While weekend news was dominated by coverage of John Paul's death, another important personage slipped into the hereafter almost unnoticed -- Frank Perdue, CEO of Perdue Farms, who was his company's public face for twenty years. "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken," he'd say in television ads, his beak-like nose and deadpan demeanor helping him seem, as many have commented, rather chicken-like himself.
Although most obits concentrated on Perdue's success story, especially his innovative marketing of brand-name chicken on television in the early 1970s, a few outlets -- notably the Washington Post and CBS News online -- gave us a taste of the fuller story, which was a little more interesting than "eccentric CEO sells, looks like chickens." Perdue, for example, admitted at a Congressional hearing in 1985 that he had sought out Mafioso Paul Castellano, boss of the Gambino crime family, to ask his help in busting unions at Perdue chicken plants.
It happens that Southern Exposure introduced the nation to some of these less savory aspects of Perdue's life and business, in a 1989 package of stories that (ahem) won the National Magazine Award. In one of the articles, Barbara Goldoftas exposed the debilitating carpal tunnel injuries many workers suffered; that same year, the state of North Carolina fined Perdue Farms $40,000 when it was shown that 36 percent of the workers in two plants had carpal tunnel syndrome.
One of the biggest scoops (by our founding editor, Bob Hall) was discovering that Perdue, an incorrigibly reckless driver, had been charged with involuntary manslaughter in 1974 when he "ignored or overlooked warning signs and red lights" on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and collided with two cars, killing one person. But Perdue's expensive lawyer got the charges dropped and the court records expunged; as one court official told Southern Exposure, "There was a lot of grease on the wheel of this one."
Perdue's lawyer? None other than Arlen Specter, now U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania. During Specter's first senatorial campaign in 1986, Perdue contributed the maximum $2,000; a heavy contributor for many years to Republicans such as Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth (along with some Democrats), Perdue also gave $20,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee between 1985 and 1987.
After cataloging the poultry industry's abuses of workers, its rush toward consolidation and "vertical integration," its domination of growers (due to the "contract farming" system)-all of which have gotten worse since 1989-Hall concluded:
With its gushing flow of profits, one wonders why the industry doesn't have the [courage]...to slow down its processing lines, treat workers with respect, give their contract growers a measure of security, and still produce a product people are happy to eat?
Must Frank Perdue and the 47 other chicken kings treat the world as a competitive jungle forever?
"Perdue showed everybody how to really market chickens," says Tex Walker, an organizer with [the United Food and Commercial Workers Union]... "Now somebody needs to show him how to treat people like human beings."