By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
In a 1994 article exploring unsavory American workplaces, the Wall Street Journal, while not specifically mentioning Pilgrim's Pride, highlighted chicken plants as prime examples of American industries which have "consigned a large class of workers to a Dickensian time warp, laboring not just for meager wages but also under dehumanized and often dangerous conditions."
Concerns also extend to the raising of the chickens as well. For the most part, Pilgrim's Pride contracts with local farmers to raise chickens, and provides the needed feed. That results in a countryside dotted with chicken coops producing voluminous amounts of chicken waste.
Partly because of the nature of the industry, and partly because of Pilgrim's Pride's way of doing business, the company has earned a particularly bad reputation in its home state. The tarnish on Pilgrim's name has been highlighted by the company's difficulties in finding a location for a new plant in East Texas.
The first word of an economic windfall headed for Hopkins County came from a screaming headline on February 22, 1995, in the Sulphur Springs News-Telegram. The banner headline read, "3,500 jobs in 7 years," and the accompanying story explained how Pilgrim's Pride was going to create a "mind-boggling" number of jobs by building new chicken plants just outside of town.
That afternoon, at a triumphant press conference, Bo Pilgrim and company officials joined in a formal announcement of the deal, attended by dozens of the county's most influential politicians and businessmen.
After just three weeks of secret negotiations with the Sulphur Springs-Hopkins County Economic Development Corporation, the leaders announced, a win-win deal had been cut. The company would be given free use of the 110-acre McKenzie tract to begin constructing operations that might someday grow to provide the heralded 3,500 jobs. Taxpayers would add a lot of favors to the free land. Under the deal, the Economic Development Corporation--funded by tax dollars and bond revenue--would pay Pilgrim's Pride $1 million for the first 300 jobs it created, and $500,000 for each 150 jobs created thereafter.
The Economic Development Corporation would also pay $150,000 to begin foundation work at the site, and promised to improve roads, construct rail spurs, and run utility lines. The corporation also promised to help Pilgrim's Pride pursue 100-percent tax abatements from the county, school, andhospital districts.
For Coy Johnson, Sulphur Springs attorney and president of the Economic Development Corporation, the announcement marked a moment of utter triumph. Luring industry to town was exactly what Johnson believed his mission to be. The dairy industry in Hopkins County was hurting. How could anyone be upset at the prospect of 3,500 jobs?
"Everybody was tickled to death when it was announced," Johnson recalls. "Then, this snowball got going."
A few days later, local attorney Larry Powers was at the Optimist Club's basketball league, where his daughter was playing. Talk of Pilgrim's Pride naturally dominated the day. "The vast majority of the people at the game said, 'Gee, maybe this isn't such a good deal,'" Powers says, "but everybody assumed it was a done deal."
Several miles away, another man didn't like the looks of the deal at all. Randy Bouldin was born and bred in Hopkins County, his family having moved to the area sometime around 1908. Bouldin and much of his kin live in Thomasville, an unincorporated rural enclave just outside the Sulphur Springs city limits. The McKenzie tract, site of the envisioned plant, is right next to Thomasville.
Bouldin is a 49-year-old cattle farmer who grew up in Thomasville, and came back to care for his ailing mother after a few years spent in the military and working in Dallas. Sulphur Springs had already stuck a sewage-treatment plant and trash-compacting station out near Thomasville, he says, and he was none too happy about the prospect of Pilgrim's Pride moving into the area as well.
"There was no news at all about Pilgrim's Pride coming to town, and all of a sudden one day you've got a big headline here that says, '3,500 jobs coming to town,'" Bouldin says. "I didn't sleep too well for a night or two."
Bouldin started talking with some of his neighbors, and found that many, as he says, "were favorable against it."
That Sunday, Bouldin went to a local radio station and asked that residents opposed to the plant gather at his house that afternoon. While he was waiting for folks to show up, Bouldin figured it would be wise to have an attorney handy. He remembered a buddy of his from the Jaycees, Larry Powers, and called to invite him to attend.
At the appointed time--on just a few hours' notice--about 70 people assembled. The first meeting of the anti-Pilgrim forces spilled off the front porch and into the yard.
"It started out as being a reaction to Pilgrim, because we knew their reputation," Bouldin says. "He's got a reputation as being a bad neighbor and for being a poor corporate citizen. He comes in, he doesn't pay [local] taxes, he pollutes the environment, and then he pollutes the community as well."
After grumbling about Pilgrim for a while, the assembled crowd asked Powers for his legal opinion of their chances to stop the plant. Powers ad-libbed--correctly, it would turn out--that any deal proposed by the Economic Development Corporation probably had to be approved by the Sulphur Springs City Council before it would become binding.