'Poultry Justice'

Why Bush took on the chicken cartel

No one would expect President George W. Bush to rush to the defense of worker rights, yet in at least one sector, his administration is acting ideologically out of character. After going after one leading poultry processor and coming to regulatory blows with another, the Department of Labor (DOL) 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 DOL seemed to dither amid calls to action on behalf of poultry workers. More recently 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-faith-based organizations. The administration’s new attentiveness 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 call attention to chicken factories where workers typically earn less than $7 an hour (the lowest pay in the meat industry), and suffer among the highest rates of industrial workplace injury. The campaign has been organized by the Chicago-based National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, and includes sixty local religious coalitions, a few dedicated solely to "poultry justice." At the heart of this particular fight are decades-old pay practices in a thriving industry that employs approximately two hundred and fifty thousand 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 $10-million settlement with Perdue Farms Inc., which will pay two years of back wages to an estimated twenty-five thousand current and former employees. This is one of the largest consent judgments in the history of DOL’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 holding to the 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 more lawsuits.

The labor department calls this new aggressiveness a simple matter of enforcing wage and hours laws, but the politics behind it doesn’t cut so cleanly. For one thing, people far tighter with the administration than Leone Jose Bicchieri, who runs the Interfaith Committee’s poultry campaign, have given their support to Tyson. Senate minority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and other poultry-state Republicans might well have been taken aback when the administration chose to pick up where the Clinton administration left off with its poultry probes.

Besides, the arguments are not all on one side. The 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 supporters 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 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, "but they weren’t dragged kicking and screaming into this. They had a lot of things on their plate." They also had letters from Southern prelates and unexpected visits by clergy to DOL field offices, before granting twenty-five religious leaders a lively session with Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao in June 2001.

This would not be the first time faith groups have drawn 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 antipoverty alliance, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Likewise, partly at the behest of religious groups the administration has applied its fuzzy doctrine of "compassionate conservatism" to foreign aid and poor-nation debt relief.

Why would these voices carry so 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 of their social concerns. Though the White House has been lying 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 Reverend Jim Wallis of Call to Renewal, have pinned hopes on seeing the religion initiative evolve into a serious partnership between groups like his and the administration in search of solutions to poverty. That vision has materialized on 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.

Published in the 2002-10-25 issue: 

William Bole is a journalist and co-author, with Bob Abernethy, of The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World.

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