In Arkansas, the state where I grew up, they’re big on killing birds. Tyson Corporation, based in Springdale, AR, is the country’s top poultry processor, and Mountaire Farms Inc. (HQ in Little Rock) is the 6th largest. This article in The New Yorker is a fascinating read about Mountaire, its reclusive, arch-conservative owner, and the chicken industry in general.

Working in a chicken processing plant is one of the most hazardous jobs around, and the “reward” for taking on that risk is pay that’s 44% below the national average for manufacturing jobs. Oh, and it’s even more hazardous during the pandemic… but companies like Tyson and Mountaire convinced Trump to issue an executive order to keep those processing plants running (even though many had experienced coronavirus outbreaks… and they were still exporting plenty of dead birds to other countries). Not only that, but these corporations now have a free pass to speed up the processing line… from 140 B.P.M. (that’s birds per minute – ponder that for a moment) to 175 B.P.M. As a union rep says in the article, “It’s like the ‘I Love Lucy’ episode at the chocolate factory.” And they don’t even have to report their COVID-19 numbers.

Mountaire made $1 billion more in revenue in 2019 than it did in 2010. Rest assured the profits aren’t trickling down to the workers, the vast majority of whom are minorities, including a lot of recent immigrants. Instead, Mountaire’s owner Ronnie Cameron is shoveling millions to Trump, other Republican candidates, and ultra-conservative causes.

In 2004, he set up a private foundation, the Jesus Fund. Given the poverty of many Mountaire workers, the size of the fund is striking: according to the most recently available federal tax statement, the book value of the Jesus Fund’s assets in 2018 was three hundred and twenty-seven million dollars. The sole donors were Cameron and his company.

From The New Yorker article cited above

I guess Ronnie’s foundation missed this nugget from Jesus:

Yes, I know it’s his money and he can do whatever he pleases with it. But there’s more than chicken blood on his hands.

“It matters how he treats his workers, because he’s making money off the backs of these people and is donating it to Christian causes—so there’s a moral connection.”

Warren Throckmorton, an evangelical Christian and a psychology professor at Grove City College, as quoted in The New Yorker article.

If companies cared as much about their workers as they do about their chickens, we’d be a better country.”

David Michaels, a professor of public health at George Washington University, who headed OSHA during the Obama Administration

Meanwhile, a couple of lawsuits against 10 or more of the largest poultry companies allege that they conspired to hold down workers’ wages and to fix prices. Not surprising when you consider that the top 10 poultry companies control about 80% of the market.

At present, Mountaire is trying to bust the union at their Delaware plant. Check out this paragraph from the article:

The gulf between Cameron’s spectacular wealth and his workers’ meagre circumstances echoes the findings of a recent study by two Harvard economists, Anna Stansbury and Lawrence H. Summers, the former economic adviser to President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama. In the paper, “The Declining Worker Power Hypothesis,” Stansbury and Summers argue that, in the past four decades, the single largest driver of income inequality in America has been the decline in worker power, much of it stemming from the collapse of membership in private-sector unions. Since the fifties, the percentage of private-sector workers who belong to unions has declined from thirty-three per cent to six per cent. As a result, there has been an upward redistribution of income to high-income executives, owners, and shareholders. The economists argue that this decline in worker power, more than any other structural change in the economy, accounts for nearly all the gains in the share of income made by America’s wealthiest one per cent.

I’ve been a vegetarian for 30 years, but I’ve bought plenty of “cheap” chicken to feed my kids. Now I have a better understanding of the true costs. And a better idea of how that paradigm can change.