know, got one daughter that doesn’t pay attention to her and she goes within about a half mile of her house every day, twice. That doesn’t come see her.
H: Umm, just so I, I’m trying to go back a little, you said, umm, I remember you were saying that you were making about forty bucks a week because…so I’m assuming they were forty hours a week.
M: If you worked forty hours. Lots of times we got only about thirty-two hours a week.
H: Really? It was hard to find shifts?
M: Depends on…now wait a minute, that was with the uh, the shirt factory you didn’t get. Sometimes we didn’t get twenty-four hours a week there because of changes in patterns and stuff. Lots of times I was called in there for maybe three hours in order to sew up a new shirt so they could take it out and have it advertised you know. I sewed pockets on shirts.
H: Oh ok…
M: Then I sewed collars on shirts, and I sewed cuffs on shirts but my main job was pocket setter. You were supposed to set a pocket on each side of the shirt. You were supposed to do a thousand pair a day. Which I got up to about 900 one day, and I thought…you’d ask me what my name was I couldn’t have told you. (laughs)
H: I hear you. Umm, so other than your father who’s a coal miner was there any other of your family members part of any kind of union?
M: Well uh, my daughter and my son when they worked for the poultry plant they belonged. You know, there was…of course my brother-in-law worked for Carters back in West Virginia. He belonged to the union you know back there but…of course I had uncles over in the coal mines same time.
H: Right. Who would you say, like just looking back in retrospect, you know you’ve worked as a non-union worker you know and then you became a union worker. You’ve kind of seen both sides. Who in the end receives more benefits? Or like, you know, I know Virginia is a non-union (yeah) state. Was it you know looking back on it now, was it better to be part of the union do you still feel?
M: Definitely. Definitely. Because you know like I tried to explain it to the people, they said, “Well the union don’t…” I said, “Wait a minute. You are the union. You all joined together, you are the union. You have the say. You just got these guys up here tells you which is, what’s right and what isn’t.” I had people telling me, “Hey Mabel, you shouldn’t have done that.” You know. “Well too late, it’s done now.” But usually you ended out ok you know. And uh, but uh…
H: Uh, so we’re going to go ahead and take a break…
H: So Mabel is there anything else you would like to tell me about unions that…to kind of sum it all up?
M: Well, really, the unions are only strong as the …like a chain…that has a weak link, it’s not as strong as if it had all good links. If everybody belongs then the union is stronger.
H: Makes sense. Makes sense.
M: That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. You know, you’d have a lot of people belong with a company, then the company’s going to listen. If you only have a few, like I said about the strike that time, they kept going back in so the company was a waiting game to see how many we could get back, you know.
M: Yeah I got slapped over at Alma because that strike was over you know. And then the plant everyone gone back to lunch, and I started out and this girl come back through there and went “whap” right up side my face. “What was that?” “That’s about something you said while you was out on the picket line.” Well I never said anything to people, you know. When they would come out and look, the ones who were still in the plant working…
M: And uh, my boss got mad because I wouldn’t have her fired. He said, “You should at least have her suspended.” And I said, “I don’t want her suspended. Because if I do that, then that takes her money away and she’ll say look what the union did.”
M: They took the bread right out of my kid’s mouth. “Well you ought to do something about it.” But I refused. So you know, my bosses didn’t like it.
H: So you were real adamant about protecting the union and its image?
M: Oh yeah, oh yeah.
H: Wow, especially to take a slap to the face. That’s uh…
M: You know because if you don’t uh, well in fact, I think the union went out about…couldn’t have been very many years after I retired. In fact I had people call me and say, “Hey, we wish we had the union back.” And I’d say, “I’m sorry. I told you before I retired; do not let the company talk you into dropping out of the union and throwing the union out.” Because they are the only help you have. The company promised them all kinds of things. Well, when they got the union out you know, that was it.
H: What would be your advice, looking back now, like you said like after you retired, the union you know, the union dissolved and is no more. Is there a way for those, you know, those chicken plants, now, I know the names have changed and the times have changed, but if a group of people wanted to, the workers at those chicken plants, could they form a union again?
M: Oh sure. Sure, if they get enough people to join together, and then they’d have to have quite a majority to get a company to listen to them you know. Especially in Virginia where it’s a right to work state. Now in West Virginia it isn’t as hard as it is here, but the people in West Virginia uh, they fought for a long time. About putting the union out but they were part of the company so when the union went out, that was it. But uh, I haven’t talked to a whole lot of people since I retired you know, because busy doing different things you know. But once in a while I go to a lawn party or something like that and somebody’d say, “Boy I wish that union was back.” “I wish it had never gone out.” But you know, I had nothing to do with it. So if they had kept up with the membership you know, I’m sure the union would have fought harder to stay in. But uh, you can’t see uh UFCW handles uh, plants in South Carolina and all around. Pork plants, meat processing, you know the meat processing…
M: Some food.
M: They had a lot of uh, things every year they have uh, thing, I can’t remember what they call it, but they have a whole week of uh kind of union trade week and different unions come together and bring their products you know to different places and show what they make and all that. I went to one, one time, and uh I flew, the first I flew in an airplane I took my son to get heart surgery but then next time I flew rather than some little old local plane up here was when I went to Massachusetts for a union seminar. And uh, that’s how I got to see the Statue of Liberty.
H: Oh neat.
M: Through the, from the airplane because I always got a window seat you know so I could see, but looking, “Well that’s the Statue of Liberty down there.” My son drove uh, over the road in a truck for a long time, and he took his mother in law several times you know when he would go down that way. He’d say, “Mom why don’t you take off work one day and you can come with me.” Well, I couldn’t do it you know. Because about the time I went, I had to go to one of the plants you know. Like I say, I was called out at night and whatever. But uh, it was quite an interesting job, but then after it was over with I was glad I wasn’t in it anymore because it was a headache….it really was. Really was a headache. Just like I was treasurer of the United Methodist Women for a while. Well, for five years. Then they call me when I was over at my daughter’s they’d say, well they was going to change, put the same woman back in there that was there before. When she handed it over to me she had nothing but a check book. When I handed it over to her I had a ledger and everything. And I had done the audit, you were audited ever so, you know, every year and all that.
H: So you were treasurer for what again?
M: I was treasurer of United Methodist Women in this area.
H: Now that’s a union? What is that group?
M: It was the women that belonged to the church. (Oh, ok) They have this little thing you know and they meet ever so often. Different churches they have, you have to have a treasurer for each one you know. But uh, I said it was a headache because my shoulders because we had a meeting, they took up any money for anything. I had to take it to the bank. I didn’t want anything left in my house that didn’t belong to me. I got room in my closet now because I got rid of a lot of stuff in there you know that belonged to the UMW. And my daughter gave me file cabinet so, I said well I’ll just give it to the UMW, and then they can have a place to keep their stuff you know. They don’t have to have it in their closets up like I did.
H: Well, Mabel thank you very much for participating.
M: You’re welcome.
H: And we’ll go ahead and stop it now.