Chicken catchers for Tyson Foods, Inc. are getting plucked. Tyson is one of the largest chicken processors in the world, and Tyson family members are wealthy longtime certified FOB's (Friends of Bill Clinton). The family's close relationship with the president was in play during the administration's final days when Clinton added Archie Schaffer III to his now infamous list of presidential pardons. Schaffer, a spokesman for Tyson Foods, had been convicted under a 1907 law of trying to unduly influence agricultural policy -- read that "bribe" -- former Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy.
Yet, despite its wealth and political connections, this humongous corporation is trying to stiff its workers. (For more on the Clinton/Tyson relationship, see Doug Ireland's "Birds of a Feather" at www.citypages.com/databank/19/892/article4074.asp).
I'm mostly laying off meat these days, so I'm turning more and more to chicken. Back in the old days, my mother bought only the plumpest of kosher chickens hanging from hooks in the neighborhood kosher butcher shop in the Bronx. When I was sent on a chicken run, my mom would remind me to "make sure Morris gives you a nice one." Not knowing what a "nice one" was left me at the mercy of Morris and his brothers. But he and his crew were good guys and they never fawned off any foul fowl. In those days the chickens still had some feathers and Mom did the final plucking over the kitchen sink. We're not talking about the dark ages here -- merely about 50 or so years ago.
Before I get lost in that thought, let me confess that my knowledge about where chickens are raised and how they're grown, fed, caught, killed, cut-up and shipped is pretty limited. So, when I received the latest online "Defenders Rural Updates," from Scotty Johnson of Defender of Wildlife's National Rural Community Outreach Campaign, the story about Tyson and the chicken catchers caught my eye. (Defenders updates provide news on important developments in rural America; subscribe by emailing email@example.com with the word subscribe in the subject line.)
In June 2000, chicken catchers, who work under extremely difficult conditions supplying live birds to chicken processors, filed a suit against Tyson over its "failure to pay overtime wages" to workers who, according to "a 1996 US Supreme Court Ruling and ... [a] ... ruling in February 2000 in US District Court," are employees. On April 4, Tyson came in with an offer to settle the lawsuit. However, the "offer made by Tyson was 1/20th the amount owed to the catchers." That is, for every dollar owed to the workers, Tyson would give them 5 cents. "We didn't catch 1/20th of Tyson's chickens" said an angry Patrick Harmon, a former chicken catcher for Tyson.
Make no mistake about it, the chicken industry clucks. That's why folks have come together in organizations such as the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance (DPJA), an alliance of "the farmers, the chicken catchers, the processing plant workers, the communities, religious organizations, environmentalists, those concerned about animal husbandry, and the consumers that support and sustain the poultry industry" -- (www.dpja.org). Delmarva is the Eastern Shore peninsula shared by Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
The organization believes that "American values and our faith traditions mandate that profits are legitimate only if made in adherence with basic ethical and moral standards. Disregard for the physical safety and social and economic well-being of workers, farmers, and communities, poverty level wages and inadequate health benefits, violations of human rights, and environmental degradation are unethical and immoral practices of the poultry companies. Their greed knows no limits." (For more, see the Catholic Campaign for Human Development -- www.nccbuscc.org/cchd/povertyusa/success1.htm).
According to the Rev. Jim Lewis, an Episcopal minister working for the Episcopal Diocese in Delaware: "The modern industrial model of food production, being like an assembly line, depends on lots of people working to bring food to the table. Not only that, those who work to bring us the food we eat are separated from one another, kept that way by food producers who do not want the various parties along the production line getting to know one another, talk with one another or organize together for change."
Tyson Foods is headquartered in Springdale, Ark. It is, according to PR Newswire, "the world's largest fully integrated producer, processor and marketer of chicken and chicken-based convenience foods, with 68,000 team members and 7,000 contract growers in more than 100 communities."
Visiting Tyson's Web site makes you realize how much baloney (chicken baloney no doubt) there is on the Internet (www.tyson.com). You can enter its "$10,000 Backyard Makeover Sweepstakes"; discover the winner of the "Now You're Cooking Smart" contest; savor the featured recipe -- grilled chicken with tomato basil garlic and mango salsa; check out what the company terms it's fight against hunger; and read a bunch of selected news items -- none of which mention its employees.
Hoovers Online (www.hoovers.com), which provides company profiles and links to SEC filings, company annual reports, and recent news stories, dubs Tyson the "800-pound chicken." After a court battle this spring, Tyson is poised to purchase IBP Inc., the nation's #1 beef processor. This will make the merged company the top meat processor in the US, with "30% of the beef market, 33% of the chicken market and 18% of the pork market," according to a mid-June Associated Press report.
In early January, Tyson Foods, along with two other giant food conglomerates, IBP Inc., and Smithfield Foods was named by Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman to their annual list of the "Ten Worst Corporations of 2000." Tyson was also spotted on the Corporate Crime Reporter's list of the "Top 100 Corporate Criminals of the 1990s."
To the company's credit, it recently signed a five-year agreement with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) establishing a partnership to explore ways of improving safety conditions at Tyson processing facilities in Clarksville, Ark., and Monett, Mo. That's an agreement that will hopefully spread beyond merely these two plants.
So, there you have it. Tyson, the biggest chicken processor in the US, will soon become even bigger. The Tyson family is extremely well connected and has unlimited amounts of dough, yet it's haggling over what amounts to chicken feed. The chicken catchers, working under deplorable conditions, need a helping hand. Write to Mr. John Tyson, Tyson Foods, Inc., P.O. Box 2020. Springdale, AR 72765, or call at 800-233-6332 and tell him to pay the catchers what they earned fairly and while they're at it, recognize their employee status immediately. Let Tyson know there's lots of folks who care about the chicken catchers.
Bill Berkowitz is a free lance writer covering the religious right and related conservative movements, and a columnist at Working Assets' workingforchange.com.