Fosters Under Fire

On October 25, 2005, nearly half of the employees at Foster Farms' chicken slaughterhouse in Livingston, California joined a walkout. Living off an average hourly wage of $9.50, employees are displeased by low wages, racial discrimination, favoritism by supervisors, occupational hazards, short notice of overtime shifts, pressure to increase production, an anti-union atmosphere and unreasonable health insurance costs at Foster Farms.

As the largest private employer in Merced County, the Livingston plant processes 500,000 chickens a day. Merced County is plagued by high unemployment. Working at Foster Farms is one of the only options available to residents. The walkout employees are represented by the League of Independent Workers of the San Joaquin Valley, an affiliate of International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. The company's annual revenue totals $1.5 billion.

East Bay Animal Advocates (EBAA) interviewed employees and union organizers on the picket line. Read excerpts from EBAA's transcripts:

Thursday, October 27, 2005, 3:00 a.m

Interviewee: Foster Farms Live Hanger

(Hangs live birds by their feet onto shackle line)

Background: Hispanic; Five-Year Employee

EBAA: How does Foster Farms treat its chickens?

Live Hanger: The line is very fast -- Take 23 chickens per minute on the hangers.

EBAA: How many birds do you hang in a day?

Live Hanger: Maybe 9,000 to 10,000.

EBAA: Have you ever been injured on the job?

Live Hanger: Yeah.

EBAA: What is the worst thing about your job?

Live Hanger: You cannot go to the bathroom. Too fast --that is a problem with the company.

EBAA: Is there a lot of discrimination on the job?

Live Hanger: Oh yeah. When the inspectors come, they say hurry-up. With the Indians, they say nothing. With the black guys, they say nothing. They [inspectors] go to the office to speak with the managers: "The Mexicans do nothing." This is the problem.

EBAA: What is the worst job to do [at Foster Farms]?

Live Hanger: Hanging is more hard. I bring one paper from the doctor --stomach problems. I have five children. I never bring lunch. Why? I cannot go to bathroom.

EBAA: What do you get paid?

Live Hanger: $9.78. For starting, $9.50 - $9.60. After three months, you paid the same forever. You have 20 years, 30 years, you paid the same.

EBAA: Do a lot of people get fired for going to the bathroom?

Live Hanger: Oh yeah. One time in the morning, I see a guy wet in the pants. I say "What happened?" The guy didn't want to go to bathroom.

EBAA: After electricity, are there birds that are still alive? Moving?

Live Hanger: Sometimes.

EBAA: Do you see a lot of birds who are sick or injured coming off the trucks?

Live Hanger: Sometime chickens come in dead. You take these chickens, put in the trash.

EBAA: What kind of injuries at work?

Live Hanger: People have problems with the shoulder and fingers. Sometimes when you put it [chicken] on the hanger -- shit [motioning to his face]. People don't like that.

Thursday, October 27, 2005, 8:50 p.m.

Interviewee:  Ralph Meraz, President of the League of Independent

Workers of the San Joaquin Valley

Background: Former Foster Farms Employee; Worked for 30 Years in the Human Resources Department

EBAA:  What are the main issues at hand with Foster Farms?

Ralph Meraz: Two years ago, the company took away from people a number of benefits that they had already acquired. Some are those are double-time holidays/Sundays and time-and-a-half for work premiums/work weeks. They had sick-leave pay-out and that was taken away from them. Their seniority mainly is not honored anymore. This [walkout] is just a first step in a series of actions that we are going to take against the company in order to get their attention. So, this basically is just a slap-in-the-face to get their attention because we didn't have it before. The bottom-line is that people want a voice and we are going to give them one, truly. The company is very successful. They doubled their size in 5 years. The wealth of the company is disproportionate to what the employees are making. The employees are not making those gains by any means.