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. Turner 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 they 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 has 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 a 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 its 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.
And Clinton Marshall Sr., a 17-year veteran catching-crew leader 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.