From: Fred Magdoff
To: Andy Clark
Sent: 10/6/99 5:39 PM
Subject: should be of interest
This article below from today's NY Times should be of interest to
folks on sanet-mg.
October 6, 1999
Priest vs. 'Big Chicken' in Fight for Labor
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
GEORGETOWN, Del. -- It was an incongruous sight, the white-haired
priest in black shirt and white collar, standing in an immense poultry
house filled with thousands of clucking birds and the acrid stench of
The priest, the Rev. Jim Lewis, was in this unlikely place because the
Episcopal Church has assigned him an unlikely mission: to improve the lives
of Delaware's chicken farmers and poultry plant workers.
Lewis says his work is akin to that of the Old Testament prophets who
railed against injustices, but the state's powerful poultry industry
describes him as a one-man plague.
Day after day, as he muddies his feet in manure meeting with embittered
farmers and poultry workers, Lewis harbors no doubt that he is doing the
Lord's work in confronting an industry he calls Big Chicken.
"My big beef with Big Chicken is it's a greedy industry," said Lewis, who is
based in this southern Delaware town at the hub of the region's poultry
industry. "Greed is a good old-fashioned spiritual concern."
This hard-driving clergyman, a former marine and former all-state football
player, has earned the industry's opprobrium by preaching against its ways,
skewering it for driving too hard a bargain with chicken farmers and
workers who spend hour after hour hacking away at chicken parts in cold,
During many of the sermons he is invited to give at churches up and down
the Delaware and Maryland shore, he tosses pieces of chicken out into the
congregation, and asks, "Can you see the fingerprints that are on this
Through his unusual ministry, Lewis, 64, has earned a reputation among
religious leaders as a leading practitioner of a growing trend in which
hundreds of American priests, ministers and rabbis are using their pulpits
and moral stature to fight for workers, especially those on the bottom
Often his ministry seems equal parts caring and daring. He has formed an
unusual multiracial alliance of plant workers, farmers and environmentalists
to stand up to the powerful industry. He once angered union, industry and
church leaders by helping lead a wildcat strike against a poultry plant
where a worker was fired after he had a finger cut off.
He has condemned poultry companies for not providing health insurance to
chicken catchers, who have the dangerous job of cramming thousands of
chickens into cages each day before they are shipped to slaughter. He
organized a one-day visit by five members of Congress, who heard workers
complain of injuries from chopping chickens all day long and of wages so
low that they qualified for welfare.
Lewis' coalition, the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance, has become one of
the most powerful voices in one of the nation's leading poultry areas, the
Delmarva peninsula in eastern Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, which
produces 3 billion pounds of chicken each year thanks to the peninsula's
2,700 chicken farms, 11 poultry processing plants and 15,000 poultry
The alliance includes African-American chicken catchers, Hispanic
slaughterhouse workers, and white chicken farmers who say that poultry
companies like Perdue squeeze them so hard that they barely break even. It
also includes environmentalists who say the mountains of chicken manure the
industry produces are fouling the Chesapeake Bay and nearby rivers.
George Cmael, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an
environmental group, said, "Rev. Lewis is something else. He has the ability
to tell a compelling story and to bring what others may view as disparate
When Lewis stopped in at Carole Morison's farm in Pocomoke City, Md.,
while doing his alliance-building, she gave him an earful about the poultry
The industry exploits her by not paying enough for her chickens, she said.
She complained that her family farm has lost money the past two years, after
she and her husband invested $220,000 to build two 500-foot-long chicken
houses a decade ago. To make ends meet, her husband has had to take a
full-time job with a farm equipment dealer.
Perdue periodically gives her 54,000 chicks a day old. Then over seven
weeks she raises them to be five-pound broilers. Perdue pays her 16 cents a
bird, after subtracting the cost of Perdue-supplied chicken feed and
Mrs. Morison, who lives with her husband and son in a $20,000 trailer, said
Perdue also required her to spend $30,000 on a metal manure shed to reduce
the runoff of manure into nearby streams.
"The manure shed is worth more than the house we live in because I can't
afford more for a house," she said.
Mrs. Morison said Perdue Farms also told her to install a $15,000 drinking
system for her chickens, adding that if she did not agree, she risked losing
her contract and being blackballed by the industry. To add insult to
financial injury, she said Perdue's engineers declared that system obsolete
three years after she installed it.
"It's indentured servitude, that's what it is," she said. "This is a David
and Goliath situation, and the poultry alliance has given us a voice to help
level the playing field."
Lewis first showed up at the Morisons' door in 1995, soon after the
Episcopal Bishop of Delaware hired him. That bishop, Cabell Tennis, now
retired, said he wanted Lewis to help those working in the chicken industry,
to go beyond giving care and charity and to work to change social structures
in a way that would help eliminate poverty.
But industry officials often accuse Lewis of being deaf to their side of the
story. Bill Satterfield, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry
Association, said, "The church certainly has a role in improving the quality
of life, but they're not the only ones who have concerns about the quality
He said only a small minority of chicken growers supported the alliance.
Lewis countered that many growers support it but are too intimidated to
Perdue asked Satterfield to respond on its behalf. He called Lewis' attacks
inflammatory and often inaccurate. "The industry is providing employment to
thousands of people and is helping feed the world with a safe product," he
said. "I don't understand what he means when he says we're a greedy
industry. Our industry pays a competitive wage. They hire people who
otherwise would be unemployed. Many Hispanic workers come to this area
because of the opportunities this industry has provided."
The bishop sounded pleased and vindicated by these complaints. "If I were
the industry I'd probably have those feelings," said Tennis. "That's just
another way of saying, 'We're uncomfortable.' The church's function is to
make institutions uncomfortable. If we weren't making ourselves and others
uncomfortable, we're probably not doing our job."
To Unsubscribe: Email email@example.com with the command
"unsubscribe sanet-mg". If you receive the digest format, use the command
To Subscribe to Digest: Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the command
All messages to sanet-mg are archived at: