Tyson Foods is the biggest seller of chicken in the world. And
in an industry that is known for severe labor violations, it could
also be considered the worst.
Chicken consumption has more than doubled in the United States
over the past 20 years, and industry profits have risen more than
300 percent. But the prosperity the poultry industry is enjoying
hasn't affected workers. Real wages for the approximately 250,000
poultry workers in the United States have remained stagnant over
the past decade, with average earnings of $6.74 an hour. The industry
is almost completely controlled by five major corporations, who
set labor and wage standards with little fear of competition.
Jobs at Tyson are so dangerous, strenuous and low-paying that the
turnover is around
75 percent annually. In 1999 Tyson was named one of the "10 Worst
It's not much better for
the workers at
ations of the Year" by Corporate Crime Reporter, based on seven
worker deaths, fines from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration
in several states, and other labor violations.
Tyson has a long history of union-
busting and pulling out all the stops to fight its opponents. Many
of its operations have been transferred to right-to-work states
in the South in an attempt to avoid union organizing.
Tyson workers each put in hundreds of hours of overtime a year,
partly because they are not paid for the lengthy process of putting
on, removing or cleaning their required protective gear. In June,
6,000 workers signed on to a lawsuit in Alabama charging Tyson with
violations totaling at least $100 million a year in unpaid labor.
This is nothing new: A recent Justice Department study showed that
100 percent of poultry corporations in the United States are guilty
of wage and hour violations. Jill Cashen, spokeswoman for the United
Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW)
union, notes that at least 50,000 of Tyson's roughly 60,000 workers
could be eligible to join the lawsuit.
In January, Tyson subpoenaed all poultry-industry-related records
from a variety of religious, social justice and labor groups, claiming
the documents are necessary for their defense in the Alabama case,
even though some of the groups aren't even plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Representatives of these groups see the move as a strong-arming
tactic meant to intimidate opponents and burden the resources of
these grassroots organizations. "This isn't about their defense,"
says Leone Jose Bicchieri of the National
Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice. "We're not even a party
in the lawsuit. This is just an excuse for them to find out what
we have on them." (Tyson spokesman Ed Nicholson declined to comment
for this story.)