We first met Sister Ida in 1989 as a result of a call and outreach by the Black Workers for Justice (BWFJ) to workers in manufacturing plants scattered across Edgecombe, Nash, and other counties. With the help of members and allies, we leafleted many plants that season, calling for workers to come forward and organize their workplaces to fight discrimination, injustice, and unfair treatment. At the end of that day, a meeting was held, where more than 60 workers came out to speak about conditions in their plant. Sister Ida came to that meeting with another of her co-workers and spoke out for the first time about unfair treatment of primarily black and women workers at Rocky Mount Undergarment. Sister Ida worked at Undergarment for 26 years.
Sister Ida was already a leader in her plant by that time where hundreds of workers toiled each day and she had a history of being outspoken on their behalf. Together with BWFJ organizers, Sister Ida formed a small organizing committee that began the process of organizing, meeting with workers, making house visits every Saturday morning for weeks and months on end, conducting surveys, and leafleting. Before long, we had built the Undergarment Workers for Justice, an in-plant organization, that produced a monthly newsletter, filed grievances, led delegations to speak to the management about problems, filed charges at the labor board, and sold copies of Justice Speaks there each month, the BWFJ newspaper.
The Undergarment Workers for Justice became a member of the Worker’s Unity Council, a labor council formed to unite and coordinate the various in-plant committees and shop floor organizations built throughout the area.Strategies and tactics of the shop floor struggles were shared and discussed at the Council meetings and Sister Ida and other members of the UWFJ attended those monthly meetings.
The Black Workers for Justice Women’s Commission also spearheaded many years of work with Sister Ida and Rocky Mount Undergarment. We learned so much from her. She once educated us that when she first started working for Rocky Mount Undergarment, the plant had had a history of not allowing Black women to work there. She said only white women were employed and that Black women served as maids and housekeepers in the homes of white women workers in those days. The Civil Rights movement opened the door for Black women to work inside those plants.
But she was the leader and main spokesperson for all of the workers, black, white, male, and female at Undergarment. When the plant decided to lay-off a number of the white women after many had worked as much as 40 years in that plant, they came to Sister Ida and she stood with them outside of the plant and spoke to the media about how they were being treated.
In the Spring of 1991, the Undergarment Workers for Justice conducted a community sponsored and observed union election at the plant, where workers stopped outside the plant before going to work and cast their ballot on whether they wanted a union in the plant or not. More than 100 workers voted and kept in touch all that morning with Sister Ida inside the plant to learn the results as soon as possible. Over 90 percent voted in favor of forming a union. Sister Ida told us that when she shared with the workers the result of the vote, a feeling of joy shot across the plant floor, as if the women were finally free. This victory at Undergarment formed one of the first of several “non-majority unions without a contract” we organized in the Edgecombe/Nash area in that period. Management was informed of the union’s existence and a “Stewards Manual for Union’s Without a Contract” was developed for leaders and stewards on the shop floor.
In September of 1991, when 25 workers at Imperial Foods in Hamlet, North Carolina were killed in a plant fire, Sister Ida had workers in the plant take up a collection for the workers and victim’s families that she later presented to them herself. She spoke at the solidarity program organized by the Wilson Labor Council (another labor council organized through BWFJ’s work in eastern North Carolina) in support of the Imperial Foods workers. Back at work, Sister Ida also called the fire inspectors in to the Undergarment plant, where a number of safety violations were found, in order to protect the workers. That plant was among hundreds across North Carolina that had never been inspected.
Eventually, Undergarment thought they would break her spirit by firing her but that didn’t work. She went back to school, got her GED and a degree from Edgecombe Community College. Years later, when Rocky Mount Undergarment closed and moved its operations to Haiti for cheaper labor, many of the women workers who had been a part of the Undergarment movement and fight in the plant, also went back to school. Sister Ida told us that the fight at Rocky Mount Undergarment had given all the women dignity and self-respect and that she could see it when she caught up with various former workers from time to time over the years. She said they all grew from their struggle for fairness and justice.
In 1992, Sister Ida and members of the BWFJ traveled to Cuba, where we were among the first US workers to attend the Cuban Workers Federation Trade Union School. We attended classes, toured worksites, schools, hospitals, and communities. Sister Ida remarked that back in the day, Fidel Castro was portrayed as some sort of monster to the people here and that Cuba was a very bad place. In traveling there to see for herself what was going on, she said she could see a society and poor country that was taking care of its people with free healthcare, free education through university levels, unions run by the workers, women’s rights and community organizations, and so on. This trip made her more conscious and committed to fighting for a more just society in this country, one that cares more for its own people. That same year, back here at home, Sister Ida participated in the historic conference on environmental racism in New Orleans, LA.
Throughout those eventful years of organizing and fighting for justice and fairness for working people and their families, Sister Ida traveled throughout the Midwest, building support for unionization in the South. She worked with survivors of Hurricane Floyd in 1999 in the town of Princeville which was totally destroyed. She spoke at churches throughout Edgecombe and Nash Counties and so on calling for support for worker’s rights. When people asked her why she was doing all this and that her actions wouldn’t change anything, she said that “they changed me”! We recognized her historic and impactful contributions when she received the Black Workers for Justice Self-Determination Award.
These experiences and struggles, including many others unnamed here in Sister Ida’s long and fruitful life, reinforced her determination to stand for what is right and enriched her already kind and generous being and spirit.Her life of struggle led her to become a “free” woman — a woman of wisdom, foresight, and commitment to social, economic, and political justice.