Here in the heart of chicken country, where stray feathers cling to roadside hedges like so many dandelions, something vaguely resembling a rebellion is taking place among the human inhabitants.
This Eastern Shore city is the headquarters of Perdue Farms Inc., the multi-million dollar chicken firm headed by Frank Perdue, the bald angel of advertising who performs his own television commercials with a gentle disarming small-town charm.
The locals here usually speak of Perdue with the kind of reverence befitting a prince or president. But these days the brawny, tattooed men who know each other by their CB handles, and who steer Perdue's trucks to Dixie, New England, the Wabash and beyond look at the King of Chickendom quite differently.
"He's a Godfather," cries Rockin' Robin.
"He's a mean, arrogant . . ." and Baby Huey reels off a string of obscenities.
An enormously successful self-made man, Perdue built his chicken empire with effective radio and television advertising that portrayed him -- and his company by extension -- as kindly and neighborly. Indeed, his obsession with good public relations prompted Perdue to ask his crew of earthy, hard-driving truckers to act, in person, as goodwill ambassadors of the sort he portrays on television.
Truck drivers, Rockin' Robin and Baby Huey maintain, were not cut out to be ad men. And therein lies part of the controversy here, which pits a corporate magnate and ardent opponent of unionism against 120 men who, after being stonewalled by the company, have turned to a union for assistance.
Three weeks ago Perdue's 120 truck drivers, all of them nonunion, walked off their jobs in a dispute over job security after three of their colleagues were summarily dismissed by the company. The drivers considered the dismissals unwarranted and, after repeatedly trying to meet with the company officials to talk over their grievances, they went on strike. But before doing so they called in the Teamsters Union for assistance.
After gaining no concessions or even a meeting from company officials, 96 of the truck drivers have returned to work, but bitterness between them and the firm -- which refuses to discuss the situation at all -- continues to grow.
The bad feeling on the part of the truckers dates to last summer when Perdue, who boasts on television that "it takes a tough man to make a tender chicken," met his drivers at the Sheraton Inn here to give them a pep talk. He told the men that their red, white, blue and gold trucks constituted moving billboards and that, in addition to driving, they had a duty to maintain good public relations, to present a wholesome and trustworthy image to customers.
"It didn't go over too hot," recalls driver Tony Harris. "We've been on the roads for years for this guy and he was treating us like children."
Out of the meeting came the "Red Book," a 30-page drivers' manual outlining, in addition to traffic regulations, rules governing appearance and conduct. According to a warning written in back, violations of any of the rules could constitute grounds for dismissal.
The book contains chapters with such titles as "Dishonesty," "Insubordintation," "Profane and Discourteous Conduct," "Offensive Conduct,' and "Habits, Morals and Outside Trouble."
According to the manual the drivers are required to wear "clean and neatly pressed uniforms, ties and shirts. You must be cleanly shaven . . . sideburns must be trimmed and can extend no lower than the lobe of the ear. . . ."
If you know anything about drivers and driving, you know it ain't clean," says driver David Cook, "especially with all them smelly chickens. If Perdue was going to put me on television it'd be a different thing. But I'm on the roads six days a week, man. How am I going to be a PR man too?"
Driver Samuel Camper tells of the time he took a load of chickens to New York City and arrived two hours late. "The man at the warehouse was p----- off because he's seen the TV commercial where Perdue's saying he'll pay for his drivers' speeding tickets just so as the chickens arrive fresh at the market.
"I told the man, hell, according to the 'Red Book," if I get three tickets I'm canned. Perdue's a good ad man," Camper says, "but sometimes he goes too far."
The issuance of the "Red Book" last month coincided with increasing drivers concerns over job security. On Aug. 10 three drivers were fired.
According to Teamsters representative Mike Markowitz, the drivers were assured by company officials that if they purchased their own tractor-trailer rigs they could continue to drive for Perdue. A few days later after the drivers bought the vehicles, however, they were told by the company that their services were no longer needed.
"Look," says driver R.E. Timmons, "it's hard enough dealing with the bosses without the "Red Book." With it, we're only a few steps from the door."
So the drivers met and, after selecting five of their number to act as spokesman, asked for a meeting with Perdue and company vice president Donald Mabe. The officials refused -- "they called us a mob," Cook says -- and the drivers called the Teamsters to act as their barganing agent.
"All 120 drivers have signed a petition backing the union," says Markowitz.
"Sooner or later, we'll have a union election.'
Meanwhile, the Teamsters have now asked the National Labor Relations Board to mediate the dispute.
The walkout did not go over big with the company. Officials persuaded some of the drivers to return to work, and hired independent owner-operators to fill the breach.
At the picket sites in Salisbury, Accomack, Va., and Georgetown, Del., company-owned video cameras were set up on roofs of processing plants -- apparently to photograph the strikers, according to the drivers. In Accomack, Perdue officials handed out red and white Perdue caps and free slices of watermelon and fried chicken to the dozen or so state police officers manning the picket line.
"They really know how to intimidate you, I'll say that," says Camper. "They know all the tricks. The sent a letter to all the drivers addressed to Mr. and Mrs. appealing to the wives, you know, saying how much we stood to lose if we didn't come back."
"Everyone knows Perdue's in control of everything," says Markowitz. "Even though we don't see him, we know he's everywhere."
A few days after the strike began 96 of the drivers, worried over lost income and families to support, went back to work while vowing to vote for the union if an election takes place.
"The word union is totally taboo around here,' says Markowitz. "What you have here in this part of the state is kind of landlord-tenant situation. There's the common man, the truck driver for instance, and the boss and there's no changing it.
"The mindset," he says, explaining the motives of the drivers who returned to work, "is 'we can't do anything even if we do stick together, so why fight it?' We're dealing with years and years of tradition here that won't change overnight."
Donald Miller of the Maryland Mediation and Conciliation Board puts it another way. "The Eastern Shore economy had been traditionally based on agriculture. By definition, unions there are a pretty new notion," he says.
Perdue, vice president Mabe and employe relations director Tom Moyers all failed to return numerous phone calls from a reporter. One company official in Salisbury referred all questions to Perdue's Manhattan public relations firm. But a spokesman there said she knew little about the strike.
Although all 5,000 Perdue employes are nonunionized, their salaries -- from processors to drivers -- are competitive with union firms. Driver Dwight Johnson, for instance, earned $23,000 last year for hauling wings and drumsticks for Perdue.
What disturbs the drivers most is the wide discrepency they see between Perdue's kindly, avuncular television image, and the real-life company he controls. As one driver puts it, "It's like Jekyll and Hyde, man. All we're seeing is a lot of Hyde."