In Chicken, author Steve Striffler takes a hard look at how the poultry industry has changed over the last century and the impact industrialization has had on small chicken farmers and factory workers in chicken processing plants. He begins with a history of chicken, focusing on the founders of some of the biggest chicken companies in the country and how they evolved their business practices over time to make it America’s favorite food. While the McNugget and other processed forms of chicken helped skyrocket the bird’s popularity in the 1980s, the industry had been moving in that direction for decades. From improved transportation methods to the distribution of growers across the South and the Midwest, this streamlining and industrialization was achieved largely through the integration of every step, from growing and raising to processing, into large corporations that each controlled significant portions of the market. A significant landmark in this march towards integration was the merger of Holly Farms and Tyson, which had massive impacts on workers. Stiffler first focuses on the impact integration had on chicken farmers, who take on massive debts to start in the business and for whom the loss of income from chicken can be catastrophic. Due to transportation and feed costs, Tyson cut off many of these small farmers after the merger, and the author offers accounts from several of these farmers. Tyson took a similar approach towards the truckers who had hauled chickens for Holly Farms, making them work more for less pay. Importantly, Stiffler also discusses how these workers tried to combat Tyson’s business practices through labor organization, and how Tyson fought bitterly to prevent and punish any unionization in their company. This would become a recurring theme through the rest of the book, as every large chicken company is opposed to unionization in their workforce.
In the second part of the book, the author relays his experiences working in a poultry processing plant for two summers. He works alongside mostly immigrants from Central and South America, as well as some Asian countries, although in one striking scene one of his coworkers declares them all to be Mexican in the eyes of their management. This opens the door to a discussion of the relationship between the big chicken corps and their large immigrant workforces. For many of these immigrants, jobs in chicken factories provide some upward mobility. However, these jobs are dangerous and consistently lead to long-term health problems, and accidents are frequent. The monotony and long hours also make it difficult for the workers to maintain normal lives outside of their workplace. The big businesses often engage in illegal practices to hire and keep their immigrant employees. While legal cases have been brought against many of these companies for both these issues and their pollution outputs, the penalties are always less costly than changing their practices. Regulatory agencies do not have the power to enforce anything more meaningful.
In the last few pages of the book, Stiffler proposes a solution to these problems: Bay Friendly Chicken. This cooperation not only vows to treat their chickens better but also their workers, with high standards of labor and safety at the forefront of their vision. They also say they will include environmentalists on their board of directors and keep control of the company must stay local. He also argues for the economic viability of this Friendly Chicken, saying that consumers are already willing to pay more for higher quality chicken and this new option would be comparable in price. When growers and workers have a vested interest in the success of the product, the quality of chicken will improve and both consumers and producers benefit.