A chicken catcher strike against Perdue Farms Inc. is crumbling.
After three nights of picketing outside Perdue's Salisbury plant, most of the two dozen chicken catchers who stayed off the job this week say they are giving up their fight against Perdue's plan to cut their pay by as much as 16 percent.
"The company just put it to us," said Charles Wallace, one of the strikers. "It was 'Come back to work or get fired,' " said Mr. Wallace, who lives in Dover, Del.
Chicken catchers round up chickens inside farmers' barns and put the chickens in cages for shipping to a processing plant.
The strike, though short-lived, was unusual because the catchers weren't unionized and were not directly employed by Perdue.
Perdue contracts out the chicken-catching work to crew leaders, who then hire catchers. But crew leaders interviewed this week said that Perdue managers suggested how to pass on the lower pay to their catchers.
The Perdue catchers had earned $2.25 for every thousand broilers caught by their entire crew, which typically consists of eight workers. An individual worker would earn $90 if his crew caught 40,000 birds a night.
But Perdue announced earlier this month that its catching costs at the Salisbury plant, which handles several different sizes of chickens, were too high. As a result, Perdue said it will cut the amount it pays for smaller birds.
Company spokesman Steve McCauley said the cuts only affect the Salisbury plant because that plant paid more, per pound, to have its chickens caught and delivered than any other Eastern Shore processing plant.
Mr. McCauley said that, though they would earn less per chicken, the workers could still earn a good living: "The theory is that you can logically pick up more smaller birds . . . You can fit more in your hand," he said.
When the workers chose to picket Monday morning instead of rounding up chickens, Mr. McCauley said Perdue would hire replacements if the workers didn't return to their jobs in a few days.
Although they are returning to work, workers and crew leaders called the new pay system unfair. "Catching chickens is hard work . . . And it ain't no easier to catch either" the lighter or the heavier birds, said Manwell Cottman, a crew leader.
"The catchers don't get paid enough as it is now" and the cuts will drop Perdue catchers' pay below that of their competitors on the Eastern Shore, he said.
Mr. Cottman said he and the other crew leaders objected when Perdue announced the cuts, "but they said 'This is the way it is going to be. Take it or leave it.' "
Perdue had told the leaders and the workers that they would be fired if they didn't return to work by today, Mr. Cottman said.