By Jeremy Appel
Cargill correspondent for Rankandfile.ca
Whether or not workers at Cargill’s High River, Alberta, plant go on strike Monday, there’s no question the past 20 months have been a long, painful journey.
Jamie Welsh-Rollo has worked at Cargill since June 2018. She is a cryovac operator and serves as a liaison between the bargaining committee and broader membership of the union, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401.
A single mother, Welsh-Rollo told Rankandfile.ca that she was initially attracted to working at Cargill due to the child care benefits the company offers.
She said morale was much stronger before the pandemic, but workers often felt pressured to come into work sick. It was a dynamic that would have dire consequences once COVID-19 came into the picture.
“It was normal for somebody to be puking next to you in the bathroom stall,” recalls Welsh-Rollo.
She was fortunate not to be one of the 950 workers at the High River plant who tested positive for COVID-19 in mid-April 2020. It was the single largest outbreak in North America at the time.
Alberta government lied to Cargill workers
At the outset of the pandemic, Cargill initially encouraged workers to come in sick with a $500 bonus for perfect attendance. Welsh-Rollo says the company later clarified the bonus would still be given to employees who called in sick with COVID-19 symptoms.
Welsh-Rollo also said she had to be separated from her child during the week, sending them to live with her parents, while she continued working through the pandemic.
“It was really, really hard, especially mentally. You’re stressed out because you want to be there for your co-workers and support them, but at the same time you’re terrified for your own family,” she recalled.
After the first COVID-19 cases were detected at the plant, the government held a telephone town hall with Cargill workers on April 18, 2020. Government officials told them it was safe to work. The union, UFCW Local 401, was not invited to the town hall.
Documents obtained by the Alberta Federation of Labour reveal that the government knew it was not safe to work.
The day after the government’s town hall meeting, 67-year-old Hiep Bui, who had worked 18-hour shifts at Cargill for 23 years, died of COVID-19, becoming the plant’s first pandemic fatality.
After Hiep’s death, Cargill agreed to close the plant down for two weeks, which the union had urged the company to do two weeks earlier.
When the plant reopened from the two-week shutdown, Welsh-Rollo said the company began to take health and safety more seriously.
“You’re still shoulder-to-shoulder, but you have a plastic barrier between you, as well as a face shield and a mask,” Welsh-Rollo said.
“I was with him the last day he went home”
On May 7, Benito Quesada, 51, died from COVID-19 after being in a coma and on a ventilator for a few weeks. Quesada’s death is being investigated by the RCMP as potentially resulting from criminal negligence on Cargill’s part.
Welsh-Rollo, who was friends with Quesada, found out about his death through the media. Initially, Quesada wasn’t identified in news reports, so she asked a colleague if it was him. That colleague said they didn’t know.
“I just started bawling,” she said. “It was really hard not to know for sure, but to have that gut feeling that that was your friend.”
Joseph Kog, who works on the kill floor, was also friends with Quesada. He said he remembers seeing Quesada leave work on what would ultimately be his final shift.
“I was with him the last day he went home,” said Kog, who was also part of the workforce that didn’t test positive for COVID-19.
“A small United Nations”
Kog, who came to Canada as a refugee from Sudan, was brought to Cargill by some who were applying for jobs and needed someone with his level of English proficiency to translate the application for them.
Although he was studying early childhood education at the time, Kog was attracted by the pay and diversity of the workforce.
“I call it a small UN,” he said. “It’s a very diverse workplace [where] you can find different people from different backgrounds.”
After a year on the job, Kog became a shop steward with UFCW Local 401.
“I saw there are many people who aren’t educated here, don’t know their rights or how to read,” he said. “Nobody stood up for them, so some of them told me, ‘You can help us.’”
Getting media coverage in the early days of the pandemic was important for putting pressure on the government and company, who were in cahoots to keep the plant open at all costs, Kog added.
All the improvements in working conditions that came after the two-week shutdown were the result of union agitation, he said.
“Everybody here needs more protection,” said Kog. “They need more recognition that they worked hard during COVID.”
Bargaining committee supports latest offer
Workers are in the midst of voting on a new offer from Cargill that has the bargaining committee’s support.
Welsh-Rollo said the latest offer is a significant improvement from the previous one, which membership rejected by a 98 percent margin.
It offers a 21% pay increase throughout the contract’s duration, a $1,000 signing bonus, $1,000 COVID-19 bonus and enhanced benefits, such as massage therapy and psychological counseling, among others.
Although the company’s previous offer included a $1,200 COVID-19 bonus, which members rejected as insufficient, the pay increase more than makes up for the difference, said Welsh-Rollo.
“We want to get better wages overall, because the reality is that this is a very hard workplace to work in, so we should get paid for the dangers that we face everyday,” she said.
In a statement, UFCW 401 president Tom Hesse said he had “mixed feelings” about the offer, but deferred to the membership’s will.
“Our members may or may not accept the offer. If they don’t, I’ll join them on the picket lines in solidarity and on strike. If they do accept it, I’ll work with them every day to make Cargill a better workplace,” vowed Hesse.
“I will do as our members ask me to do. I respect all of the emotions that they feel and the suffering that they have experienced.”
UFCW 401’s Secretary-Treasurer Richelle Stewart said that since the union is “an open and democratic organization,” it will do whatever the plant’s workers tell it to do.
If members vote against the offer, they’ll be hitting the picket lines Monday.