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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Daniel H. Pollitt, April 17, 1991. Interview L-0064-9. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The work of the Southerners for Economic Justice

Pollitt discusses his work with Southerners for Economic Justice beginning in the mid-1970s. Pollitt explains why the group was formed to help southern unions and how they helped such groups as the Poultry Workers. In describing how the organization employed both "legal and more sociable means" of helping workers, Pollitt emphasizes the role of nuns and former priests, who sometimes worked undercover to learn about working conditions and to help organize workers.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Daniel H. Pollitt, April 17, 1991. Interview L-0064-9. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Then for not quite so long, but I've been very active in the Southerners For Economic Justice. This was started in the early seventies when the Textile Worker's Union started to organize the J.P. Stevens plants. And the J.P. Stevens Company fought the unionization with every foul means at its disposal and every illegal means. There are twenty-seven different court decisions upholding Labor Board things finding that J.P. Stevens violated the Labor Act and then there are separate decisions saying that they violated the Equal Protection Act and the Minimum Wage Act and OSHA and everything else. It's a very respectable, major, blue chip corporation that exploits its workers unmercifully. So the Southerners for Economic Justice was born to front for the union in the southern communities. The members include W.W. Finlator and Jim Ferguson who is a partner of Julius Chambers and Julian Bond, and the mayor of Atlanta, the present and the former. And so what it is is big-shot black people in Atlanta and lesser known people in North Carolina. And we're the Southerners for Economic Justice and we carry on various campaigns. Right now we are doing the repetitive motion illness.
ANN MCCOLL:
Did you get the Poultry Workers?
DANIEL POLLITT:
Yes, the Poultry Workers. They get there where the beast goes by on a wire and somebody is there with a sharp knife to cut the neck or something. God knows, they have to do it eighty times a minute or something. And also, in the Hanes Hosiery where they make stockings or what do you call that? Panty hose. And we organized some people there. They go home after five years and their wrists hurt and they have to soak them in hot water for an hour. Just terrible. The idea was that we would work on these problems and then we'd get them into the union which would take care of more interests.
ANN MCCOLL:
How are you pursuing these problems?
DANIEL POLLITT:
We have organizers.
ANN MCCOLL:
So is it pressuring them directly?
DANIEL POLLITT:
No. Well, we do. We were going to do Hanes Hosiery which they sell L'Eggs, and we figured we'd go after them. Then we have the weapon which is to boycott the product. We can go to the major A&P or whatever and say, "Don't handle this or we'll picket your establishment."
ANN MCCOLL:
So you use both legal and more sociable means of…
DANIEL POLLITT:
Yes. And oddly, most of our staff are nuns and former priests. They are free from their orders to come and do work with the rural poor and the depressed in the South.
ANN MCCOLL:
How did this happen that they are mostly nuns?
DANIEL POLLITT:
I don't know. They were looking for something good to do to help humanity. We got one and they are great people. We had two of them in the plant. They'd go in the plant and get a job and work from within. We had two who…. You can't say, "I'm Sister So and So and my education includes a Master's degree at Catholic University." They always say that, you know. You have to be a high school drop out to get a job, so they'd falsify their applications. Then they'd get spotted and then they fire them for falsifying the application.
ANN MCCOLL:
But while they are in there they're getting the information?
DANIEL POLLITT:
Yes, and they work and they get it and then they say, "Why don't we have a meeting at my house to discuss this?"
ANN MCCOLL:
So they bring in some of their co-workers?
DANIEL POLLITT:
They bring the co-workers and then they say, "We need a traffic light in there and there are some other problems in the community."
ANN MCCOLL:
That's pretty creative.
DANIEL POLLITT:
Yes. They are community organizers is what they are and they don't cost a dime since they are self-supporting. Their organization pays half and they have to raise the other half. They all play guitars and they go to the Catholic churches and this is their Sunday, whatever is dropped in the box is theirs to carry on their work. They explain what they're doing and that sort of thing.