Last week, 12 Pilgrim’s Pride poultry workers from UFCW Locals 227, 455, 540, 1996, 2008, and RWDSU Mid-South Council traveled to Washington, D.C. to fight for changes in the poultry industry.
Despite the financial success experienced by many poultry companies, poultry workers continue to earn some of the lowest wages and face some of the most dangerous workplaces in the industry. Pilgrim’s Pride workers especially are suffering.
When Pilgrim’s Pride faced bankruptcy back in 2008, the company asked the workers to make concessions to keep their plants viable. Those workers with a union voice on the job were able to protect themselves from the most severe cuts, but had to sacrifice overtime pay and holidays to keep their jobs. The company is now posting record profits but the workers have not seen a raise in over two years, or had the overtime and holidays they gave up returned to them. And, Pilgrim’s Pride is holding workers up at the negotiating table and leaving contracts open.
“We work hard and work full-time and we just can’t make ends meet on these wages. My entire community is centered around the poultry plant. When workers aren’t making decent wages, the whole community suffers because people can’t afford to buy anything,” said Brian Rush, a Pilgrim’s Pride worker from the Batesville, Ark., plant and a member of UFCW Local 2008.
“On these wages, a lot of people can’t even afford to buy the product that they make. If a person makes $9 an hour and a box of chicken is around $60 – it all just doesn’t make sense,” said Carey Stanley, a Pilgrim’s Pride worker from the Live Oak, Fla., plant and a member of UFCW Local 1996.
Pilgrim’s Pride traveled to Washington, D.C. on a mission to tell their stories and educate lawmakers and policymakers about what it’s like to work in the poultry industry. They visited and spoke with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and his staff, ranking members of OSHA, as well as Senators Pryor, Kaine, Bennet, and Stabenow, and several members of the House of Representatives.
At the Department of Agriculture, members told Secretary Vilsack and key staff members about the struggles they face working full-time for a successful company that pays low wages. Workers also pointed out that Pilgrim’s Pride receives almost $75 million in government contracts, and is the second largest government poultry contract in the country. They argued that changes have to be made so that there is some balance and justice between company profits and worker wages.
“I brought my W-2 and my last paycheck to show them that I work 40-hour weeks and last year I made only $18,000. I work hard, my family makes sacrifices, and we are struggling so much,” said Idalid Guerrero, a Pilgrim’s Pride worker from the Lufkin, Texas, plant and a member of UFCW Local 540.
Workers then visited with Assistant Director of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels, Chief of Staff Debbie Berkowitz and additional staff of OSHA. In their meeting, workers discussed safety issues on the job, including dangerous ammonia leaks, the lack of decent medical care at the workplace, and the company not reporting injuries to avoid any lost-time reports.
The lobby day continued with workers visiting senators and representatives on Capitol Hill. There, workers educated members of Congress and their staff on the nature of the poultry industry, how workers are treated, and called for the necessary changes that the industry and union can make to turn poultry jobs into middle class, family supporting jobs. Workers also asked members of Congress to support a new federal study on the poultry industry in order to investigate further into worker wages and workplace conditions and bring the poultry industry issues to attention so that companies will begin to be held accountable and changes can be made.