The Last Word

Magazine cover with child facing the camera, reading "Facing the '90s"

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 17 No. 4, "Facing the '90s." Find more from that issue here.

A lot has happened since Southern Exposure published in-depth reports earlier this year on the savings and loan crisis and the poultry industry. Here, then, is an update on two of the research and organizing projects sponsored by the Institute for Southern Studies:


Saving Whose Loans?

We began 1989 with an in-depth look at the savings and loan crisis and its link to housing (“Meltdown on Main Street,” Spring 1989). In August, President Bush signed a savings and loan bill that included what the Detroit Free Press called “some of the decade’s largest, most far-reaching and innovative programs to help house low-and moderate-income Americans.”

The pro-housing measures resulted largely from citizen pressure organized by the Financial Democracy Campaign — a national coalition steered by our own Southern Finance Project and ACORN — surprising many Washington-based public interest groups who remained skeptical of the grassroots lobbying and talk-show media strategy.

In the final bill, Congress toughened procedures against discriminatory lending, gave community representatives a voice on regulatory boards, earmarked a portion of federal funds loaned to S&Ls for affordable housing, and awarded low-and moderate-income buyers first crack at vacant residential property held by government-rescued S&Ls.


The Industry Squawks

Since the release of our report on the poultry industry (“Ruling the Roost,” Summer 1989), hardly a day goes by without a call from a poultry farmer, government inspector, processing worker, or journalist seeking more information or relating a new horror story about life inside the South’s largest agribusiness.

▼ We’ve spoken with farmers in seven states about the need to change the contract system that allows companies to cut off growers for no reason, leaving them with long-term mortgage payments on empty chicken houses. “We’re like serfs on our own land,” said Mary Clouse, a poultry farmer for more than a dozen years. Soon after her words appeared in our report, Townsend called to say her chickens would be removed in three days and no new birds supplied.

Farmers in Florida have launched a massive lawsuit against Cargill for similar practices, and their lawyers have helped draft a model bill that would give them the same protections enjoyed by the holder of a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise — no arbitrary cut-offs. With the help of many around the region, we hope to build support for reforms, state by state if necessary.

▼ In October, North Carolina’s Occupational Safety and Health Division confirmed our charges against Perdue Farms by fining the company $40,000 for causing —and underreporting—high rates of repetitive trauma disorders among its employees. It was the largest such fine in state history, and the first for repetitive trauma.

Along with the Center for Women’s Economic Alternatives (CWEA), we passed out flyers to Perdue workers explaining the citation and asking for their comments. “Perdue treats us like dogs,” wrote one worker. “The only thing missing is a whip,” said another.

Perdue has appealed the fine, triggering a long legal battle. With the help of the Occupational Safety & Health Law Center and Raleigh attorney Steve Edelstein, workers will have a formal part in the appeal. CWEA is also seeking official party status, but Perdue has challenged this precedent-setting action of an advocacy center that is not a labor union.

▼ Federal OSHA has also handed down several citations since we released our report. In Georgia, pressure from the Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union (RWDSU) led OSHA to fine Cargill $242,000 for underreporting injuries and causing repetitive trauma at its Buena Vista plant. In November, RWDSU also won a four-week strike against Cagle’s Inc. over health conditions, pension benefits, and pay at its Macon plant.

A few weeks before Thanksgiving, OSHA fined two turkey plants in Missouri owned by ConAgra and Cargill $1 million and $750,000 respectively. More OSHA inspections are underway, and the agency just released a set of guidelines to reduce repetitive trauma in the red-meat industry. One of our goals is to extend the guidelines to poultry plants and press for a federal standard for repetitive motion in the workplace, just as now exists for such hazards as cotton dust, benzene, and noise levels.

▼ The day after we released “Ruling the Roost,” a USDA inspector walked into our office and told us that product contamination and unsafe conditions are, if anything, worse than we reported. Other inspectors have called from as far away as Colorado to confirm our charges. While some are afraid to go public, others have joined safe-food advocates led by the Government Accountability Project to demand that the USDA slow down line speeds that are crippling government inspectors. This fall, federal OSHA cited USDA for inadequate medical care and for practices that cause repetitive trauma disorders among inspectors at poultry plants in Arkansas and Colorado.

▼ After our report on the manslaughter charge against Frank Perdue, we did some more digging into his driving record and discovered another accident he caused that left a driver crippled. We also learned that other charges against Perdue were dropped based on false information given in court We escorted a reporter from The Washington Post through the Maryland court files on these and other violations, and though the paper gave the story a full page, its lawyers censored most of the new information.

▼ Finally, from the September issue of Meat & Poultry, a leading industry journal: “What gives ‘Ruling the Roost’ credibility is that the report is thoroughly researched and documented, and delves into many more than usual aspects of the poultry industry.” The journal also called on poultry firms to respond by opening their doors to TV reporters. “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” the journal noted. “Maybe we’ve reached that point now.”

— Bob Hall