Chicken Money


If you go to the Tyson Foods website and click on the Press Room box above the photo of the happy, smiling African American kids, you can read this announcement: The world’s largest slaughterhouse has donated $26,000 to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to support the nonprofit’s scholarship fund.

Maybe the meat-processing giant is just being generous, but the September 21 release comes not long after details of a federal discrimination suit brought on August 25 by 13 black maintenance workers in an Ashland, Alabama, chicken processing plant hit the blogosphere. (A similar suit brought by Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of two black Tyson workers was filed earlier last month.)

Tied up this week at the annual Congressional Black Caucus legislative conference, Foundation president William Jefferson was unable to comment as of Friday morning. A spokesperson for Tyson says the company doesn’t tolerate discrimination and instead has a history of supporting minority causes. Its donation to the CBC Foundation, says the spokesperson, has nothing to do with any accusations of bias.

Lance Compa, a senior lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, offers another way of looking at it. “Tyson has a history of giving donations in a preemptive fashion to try and neutralize potential opposition,” says Compa. When he was doing research in Arkansas for a report on the meatpacking industry, he says, community organizers told him it would be hard for churches and advocacy groups to form a coalition to challenge Tyson’s labor practices because the company funds so many of them.

In their suit, the Tyson maintenance workers say that for years they put up with racist jokes and nasty pranks at the Ashland plant. Someone posted a picture of a group of monkeys in the locker room with their names written underneath, they charge, and on another occasion, a hangman’s noose appeared in the locker room. They could do little about the situation, mostly because it’s hard to get a job in Tyson-dominated Ashland, according to the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law spokesperson Nicole Desario.

The black workers say the last straw was when someone hung a “Whites Only” sign and a padlock on a newly renovated bathroom, and they were expected to use the “disgusting” remaining toilet.

Tyson spokesperson Gary Mickelson e-mailed a statement in which he cited the company’s record of supporting African American groups and policies prohibiting discrimination. “We are very concerned by the nature of the claims given our efforts to treat people fairly,” the statement reads. “We can confirm Tyson management neither authorized nor condoned the posting of any sign or piece of paper with the words ‘whites only.’ ”

As for the suggestion of connection between the accusations of discrimination and the contribution to the CBC Foundation, Mickelson writes, “We’re proud of the contributions we make to nonprofit organizations in our plant communities and around the country. We’ve supported various African American groups and projects for years, so our donation to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation is not out of the ordinary. Our company is going to continue to support worthwhile organizations and causes, regardless of what what some anti-corporate critics might say.”