The largest union in the AFL-CIO will launch a nationwide boycott against heavily advertised Perdue chickens next month as part of a campaign to organize the company's 3,500 poultry workers.
The Washington areas, where Perdue is moving aggressively to take over a larger share of the market, and the New York metropolitan area, where it dominates sales of namebrand chickens, are expected to be two major battlegrounds in the boycott.
The fight is between the United Food and Commercial Worker's Union, AFL-CIO, and the Maryland based company that has combined agressive marketing and catchy advertising to carve out a growing market for itself.
The Perdue company is the largest poultry processor on the Eastern Shore, where most of its operations are located.
United Food and Commercial Workers has been unsuccessful so far in trying to organize and win bargaining rights for workers in the firm's five plants.
What the union hopes is that the boycott will help turn the tide. Similar boycotts have been used effectively by other unions against the J.P. Stevens and Farrah textile firms and California grape and lettuce growers.
The boycott also comes at a time when Perdue is facing increased advertising by competitors, including Holly Farms chickens, the largest selling brand name chicken nationally.
Jerry Gordon, assistant director of the United Food and Commercial Workers area couincil, covering Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia, said the union regards Perdue "as the J.P. Stevens of the meat industry." Gordon has been assigned fulltime by the union to coordinate the boycott.
However, the issues in the Perdue organizing drive are less well defined than they were in the case of the lengthy J.P. Stevens campaign, which pitted low-paid workers against a company that flatly ignored federal orders to bargain with the union.
Gordon admits that workers at Perdue's chicken-plucking plants are relatively well paid in what he describes as a low-paid industry, and that benefits are comparable to those in many organized poultry-processing plants.
Gordon conceded that chicken king Frank Perdue "has sought to match benefits and has given several wage increases in the face of the organizing campaign."
Perdue's director of employee relations, Thomas Moyers, calls the unions charges against the company "a bunch of garbage."
Gordon contends that the union wants "to bring dignity to the workers in the poultry industry." He accused Perdue of harsh and unfair treatment of workers, and said that workers lack job security and suffer from arbitrary treatment.
"Perdue fired over 400 people in one plant in a two-year period," Gordon said, citing an Accomack, Va., facility that he said employs about 1,000 workers.
Accomack has been the center of the union's efforts. A union representative election had been scheduled there for Oct. 2, but was canceled when the union filed unfair labor practices charges.
Approximately 50 leaders of the effort to organize the plant had gone out on strike in sympathy with drivers whom the Teamsters were unsuccessfully attempting to organize. Those workers were replaced, Gordon said.
Moyers admitted the union filed 11 charges against Perdue, but added that nine either were dismissed or withdrawn. Hearings were set on the other two after a preliminary determination of merit by the regional National Labor Relations Board. Perdue charges that the union filed the charges to prevent an election it expected to lose.
The Teamsters lost an attempt to organize drivers at the same plant by a vote of 81 for no union to 28 for the Teamsters, according to Moyers.
The boycott may prove to be an effective tool against Perdue, whose markets are mainly in areas where labor is heavily organized. "We're going to try to get the public to stop buying and get chains to stop handling Perdue chicken," said Gordon.
Perdue is "a big factor in the New York City markets, in upstate New York and New England," said Bill Rusch, director of marketing for competitor Holly Farms Poultry. Nationally Holly Farms has 12.2 percent of the total market and Perdue has 6.1 percent. Rusch said Holly Farms recently has stepped up its advertising to counter inroads by Perdue.
In Washington, only Safeway of the major supermarket chains carries a full line of both Holly Farms and Perdue chickens. Perdue accounts for about 15 percent of those sales, with Holly Farms taking 85 percent. Giant carries only Perdue cornish hens and roasters and has begun marketing its own name-brand chickens. Unions are conspicuously weak in the Washington area, but the United Food and Commercial Workers is one of the strongest and most effective here.
The boycott will begin officially on Dec. 8 with a conference of 42 local unions in Philadelphia State labor councils in Maryland, Virginia and Massachusetts and the New York City Council all have endorsed the boycott, Gordon said.
Moyers mused yesterday that "it's hard to say" what impact a boycott may have on Perdue. "There's an awful lot of demand for Perdue chickens," he said.