High court hears dispute over poultry workers At issue is union status of chicken-gathering crew

November 07, 1995|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court moved yesterday to settle a dispute in the poultry industry over management's duty to negotiate with unions over the pay and job conditions of workers who gather chickens on farms and truck them to processing plants.

At issue in a North Carolina case that could have an effect in Maryland is whether chicken-gathering crews are to be treated like farm laborers or factory workers. Farm laborers are ineligible for workplace protection under federal labor law.

Lower federal courts have reached conflicting rulings. As a result, almost all major poultry companies now operate under varying legal obligations.

William Roenigk, senior vice president of the National Broiler Council, an industry trade group representing management, said the court rulings mean that individual companies are governed by different rules in different states.

About half the companies in the industry are unionized, he said.

The council, whose members process 95 percent of the chickens consumed in the nation, told the Supreme Court: "Workers engaged in the same tasks on chicken farms in Maryland and Georgia should be classified the same for purposes of the [federal labor law], but they are not." The council contends that chicken-gathering crews are farm laborers.

The outcome of the case could affect labor relations at Perdue Farms, a Salisbury-based poultry company. Perdue uses the kind of crews that are involved in the dispute the justices will hear.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., which decides federal legal issues for Maryland and neighboring states, ruled in March that poultry workers who gather and ship live chickens to processing plants are covered by federal labor protection.

It said they are not agricultural workers outside the reach of the National Labor Relations Act.

That ruling was challenged in an appeal by Holly Farms Corp. and its parent company, Tyson Foods Inc. They raised other issues in their appeal to the Supreme Court, but the justices voted yesterday to rule only on the question of agricultural laborers.

Labor disputes broke out within Holly Farms after Tyson Foods acquired Holly Farms in 1989 and began to merge their transportation departments, leading to protests by Teamsters locals. One issue was whether 167 Holly Farms workers in Wilkesboro, N.C., were farm workers and thus ineligible to be in a collective bargaining unit.

The National Labor Relations Board considers them to be nonagricultural workers and has ruled that Holly Farms must negotiate with the Teamsters over their working conditions.

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