By Jeremy Appel
Rankandfile.ca’s Cargill correspondent
The new agreement won by workers at Cargill’s High River, Alberta meatpacking plant is a significant improvement over its previous iteration and could provide a template for labour struggles in the industry, according to labour relations experts.
Members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 voted 71% in favour of Cargill’s most recent offer on December 4, two days before the union was in a legal strike position. The company had also threatened to lock the workers out on December 6 if an agreement wasn’t reached.
This came 20 months after the Cargill plant was the site of the worst COVID-19 outbreak in North America at the time, with almost half its workforce getting infected and three people dying.
One of those fatalities — worker Benito Quesada — led to the RCMP launching a criminal investigation against Cargill for negligence.
Predictions are a “crapshoot“
Bob Barnetson, a labour studies professor at Athabasca University, told Rankandfile.ca he was “a bit surprised we didn’t have some kind of job action.”
“The whole point of this, for both sides, is to get a deal they can live with, but there are costs whenever job action is imminent or happens, so they have an incentive to work towards some sort of resolution,” he said.
“It’s always kind of a crapshoot. Everyone gets the vapours as you approach any kind of deadline and it causes a lot of sober second thought from both sides.”
The deal accepted by UFCW membership included a 21% wage increase over the duration of the contract, thousands of dollars in bonuses, increased health benefits, including counselling and massage therapy, as well as “ contract provisions to facilitate a new culture of health, safety, dignity, and respect in the workplace.”
“Standing cheek-to-jowl in lumps of gore”
Barnetson said these are all good stipulations for workers, but “whether Cargill is going to make their jobs less difficult or horrendous is an open question.”
“They’re processing a couple thousand of animals a day. It’s a high-pace line, you’re standing cheek-to-jowl in lumps of gore [and] working with sharp knives in the cold,” he explained.
“Even though they got more money and maybe more input into health and safety, that doesn’t necessarily alter the fundamental job design that the employer’s created.”
It’s likely the company was intimidated by the prospect of having its largest plant, responsible for upwards of 40% of Canada’s beef production, go idle indefinitely, especially at a time when beef prices are high and demand isn’t slowing down, Barnetson added.
“There would be a significant economic penalty for the employer if there were a work stoppage,” he said, adding that the company would have had trouble attracting scabs for such an inherently taxing job, although not for lack of trying.
Too big not to settle
Sean Tucker, a professor of human resources at the University of Regina focusing on occupational health and safety, told Rankandfile.ca he expected the two parties to avoid job action at all costs.
Part of this has to do with all the negative press Cargill received as an employer last year for the COVID-19 outbreak. They couldn’t afford to have the public reminded of it through job action, he said.
The optics of a company like Cargill, which made a record $4.93 billion in profits this year, rejecting UFCW’s financial requests for a workforce scarred by sickness and death, would have added further negative publicity, Tucker added.
“It seemed like a no-brainer to me that they would just meet the union more than half way on what the union was demanding,” he said.
Tucker noted the relatively low 71% vote in favour of the offer, compared with the 98% who rejected Cargill’s initial offer, suggests there are a significant fraction of Cargill workers unsatisfied with the deal who were willing to walk the picket line.
“This was more than monetary”
Often health and safety considerations take a backseat to financial considerations during labour negotiations, but Tucker said the case of Cargill is unique in that health and safety was front and centre as a result of the outbreak.
Of the 950 Cargill workers who tested positive, there are undoubtedly some who have long-COVID symptoms, as well as the three deaths, which kept these considerations at the forefront of negotiations, he said. “This was more than monetary,” said Tucker.
In order to truly create a “new culture” surrounding health and safety, Tucker said the union should demand an independent consultant come to the plant to establish benchmarks for tracking progress on health and safety concerns, and follow up to track the company’s progress.
He said much depends on the specific language surrounding these issues and what enforcement mechanisms the union has at its disposal.
Tucker also suggested that some of the managers who were around during the outbreak should be shown the door if the company is serious about improvements. “If you’re going to have your culture changed, you can’t help but address the senior leadership in the plant, and also at the supervisor level,” he said.
It would be prudent for the company to put people in charge who will engage with the union, whose demands that the plant close down for two weeks during the outbreak fell on deaf ears until the worst happened.
“If they’d listened to the union, they would have saved lives and it would have been better for the bottom line, but [Cargill] assumed they knew best,” said Tucker.
From Cargill High River to JBS Brooks
Tucker said he anticipates the Cargill deal will have reverberations across the meatpacking industry.
“It’s not like it was isolated at Cargill, there’s just more public attention on this,” he said. “I don’t think this industry is too keen to have a lot of public attention on it. They’re not keen to have attention on animal treatment, which is part of it, but also on the treatment of workers at these plants.”
In the new year, 2,500 workers at the JBS meatpacking plant in Brooks, who are also represented by UFCW 401, will be negotiating a new contract, which UFCW alluded to in its statement announcing the acceptance of a deal.
The JBS plant was also the site of a major COVID outbreak in April 2020, in which 650 workers tested positive.
“I would think [JBS] workers are looking at least at this as a starting point for a deal,” predicted Barnetson.