By Jeremy Appel
In 1968, The Beatles released the song Blackbird, expressing their sympathies for the civil rights movement. “You were only waiting for this moment to arrive,” sings Paul McCartney before the song’s chorus.
Tom Hesse, the president of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 401, says he was reminded of this lyric when UFCW workers at the Cargill meatpacking plant in High River, Alberta, voted 97% in favour of strike action on November 10. The plant processes about a third of Canada’s beef.
“At the time of the outbreak, we were not in a legal strike position, so there’s this ball of sentiment, anxiety, anger, emotion, frustration, stress and trauma that’s all built up,” explained Hesse. “They’ve been waiting to express themselves. They’ve been waiting for their moment to arrive. It’s all been bottled up.”
Cargill’s High River facility was at one point the site of the largest COVID-19 outbreak in North America, with 950 workers — nearly half of the plant’s employees — testing positive in April 2020.
This outbreak resulted in the deaths of workers Benito Quesada and Hiep Bui, as well as Armando Sallegue, the father of a worker, who was visiting from the Philippines.
The RCMP is investigating Cargill for criminal negligence after a complaint from Quesada’s family. It’s the first instance of a COVID-related criminal probe in Canada.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota-based company has reported a record $4.93 billion in profits this year.
This was the backdrop of negotiations for Cargill workers’ new contract. “It’s undergirded every word that’s been articulated at the negotiating table,” said Hesse.
Timeline of an outbreak
On April 6, 2020, UFCW 401 brought the employer’s attention to the first COVID-19 case at the plant, requesting protective equipment for all employees, financial assistance for self-isolating workers and a restriction in the flow of traffic at the plant. They warned that they may have to shut production down for two weeks if things got worse.
The following week, when there were 38 confirmed cases at the plant, 50 Filipino residents of High River wrote an open letter to Mayor Craig Snodgrass pleading with him to temporarily close the plant. An estimated 60 to 70 per cent of the Cargill workforce in High River is Filipino.
“There was a time when the disease was much less understood. There were no vaccinations. People lived in this form of terror, but they still wanted to make a living,” recalled Hesse of the pandemic’s early days.
“I talked to workers who were sleeping in their car in the garage, while their children cried in the house for their father or mother. People didn’t know how you got [COVID-19], how it was transmitted.”
Instead of temporarily shutting down, Cargill opted to temporarily lay off half its workforce on April 14 while staggering break times and installing dividers in the cafeteria. Both did little to stop the spread.
At an April 18 meeting with Cargill workers, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw and then-agriculture minister Devin Dreeshen said it was safe for workers to return to the jobsite. UFCW was completely shut out of the meeting.
But behind the scenes, Hinshaw warned Alberta Agriculture officials that cases were spreading at the plant, even after Cargill put in place safety measures, according to documents obtained by the Alberta Federation of Labour.
“…more important than worker safety”
Sean Tucker, a researcher on occupational health and safety at the University of Regina, told the CBC that the government has an obligation to share this information with workers.
“If you look at this evidence in its totality, it is clear that keeping the plant open is more important than worker safety,” said Tucker.
“I think there is enough evidence to show that there was a regulatory breakdown in the case of Cargill’s High River, Alberta plant, that people knew about problems but were not empowered to share them with workers.”
Two days after the meeting with the employer and government, Diep died, which led to Cargill agreeing to shut down the plant for two weeks.
The company provided workers with a “generous” wage top-up for a couple months — the equivalent of an additional $8 a day — but the company took it away when nobody was watching, said Hesse.
“Of course, that was after all of the stigma around what happened at Cargill. They couldn’t get anyone to work there, so they jacked their pandemic pay through the roof. The problem is that when they were able to find workers, they took it away,” he said.
“The threat of the pandemic continued, but the pandemic pay was cut off.”
Production line to bargaining table
The High River plant workers’ contract expired early in 2021.
The emotional intensity of this round of negotiations coming from the traumatic experience of the past 20 months makes it difficult to quantify the union’s demands, Hesse noted.
“In terms of money, how much is enough? How much will compensate people for what they went through? What is that figure?” he said, adding that the workers are seeking a “substantial wage increase,” as well as sick pay and more transparency around health and safety procedures to prevent another situation like the one in April 2020.
The union is also seeking to regulate the speed of the production line. “The company tries to slaughter as many cows as it can and all of them come down this line. But the more that come and the faster they come, the more likely injury is,” Hesse said.
“But frankly, a big issue is — I just can’t put it another way — some form of COVID-19 compensation, some form of retroactive lump sum payment for what they went through.”
Pride and strength
Despite there being “substantial turnover” in the industry, there’s a “significant number” of workers around who went through the COVID-19 outbreak, Hesse says.
“There are many, many long-term employees, many who take significant pride in their work. They bring food to tables,” he said. “They’re strong people who pull their shoulders back and say, ‘I’ve got a job to do and I’m going to do it well.’”
It’s by nature a full-time job, so the employee doesn’t have a stable pool of part-time workers they can give more hours to if they’re short- staffed.
Hesse says the pandemic has brought the bargaining process online, which poses a set of procedural challenges.
“It’s been very hard to have traditional union meetings and discussions with members to understand their concerns and take direction from them as to where bargaining should head,” Hesse said.
“A lot of that old school, face-to-face unionism has had to be replaced by these other formats. Something is lost. There’s nothing like a face-to-face conversation. Worker consciousness or inspiration rarely happens through a Zoom call or over text. The spirit of unionism has been depleted by these methods, but we’ve pressed on.”
The union’s advantage
Bob Barnetson, a professor of labour studies at Athabasca University, told Rankandfile.ca that Cargill’s conduct over the course of the pandemic played a major role in the union’s overwhelming strike mandate.
“Cargill demonstrated to its employees quite clearly during COVID that it doesn’t care at all about their interests. It let them get sick and die in order to make a profit,” said Barnetson.
“That strengthens the union’s hand, because the union was the only body that had the back of workers during COVID.”
The employer’s conduct would also strengthen workers’ resolve in the event of a strike, he added.
Another factor working in the union’s favour is a labour shortage in labour-intensive jobs like meatpacking, which “means Cargill will face really significant challenges in trying to find scab workers,” Barnetson said.
“This is a really good time for the union to walk out,” he said.
Hesse agrees with Barnetson that circumstances have put the union in an advantageous bargaining position. “[The company has] put a stigma on working at Cargill,” he said.
Sylvain Charlebois, the senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax, told CTV News that for this reason, the employer may seek to avoid disruption.
“I don’t think Cargill can afford a labour dispute, they’ll have to settle and if they do settle then wages will go up significantly,” he said.
In a November 12 statement, representatives of Cargill said the company and union have “exchanged multiple comprehensive proposals that included increased wages well beyond the industry standard, enhanced employee benefits and cash bonus’ for active employees.”
“We believe that our proposal is very fair and representative of our values to put people first and do the right thing,” the statement read.
The workers will be voting on Cargill’s latest offer, which the union is urging its members to oppose, in the coming days.
If there’s no agreement by December 6, the workers go on strike.