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Crying Fowl

Activists Score One for “Poultry Justice”

By William Bole

October, 2002

     No one would accuse President Bush of rushing overboard in defense of worker rights, yet in at least one woeful segment of the workforce, his administration is acting ideologically out of character. After shaking down one leading poultry processor and coming to regulatory blows with another, the Department of Labor is putting the whole chicken industry on notice that it may owe workers hundreds of millions of dollars for time worked off the clock.
     Last year, the department seemed to dither amid calls to action on behalf of poultry workers, but lately its stance has been unequivocal as well as unfriendly to industry. The reason for this bend in policy could be plausibly summed up in three words – which also turn light on some other occasions when the administration hasn’t seemed to act like itself, ideologically speaking. Those words are “faith-based organizations.”
     The administration’s hard line is traceable to activists who belong to interfaith “worker justice” groups, particularly in the south, which is home to most of the nation’s poultry plants. In alliance with labor and pro-immigrant forces, these activists have helped raise cackles in chicken factories where workers typically earn below $7 an hour (the lowest pay in the meat industry) and suffer among the highest rates of industrial workplace injury. The crusade has been mounted by the Chicago-based National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, which works with 60 local religious coalitions including a few dedicated solely to “poultry justice.”
     At the heart of this particular chicken fight are decades-old pay practices in a thriving industry that employs approximately 250,000 workers at 175 processing plants. Specifically, the federal government is insisting that poultry companies pay workers for time spent putting on and taking off special clothing and protective gear, or “donning and doffing.”
     In May, regulators reached a landmark $10 million settlement with Perdue Farms Inc., which will pay two years of back wages to an estimated 25,000 former and current employees, in one of the largest consent judgments in the history of the labor department’s Wage and Hour Division. At the time, the department also announced it was hauling the nation’s largest poultry processor, Tyson Foods Inc., into court for cleaving to pay practices abandoned by Perdue. Calculating that the industry owes workers over $300 million, government officials are now seeking settlements with other companies and speaking of possibly more lawsuits.
     In other words, the Bush administration has put government on the backs of poultry companies. Why?
     The labor department now calls it a simple matter of enforcing wage-and-hour laws, but the politics behind it doesn’t cut so clearly. For one thing, people far tighter with the administration than Leone Jose Bicchieri, who runs the Interfaith Committee’s poultry campaign, have flung their weight in Tyson’s direction. Senate minority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and other poultry-state Republicans might well have been nonplussed when the administration chose to pick up where the Clinton regime left off with its poultry probes.
     Besides, the arguments are not all on one side. Industry insists and a few courts have ruled that time spent donning and doffing is so minimal as to be “uncompensable.” The government says each worker dons and doffs about eight minutes a day, which works out to roughly $500 a year of unpaid labor, while activists say the preparation and cleaning up take closer to a half hour. Mercy if not plain fairness would seem on the side of these poorly paid workers, but it is possible to see the industry practice as something less than a human-rights violation. One would have expected Bush’s people to accept the more benign view.
     Instead, they sided with the paladins of “poultry justice.” As Richard Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, fretted in a telephone interview, there is “no question” that religious leaders and activists have been the chief instigators of the government’s poultry probes, though he added, “It’s taken on a life of its own, at this point.”
     For their part, religious campaigners are gamely playing down the degree to which the Bush administration had to be wheedled, goaded, and swayed. “We were able to politely keep up the pressure on DOL,” Bicchieri noted, using the labor department’s acronym. “But they weren’t dragged kicking and screaming into this. They had a lot of things on their plate.” They also had letters coming in from southern prelates and unexpected visits by clergy to department field offices, before granting 25 religious leaders a lively session with Chao in June of last year.
     This would not be the first time faith groups have elbowed the administration into an unfamiliar policy position.
     Slipped into the trillion-dollar-plus tax cut package last year was a provision making the federal child credit “refundable,” that is, available to hard-up families whose earnings are so low they do not owe income taxes. The White House called off a conservative Republican blockade of the expanded child credit after a late-hour lobbying drive orchestrated by Call to Renewal, an ecumenical Christian anti-poverty alliance, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Likewise, partly at religious behest the administration has applied its fuzzy doctrine of “compassionate conservatism” to foreign aid and poor-nation debt relief.
     Why would these voices carry far in this administration? The best explanation is Bush’s initiative to aid faith-based charities, which is compassionate conservatism made flesh. Faith-based organizations are the natural constituency of this initiative, which explains why the administration has been mildly solicitous to their social concerns. Though the White House has been laying low on that legislative front, strafed by arguments that public dollars would excessively entangle religion with government, the faith-based plan is still arguably the president’s signature domestic social initiative.
     Some religious leaders like the Rev. Jim Wallis of Call to Renewal have pinned hopes on seeing the religion initiative evolve into a serious partnership between them and the administration in search of solutions to poverty. That laudable vision has materialized on rather few occasions, but the gains have been more than meager for those like the thousands of chicken workers who will soon see pay that is past due.

William Bole is a freelance journalist in Massachusetts and an associate fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington.


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