Things looking up for chicken catchers


David Marshall is 36, and he's already spent two decades at one of the hardest, dirtiest jobs in the poultry industry - catching panicked chickens and cramming them into cages to be hauled to Delmarva processing plants.

Right now, says Marshall, who has caught millions of the birds at farms across the peninsula, things have never looked better for him and 120 or so catchers who work for home-grown industry giant Perdue Farms Inc.

Years of court fights and union rallies - aided by a coalition of labor, environmental and legal aid groups that have targeted the Eastern Shore's largest industry - have paid off in recent months with long-sought overtime pay, employee benefits and a new union.

These victories, Marshall says, could signal prosperity and respect for workers who have never gotten what they consider a fair share of either.

"You can see it in every paycheck, what we're fighting for," he says. "There is no doubt in my mind that this is the beginning. We're not going to back down."

There is little argument their work is hard.

Protected only by gloves, goggles and cotton masks, six- to eight-member crews like Marshall's operate with stunning efficiency. Wading into poultry houses crammed with tens of thousands of birds, they gather seven scrambling, clawing, squawking chickens by the feet, three in one hand, four in the other.

The captured chickens are stashed in racks of metal cages, which are loaded on flatbed trailers bound for processing plants.

On an average shift, crew members will grab 50,000 chickens. Four weeks ago, Marshall says, his crew set a record, gathering 73,000 birds in one shift that lasted 14 hours or more.

This time of year, the heat is stifling, the dust from litter and manure intense and the noise of the frightened birds deafening. In the winter, brutal heat is replaced by the overpowering stench of ammonia from urine, made worse because the houses are closed to protect the chickens from the cold.

"The job has gotten harder over the years," says Raymond White, a 15-year catcher from Pocomoke City. "In the early '80s, we'd catch maybe 35,000 or 40,000. With the plant in Accomac processing 400,000 or more a day, we have to catch a lot more to keep it going. It all starts with us."

Another change in an industry that processes 250 million chickens a year on Delmarva is that catchers who used to work at night, when birds are less agitated, now work around the clock, says White.

Last week, catchers at two of three Perdue processing plants voted to be represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Although the vote failed at Perdue's largest plant in Accomac, Va., activists say winning union representation for workers in Salisbury and Georgetown, Del., plants marks an important step against a company known for being anti-union. They are appealing the Accomac vote.

"This truly was labor industry history in beating Perdue," says Denise Crowe, a UFCW organizer who has worked for two years from a small office in Georgetown, Del. "Too often, their anti-union campaigns are effective."

Tita Cherrier, a spokeswoman for the Salisbury-based company, the nation's third-largest poultry producer, says accusations that supervisors in the Accomac plant intimidated workers or interfered with voting are "baseless." She says the company has dealt in good faith at plants where union contracts were in place when Perdue bought out processors.

"We have union catchers at our plant in Showell, so it's not that unusual for us," Cherrier says. "We have too much respect for the voting process and for our associates to interfere. In any case where our associates vote for union representation, we'll deal with them."

After arguing for years that catchers were independent contractors, not employees, Perdue was ordered by a federal judge in February to pay overtime to catchers, who said they routinely worked more than 40 hours a week.

Last month, the company reversed itself, agreeing to classify the catchers as employees entitled to the full range of benefits.

How much overtime pay is due catchers classified as contract workers for nine years has not been determined. But overtime pay of $7 to $10 an hour that began July 1 is a welcome boost for crew members accustomed to splitting pay ranging from $1.90 to $4.15 per thousand chickens caught.

After the Perdue catchers' success, the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance, an industry watchdog group, filed a class action lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, seeking benefits and overtime pay for catchers who work under contract for Tyson Foods, the nation's largest processor.

Perdue officials also announced last month that the company is testing two models of mechanical chicken catchers that could automate the difficult job within the next six years. A bonus, Cherrier says, is that the machines are less likely to bruise the birds.

Perdue officials say it is unlikely the process will ever be totally automated, and catchers will be offered other jobs if replaced.

Catchers say the machinery is slow and cumbersome, and unlikely to threaten their jobs.

If appeals fail, they say they will renew efforts to unionize catchers who supply the Accomac plant.

"People are making a little more money, and they're sticking to that," says Marshall.

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