The RWDSU is proud to represent workers in the poultry industry. Poultry processing is a hazardous occupation where the protections provided by union contracts can make a huge difference in health and safety and standard of living for workers.
Poultry in the U.S. is big-business. It’s a growing industry fueled by steadily increasing demand by American consumers. Americans consumed on average 10 pounds of poultry per year in 1950; that figure has grown to around 80 pounds per year today. Recent statistics put U.S. chicken broiler production at 36.9 billion pounds, with retail estimates of $45 billion per year. Broiler production is concentrated in a group of States stretching from Delaware, south along the Atlantic coast to Georgia, then westward through Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. The top broiler-producing State is Georgia, followed by Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, and North Carolina.
Driving the industry are over 250,000 low-wage poultry workers.
Dangerous Work, Crippling Injuries
For the nation’s poultry workers the job comes with low pay and dangerous conditions. Inside freezing cold plants, workers stand shoulder to shoulder processing birds at a lightning-fast pace. In some plants, workers must process chickens at an astonishing 140 birds per minute, and industry lobbyists are trying to enact regulations that could raise that number to 175. The repetitive motions that workers must perform all day to cut, slice, and hang chickens leave many workers with crippling injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Besides chronic musculoskeletal disorders, workers in the poultry industry face chemical burns and respiratory problems, and cuts and gashes from knives and cutting equipment. Wet floors pose a constant risk for slips and falls.
Sicknesses and injuries are a way of life for poultry workers. OSHA reported in 2010 that U.S. poultry workers hold an injury rate of 5.9 percent. This statistic is over 50 percent higher than the 3.8 injury rate for all U.S. workers. At non-union poultry plants where workers have no voice, fear of discipline or termination keeps untold workers from reporting or addressing workplace sicknesses and injuries. Workers are routinely urged to return to work despite health issues or injuries suffered on the job.
Without a union, poultry workers lack any recourse or a voice on the job, and have no power behind them to speak out against dangerous working conditions or poor treatment by management. Recent RWDSU contracts on behalf of poultry workers have created worker/management health and safety committees that help identify and address safety issues in plants, along with grievance procedures that give workers a fair hearing in workplace disputes. RWDSU contracts also put wage and benefit increases in writing, along with essentials like bathroom and lunch breaks.