Poultry workers have union rights, high court says Those who gather birds are not classified as farm employees, justices rule

April 24, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The chicken-processing industry lost out yesterday in a plea to the Supreme Court to keep unions from signing up workers who gather the chickens on the farm and send them off to slaughter.

Ruling 5-4, the court gave a strict interpretation to a federal law that exempts farm workers from federal labor law's protections, including the right to join unions and bargain over pay and other working conditions.

Those rights, the majority decided, protect the employees of processing companies who go to a farm to catch the chickens from pens, load them into cages, put the cages on trucks, and drive them to a factory to be killed and dressed for market. Those workers are not farm laborers, the court said.

The key to the ruling was this conclusion: A worker who does a job on a farm, but actually works for and is paid by a processing company, is not an agricultural laborer under federal law. The court said, in an opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that those laborers are linked in their jobs to the processing operation -- and that puts them under federal labor law.

The four dissenters argued that it should be the place of work -- on the farm -- and not the identity of the employer that determined who was a farm laborer.

While arguing with the majority on the proper way to interpret federal law, the dissenters did agree that the truck drivers involved in chicken-gathering activities are not agricultural laborers.

The court's ruling cleared up a dispute among lower federal courts on the job rights of chicken-gathering crews.

Those disputes had come in courts located in all the key areas where the nation's major poultry firms operate, and those companies joined in urging the justices to sort out the matter.

The court decision came in a test case involving the chicken-catching crews that work for Holly Farms Corp. in Wilkesboro, N.C. Holly Farms is a wholly owned subsidiary of Tyson Foods Inc.

The National Broiler Council, a trade group for companies handling more than 95 percent of the chickens processed, said it was disappointed with the ruling, and would now study what the industry had to do to adapt.

A spokesman for a major Maryland poultry firm, Perdue Farms, said the ruling will have no impact on it because it does not employ chicken-catching crews.

That task is done for Perdue by employees of independent firms. Generally, Perdue is a nonunion employer in its own operations.

In other action, the court held a one-hour hearing to consider pleas by manufacturers of medical devices such as heart pacemakers that they be given immunity to nearly all damage lawsuits in state courts over faulty or unsafe products.

All eight justices who asked questions during the hearing expressed doubts that Congress had meant, in setting up federal regulation of medical devices in 1976, to go as far as the manufacturers wanted and oust state courts from any real role.

Even the federal agency that oversees the release of medical devices for public sale and use, the Food and Drug Administration, does not agree with the manufacturers that the FDA has the sole regulatory role.

The dispute arose in a case involving a Jacksonville, Fla., woman, Lora Lohr, who nearly died after an implanted heart pacemaker made by Medtronic Inc. failed. She sued the company for damages in Florida courts.

A final ruling by the Supreme Court on her right to sue is expected within the next two months.

Pub Date: 4/24/96

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