One of Canada’s biggest beef processing plants is optimistic it will reach an agreement with the union representing its workers in High River, Alta.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 has served strike notice to Cargill, the company that operates the facility south of Calgary.
The union says 97 per cent of workers who voted support going on strike if a deal isn’t reached by Dec. 6.
UFCW Local 401 president Thomas Hesse said workers want respect, recognition, a safe workplace, and fair compensation.
“They want to see some form of compensation really for the death and the illness that they suffered during the pandemic, where they were forced to work and bring food to the tables of Albertans,” he said, adding the current offer from Cargill isn’t good enough.
“I mean, there’s no doubt that the company wants this to go away. They don’t want this is in the public eye. They don’t want the stigma. They don’t want people to be reminded of the injustices that are part of this industry.”
Hesse said workers are not only willing to strike, but to also call for a beef boycott if their demands aren’t met.
“There may be picketing and leafleting in front of other workplaces if they sell Cargill products. Albertans may even be confronted by picketing Cargill workers as they approach the drive-thru at McDonald’s.”
Colleen Biggs with TK Ranch says a strike at the meat-packing plant would have serious implications for area producers that would trickle down to consumers.
“There’s only so much processing capacity in the province and so there’s just no other markets. This is what a lot of consumers don’t understand, is that ranch families have no other markets except Cargill as the end purchaser. So, you know, they have a monopoly,” she said.
“The price of beef will go up. Unfortunately when the demand, you know, if there’s no beef in the supply chain, that’s the only place it can go and prices are already high. This is just going to be another nail in the coffin of agriculture because it’s already a very difficult place to be.
Cargill spokesman Dan Sullivan hopes it doesn’t come to that.
In a written statement, he said, “We greatly value our employees and the work they do to feed Canadians. Over the last two days, our company and the union representing employees at our High River protein facility have exchanged multiple comprehensive proposals that included increased wages well beyond the industry standard, enhanced employee benefits and cash bonuses for active employees.”
In the meantime, the company says it is putting contingency plans in place in case of a supply disruption.
“We are in communication with our cattle suppliers about contingency plans should they be necessary. As we navigate this negotiation, we will continue to focus on fulfilling food manufacturer, retail and food service customer orders. We will shift production to other facilities within our broad supply chain footprint to minimize disruptions to our product delivery if necessary.”
The High River plant processes about 4,500 head of cattle a day — more than one-third of Canada’s beef-packing capacity.