Analysis: Mountaire Selbyville workers get benefits boost after union is voted out

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Poultry processor Mountaire has rolled out enhanced benefits after the United Food and Commercial Workers local was voted out of the company’s only unionized plant in Selbyville.

The local was ousted by a lopsided margin. The National Labor Relations Board certified the results at the end of the year.

The effort was led by a national right-to-work group that represented a union member willing to push for decertification of the union and launch a petition signed by 30% of workers represented by the local.

First results tossed

The labor board initially threw out the first election ballots over objections from the union but later granted a request for a second election. The union cited issues that included a lack of access to workers due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Delmarva poultry plants were among the first sites to feel the effects of the pandemic, with an estimated 17 worker deaths, on the peninsula. A younger workforce limited the number of deaths, according to state officials.

The federal government quickly declared the plants an essential business and plants remained open during a wave of cases. Disruptions were reported, due to sick workers and those fearing a return to plants. On at least one occasion growers affiliated with another chicken company were forced to kill birds before they grew too large for processing.

At one point Centers for Disease, Control staff was dispatched to help deal with the outbreak.

Benefits announced

“More than anything else, I am glad that our employees were finally allowed to be heard.  I thank them for their confidence in Mountaire, and we look forward to introducing these team members to their new benefits package” said Phillip Plylar, president of Mountaire. 

Mountaire is headquartered in Delaware and is owned by an Arkansas family. It moved into Delaware with the purchase of Townsend operations and several years ago purchased and reopened a former Townsend plant in North Carolina. It also acquired grain storage operations in Delmarva.

Enhanced benefits

Selbyville employees will now be eligible for supplemental life insurance for themselves and dependent life coverage for their spouses and children. In addition, eligible employees will have the option to participate in the company’s 401(k) savings plan, including company matching and profit-sharing, a release stated.

Selbyville employees will now be eligible for 40 hours of vacation after just 90 days of employment, an additional 40 hours after 180 days, and 80 hours after one year. Employees will no longer have to pay mandatory union dues.

A company release also cited the advantage of working directly with the HR department when issues arise rather than working through the union grievance process.

A company is legally prohibited from offering enhanced pay or benefits during the period leading up to the election. However, it can provide comparisons with other plants that may show their pay and benefits are competitive with the bonus of not paying union dues.

Unions have struggled to make their case in representing poultry processing employees on the Delmarva Peninsula. The poultry workforce is comprised of recent immigrants who often hail from Mexico, Haiti, and Central America and may be reluctant to endorse tactics such as strikes. Workers may also have family members without legal immigration status.

According to ZipRecruiter, average hourly pay in Delaware’s poultry industry averages of $21 an hour. However, 29% of poultry workers make less than $11.50 an hour.

Upward pressure on wages?

Pressure on wages is possible, with or without unions, due to a long-running worker shortage and the possibility of other job opportunities for current workers. However, ZipRecruiter did note that poultry job openings in Delaware are few as of late 2021.

Processing remains a difficult job for many workers with robotics and other technology in their early stages and tasks such as deboning chicken breasts requiring knife work.

The poultry industry also faces lawsuits alleging wage and price-fixing that impact employees and growers. Two companies have reached tentative settlements.

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