Perdue fowl catchers vote to join union

Historic OK is given at 2 of 3 plants

Food processing

July 08, 2000|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Chicken catchers at two of three Perdue Farms Inc. plants on the Delmarva Peninsula, including one in Salisbury, voted yesterday to be represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

"The catchers made union history," said Denise Crowe, union coordinator for UFCW Local 27. "This is the first time that any union has won an election at any Perdue plant."

The vote at the Salisbury plant was 13-9 for union representation. Catchers at a plant in Georgetown, Del., voted 27-10 for the union.

Unionization was rejected at a plant in Accomac, Va., by a vote of 25-21.

"The votes are not consolidated," Crowe said. "Each plant stands alone."

Rita Cherrier, a spokeswoman for Perdue, said the company has accepted all the chicken catchers as employees. "We hope to move forward and to bargain in good faith," she said.

The union election comes more than four months after the U.S. District Court in Baltimore ruled against Perdue and required the company to pay overtime wages to more than 100 catchers.

The workers filed a class action lawsuit in 1988, claiming that the way Perdue paid the catchers violated the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

The company argued that the catchers were not employees, but outside contractors.

That changed early last month, according to Cherrier, when Perdue said it was seeking to replace the chicken catchers with machines.

Cherrier said that when the company decided last month to install the automated equipment, it accepted the catchers as employees and provided them with the same benefits received by other employees, including health insurance and a 401(k) retirement plan.

Crowe said the company's action, which came on the eve of the election, was an attempt to have the catchers reject the union.

"We are very proud of these catchers," she said. "They stood up against Jim Perdue, who is considered the king of the Eastern Shore."

Cherrier said Perdue has begun a multimillion-dollar program to install mechanical chicken catchers, a process that is expected to take between three and six years. She said that no catchers will lose their jobs because of the automation. They will be offered other jobs within the company.

Even with the automated equipment, Cherrier said, the company will need a small number of catchers.

Chicken catching is considered one of the worst jobs in the poultry processing industry. The job requires catchers to walk into poultry houses, grab the birds and stuff them into stacked cages for transportation to processing plants.

Crowe said catchers are paid between $1.85 and $4.10 for each 1,000 birds caught. The higher fee is paid for catching larger birds.

Crowe said that there are other union plants within Perdue, but they were unionized before being acquired by Perdue.

Contract negotiations between the union and the company are expected to begin within 10 days, the time needed for certification of the votes by the NLRB, according to Crowe.

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