Normally, at 2 each morning, James Lee Turner is cornering plump Perdue Farms Inc. chickens in a farmer's barn, grabbing five in each hand and stuffing them into cages for their last ride.
But at 2 a.m. yesterday, the 34-year-old Salisbury man was huddled in the cold in front of Perdue's Salisbury processing plant, protesting the company's decision to cut his pay by as much as 17 percent.
Holding signs that read "We don't catch chickens for chicken feed," Mr. Turner and 26 other catchers called for Perdue to restore their pay of $2.25 for every thousand chickens they catch.
At that rate, they have to stuff 10 chickens into a cage every 7 seconds in order to catch 40,000 chickens and earn $90 a night.
"It is very hard work. It is miserable. Your fingers crack open because it gets so hot. Your skin chafes and the dust gets into it," Mr. Turnmr said.
Three of the plant's four nine-worker catching crews picketed yesterday. One crew continued to round up chickens and bring them into the plant, where the living chickens are turned into chicken wings, drumsticks and fryers.
The strike is unusual because none of the workers is unionized. The catchers don't even technically work for Perdue, which ha( contracted out the catching work and is cutting the price it will pay the Salisbury-area contractors. None of its other plants is affected by the cuts, Perdue said.
Perdue is known for taking an extremely tough anti-union stance, sometimes going to extreme lengths to prevent workers' collective action.
Perdue spokesman Steve McCauley said the strike hadn't hurt the plant because the company has found other people willing to pick up chickens from farms in the area.
Mr. McCauley said Perdue had decided to cut pay for some of its catchers at is Salisbury plant because the plant's costs are too high. But workers and crew leaders disputed Perdue's claims.
Bob Reynolds, a business manager for the Teamsters local that represents workers at some of Perdue's competitors, said the (catchers he represents earn at least as much as Perdue's catchers.
The catchers at Showell Farms Inc., for example, earn $2.78 per thousand, or nearly 25 percent more than Perdue catchers, Mr. Reynolds said.
And Clinton Marshall Sr., a 17-year veteran catching-crew leade for Perdue, said Perdue's catchers "are the lowest-paid anywhere on the Shore."
Mr. Marshall said he and all the catchers used to be Perdue employees, but a year ago the company made crew leaders independent contractors and had them subcontract the work out to the catchers.
The crew leaders were called in last week and told by Perdue managers that their pay would be cut, he said. Then the Perdue managers told them how to pass those cuts -- in both pay and benefits -- on to the catchers, Mr. Marshall said.
Mr. Marshall said the crew leaders objected, but the company said it was going ahead with the cuts with or without them."What it boils down to is we have to catch 25,000 more chickens for no more money," he said.
"We are independent contractors, but they tell us what to do. . . .They had it all figured out," he said.
Although he himself was idled by the strike that began yesterday and may lose his job if he can't convince his crew to come back to work in a few days, Mr. Marshall said he is angry at the company.
"If I thought Perdue was losing money, I'd go along with them," he said. "But that plant isn't losing money," he said.
Mr. Turner, the catcher, said his emotions have wavered between fear and determination during the strike. The company has told them they will lose their jobs if they don't return to work soon, he said.
"We are getting kind of scared now," he said.
"I've got a wife and a daughter. I'm looking at the stuff in my house" that he doesn't want to lose, he said.
"But there ain't no turning back. . . .We are fighting to keep our benefits," he said.