Documentary: Wildcat at Mead

Posted March 6, 2011

I’ve been meaning to share this video for many months, ever since watching it for the first time myself at a public screening in Atlanta at the end of the summer. Wildcat at Mead documents an overlooked moment of history: a militant, unauthorized strike at a cardboard plant on the west side of Atlanta. The movie was produced by and features cadre of the October League (OL), a marxist-leninist organization who counted among its membership several plant workers who came to be important leaders in the strike.

After the screening, a former member of the Atlanta OL chapter and Gary Washington, a former Black Panther and labor radical who still works at Mead today answered questions and led a discussion of the meaning and relevance of the strike for today. It would have been awesome to record their presentations!

Little did I know that less than one year later I’d find myself in a situation (albeit in Wisconsin, not Georgia) where strike action was being seriously discussed by many workers. Of course, the specific underlying reasons for potential strikes in Wisconsin, their target, and the dynamic of community support are different. Still, it’s always useful to revisit previous chapters of working class militancy. An article below the video is from The Guardian, an independent marxist newspaper of the time, gives some background on the Mead strike.

(Thanks to Jim for the digital copy of the movie and giving me permission to share it online)

Atlanta wildcat strike ends

The seven-week-old wildcat strike at the Mead Corp. here ended Oct. 5 after workers voted to accept a company proposal for a settlement.

The wildcat strike which began Aug. 18, involved some 250 workers, mostly black, who were striking against racist treatment and intolerable working conditions at the paperboard packaging and container company.

The workers struck for seven weeks despite vicious company redbaiting, betrayal by the union leadership and police violence. A settlement was arranged only after the local union finally agreed to represent the workers’ demands. The workers held a victory party the day after the settlement was announced.

The settlement provides for the establishment of committees inside the plant to hear complaints about racist discrimination. The company promised to improve safety and working conditions within the plant and to discipline supervisors who use racist language.

The company also pledged not to harass returning strikers, but the previous suspensions of about 36 workers, including many leaders of the strike, are to be submitted to binding arbitration with an uncertain outcome.

Red-baiting attacks

Those strike leaders whose suspensions will be arbitrated have been the targets of red-baiting attacks by the company and the union. In particular, the October League, a communist organization, has been singled out for attack. The League is being investigated by the Fulton County district attorney’s office and the Atlanta police department for its role in the strike.

The Mead strike was the third major wildcat in Atlanta in the last few weeks. In each wildcat, black workers have been in the forefront and white supremacy has been the main target of the strikes.

Workers at Nabisco and Sears, victorious in their previous wildcat strikes, rallied in support of the Mead workers. Tensions at Mead were building all summer long as nearly all the workers there were forced to work 12-hour shifts due to a mandatory overtime clause in the union contract.

Intolerable plant conditions, lack of workers’ rights and racist harassment of black workers set off the Mead struggle. Two women in one department had passed out from the heat and dust in the air just before the strike. They were refused medical care.

Upon hearing of these incidents and seeing no response from the union, the workers called a meeting to see if some action could be taken.

White supremacist union

The leadership of Local 527 of the International Printing Pressmen and Assistants Union of North America has a history of doing nothing for the workers but collecting dues. Together with the Mead Corp., the union leadership has defended the heritage of Southern white supremacy by practicing trade unionism for whites only. Break-rooms and rest rooms were desegregated only five years ago. The policy that every white person is every black person’s boss still exists.

Out of the workers’ meeting came the Mead Caucus of Rank and File Workers, composed of mostly black workers and representing the majority of the Mead employees. Its leadership presented a list of demands to the company which struck at the oppression of the black workers as well as the terrible wages, working conditions and lack of benefits for all the workers.

The leadership of the caucus included some communists, including Sherman Miller of the October League who was elected caucus chairman.

For several days the demands were circulated and popularized at the plant. Shift and department representatives were elected and committees were set up. The workers sent representatives to the union to demand that they support and lead the struggle around the demands. Finally, after a 48-hour grace period, the company rejected the demands and the caucus called for a strike.

At this point the union leadership finally got into the battle – but on the side of the company. These labor aristocrats sent out a letter urging the workers to go back to work and calling for the establishment of a union-company committee to “discuss things calmly.”

The strike was solid, however, with 75 percent of the workers staying out. The rest, mostly white, returned to work. The union used its influence among the white workers to spread fear of the strike by portraying it as a fight against the white workers. As a result, many white workers crossed the picket lines as scabs against their own interests, many of them working up to 16 hours a day to keep the plant’s profits up during the strike.

Both this lack of union support and the use of white supremacy was characteristic of all three Atlanta strikes. Another common feature was the support given to the workers by the black community. They brought money and food to the strike and many walked the picket lines. Nabisco and Sears workers also walked the line and raised money outside other plant gates.

A united front was built in support of the strikers with such organizations as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) whose support for the Sears workers won them the respect of the workers at Mead. SCLC proved to be a helpful ally, doing widespread publicity and rallying support from black businesses, which in turn, organized a boycott of Sears, Nabisco and Mead products. Three mule-train marches were organized with mass support rallies.