By Jeremy Appel
Cargill correspondent for Rankandfile.ca
Workers at Cargill’s High River, Alberta meatpacking facility have overwhelmingly rejected the company’s latest contract offer and management has escalated tensions by serving a lockout notice.
The Cargill plant was the site of the largest COVID outbreak in North America in April 2020, with 950 workers — almost half its workforce — testing positive for the virus. The outbreak led to the deaths of workers Benito Quesada, 51, and Hiep Bui, 67. A father of a worker, Armando Sallegue, 71, also died while visiting from the Philippines.
Cargill, which is responsible for 40 percent of Canada’s beef production, is being criminally investigated by the RCMP for negligence in Quesada’s death.
In a November 25 letter signed by Cargill vice president of labour relations Tanya Teeter, the corporation announced a “complete lockout” of the workers starting 12:01 am, December 6, if an agreement isn’t hashed out by then.
That date coincides with the union’s legal strike date. The High River members of United Food and Commercial Workers local 401 voted to authorize a strike two weeks ago.
Employer trying “to force the union’s hand”
Jason Foster, a labour studies professor at Athabasca University who wrote the book Defying Expectations: The Case of UFCW Local 401, says management has crossed the rubicon.
“Oh, [they’re] going on strike. This is not going to be settled by December 6,” he said.
The purpose of the lockout notice was “to force the union’s hand,” Foster added.
Just as a strike is a union’s means of pressuring management to accept a better deal for workers, a lockout is a company’s means of pressuring workers to accept a better deal for management.
“Often you find yourself in a situation where a strike is both a strike and a lockout,” explained Foster. “Usually, it’s the other way around. The employer declares a lockout and then the union needs to quickly hold a strike vote to protect their rights under the law.”
Foster described it as a fool’s errand to predict how long a strike would last, “because these things usually take on a life of their own,” but suspects it might be relatively brief due to pressure from government and industry to resolve the dispute.
Worker demands during record profits
On November 24, workers voted down management’s latest offer by a margin of 98 percent, while the initial strike vote on November 10 passed with 97 percent support.
“Any union will tell you that engagement starts to escalate during the time of crisis, when decisions have to be made,” said Thomas Hesse, president of UFCW 401. “People do develop a keener interest in their union at collective bargaining time. It’s where the rubber meets the road.”
He said that although the company is offering what it’s billing as a 19% pay increase, the workers have deemed it insufficient to compensate for what they’ve gone through over the past 20 months.
“In a sense, we have a win already, but the massive rejection of that offer suggests there’s something considerably more at play here,” Hesse said.
“Money means a lot. [The workers] are not there for the social life. It’s a very hard job. They don’t even get to really interact with each other. They just stand there in a line, the noise is so loud, the floor is wet, there’s blood, it’s cold. There’s no social interaction at this workplace, essentially. You just stand there at this isolated disassembly line.
“The rejection of this money by that number really underscores the fact that people aren’t feeling safe, they aren’t feeling respected and they don’t trust their employer.”
The union is looking for a $3,000 COVID bonus per employee, adding up to $6 million total, which Hesse pointed out is pocket change for a company that made $4.93 billion in profits this year. “They can absorb that cost,” he said.
Cargill is instead offering a $1,200 bonus per employee.
Hesse emphasized, however, that you can’t put a price on workers’ right to dignity and safety, and that any dollar numbers are members’ decision to make.
Cargill interested in “keeping markets moving”
In a statement to CBC News, Cargill spokesperson Daniel Sullivan called the workers the company is locking out “one of the best workforces across Canada,” arguing the company’s offer “reflects their tremendous skill and dedication.”
“We are willing to keep meeting to avoid any labour disruption which is in no one’s best interest during an already challenging time,” said Sullivan.
“While we navigate this negotiation, we continue to focus on fulfilling food manufacturer, retail and food service customer orders while keeping markets moving for farmers and ranchers. If necessary, we will shift production to other facilities within our broad supply chain footprint to minimize any disruptions.”
Cargill is preparing to hire scabs
Calgarians may have noticed Cargill job ads appearing on public transit throughout the city, including at the Shawnessy LRT Station in southern Calgary, offering a starting wage of $19.55 an hour, as well as an unspecified signing bonus.
Foster says this isn’t a coincidence.
“I am not surprised to hear that Cargill is attempting to staff up workers to cross the picket line. It is a standard strategy by employees in this industry,” he said.
The company will “try to find other desperate, low-wage workers who might be prepared to do this in order to be able to earn a paycheque and they’ll run busses across the line as best they can, which is why we can anticipate it will be a very tense picket line, because of the determination of employers in this industry generally to keep production going,” said Foster.
Under the current legal framework in Alberta, hiring scab workers is entirely legal, which always has been the case in the private sector.
“The research is really quite clear — that replacement workers prolong the length of strikes and they do make the picket lines tend to be more rancorous,” Foster said.
Labour action would also put to test the UCP government’s Bill 32, which requires unions to receive government permission to picket at sites beyond the workplace itself, such as grocery stores or fast food restaurants.
Don’t underestimate the workers’ determination
Generally speaking, the longer a strike continues, the more likely the union is to cave to the employer’s demands. “The good news is [UFCW] 401 pays unprecedented levels of strike pay for unions in Canada,” Foster said.
The demographics of Cargill’s workforce could also work in its favour.
“They’re migrant workers, they’re immigrants, they’re refugees. People should not underestimate their determination,” said Foster. “We often talk about these workers being vulnerable, and there’s many aspects in which they are, but there’s an intense solidarity there, which I think we often overlook.”
Two-thirds of workers at Alberta’s meatpacking plants are immigrants, compared to more than a quarter of the province’s population, and 18 percent are refugees, compared to 3 percent of the population, according to a study from Toronto’s York University recently reported by the Calgary Herald.
Another “key variable” is that this job action is at its heart a pandemic strike, Foster added.
“These workers have been galvanized around the outbreak that happened in 2020 and they’re fighting for their lives right now, in terms of health and safety protections in the workplace and dealing with an employer who made it extremely clear to them that they didn’t care if they died,” Foster said.
UFCW 401 and Cargill are back at the table November 30, according to Hesse.