Strike looms at one of Canada’s largest beef processing plants as Cargill workers vote against offer

The union representing workers at the Cargill meat-packing plant near High River, Alta., Said employees rejected the company’s contract offer after two days of voting – over concerns over health and safety related to COVID-19.

The prospect of a strike starting on December 6 has given prairie ranchers a chance to prepare, as the Cargill plant is estimated to process about a third of Canadian beef.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 said workers rejected the company’s offer by a 98 percent margin.

Workers have raised health and safety concerns related to COVID-19, but also want better benefits, wage increases and a faster transition to new jobs once hired, according to the union.

Previously, the union had sent out a strike notice warning that staff would line up on the picket line on December 6 if the requested changes were not made.

In an image shared with CBC at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, workers prepare beef to pack at the Cargill facility near High River, Alta. Last year, the meat packing plant was the site of a deadly COVID-19 outbreak linked to three deaths and positive tests among 950 workers and hundreds of family and community members. (Name withheld)

Last year, the meat packing plant was the site of a deadly COVID-19 outbreak linked to three deaths and positive tests among 950 additional workers – nearly half of its workforce – and hundreds of family and community members. Another outbreak in 2021 resulted in dozens of cases.

“Cargill workers have told their employer with another crushing vote that they matter and deserve something more,” UFCW Local 401 president Thomas Hesse said in a statement.

“We will communicate the result to Cargill and ask them to return to the bargaining table to respond to our members.”

The union said that although Cargill union members have expressed their anger and frustration, they remain ready to make a deal.

Cargill responds

Cargill spokesman Daniel Sullivan said on Thursday the company remained optimistic about reaching a deal before the Dec.6 deadline.

“We are ready to continue to meet to avoid any work disruption, which is in no one’s interest during an already difficult time,” read an emailed statement.

“As we navigate this negotiation, we continue to focus on fulfilling customer orders from food manufacturers, retailers and foodservice while keeping markets moving for farmers and ranchers. If necessary, we will move production to other facilities within our large supply chain footprint to minimize any disruption. ”

Pastoralists fear another backlog of livestock processing

Melanie Wowk, breeder and president of Alberta Beef Producers, told CBC News in mid-November that the possibility of a strike is of deep concern to ranchers, who have already faced drought over the past two years, soaring feed costs and pandemic disruptions that have led to massive backlogs of livestock.

She fears a strike at the Cargill plant could result in another backlog of livestock, reminiscent of those of last year when the pandemic caused temporary shutdowns of meat processing plants.

The processing disruption in North America pushed up meat prices in grocery stores, but had the opposite effect along the supply chain, where a backlog of cattle has emerged.

Ranchers say livestock prices have not kept pace with rising costs, nor beef prices seen in recent grocery stores.

They are also trying to deal with the fallout from this summer’s drought that has hit pastures and helped dramatically increase feed costs for farmers.

Experts have suggested up to 20 percent of the Canadian cattle herd could be sold this fall and winter as producers are forced to downsize their herds or close their doors.

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