Calgary

Strike averted at Cargill plant that packages a third of Canada's beef

Employees at a Cargill plant in southern Alberta that processes about a third of Canada's beef have voted to accept a new labour contract just days before the date set for a strike by the union and a lockout by management.

Workers vote 71% to accept new contract days before planned strike at facility near High River, Alta.

The Cargill beef-processing plant in High River, Alta., seen in 2020 after it reopened following a two-week shutdown because of a COVID-19 outbreak affecting hundreds of employees. On Saturday, workers accepted a new contract offer that included new rights for sick employees.  (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Employees at a Cargill plant in southern Alberta that processes about a third of Canada's beef have voted to accept a new labour contract just days before the date set for a strike by the union and a lockout by management.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 (UFCW), which represents workers at the plant, said Saturday that workers chose to accept the new contract offer, with 71 per cent voting in favour.

The Cargill plant processes up to 4,500 head of cattle per day, about one-third of Canada's beef.

In a statement, UFCW said it was not an easy decision for staff at the plant and called the contract vote a "bittersweet victory." 

Workers had raised safety concerns after a COVID-19 outbreak at the plant in 2020 affected more than 900 people. The outbreak, which forced Cargill to temporarily close the plant, was linked to three deaths.

The union says the new contract includes procedures to ensure worker health and safety, benefits, and new rights for sick employees. 

After the two sides held talks on Tuesday, UFCW's bargaining committee agreed to recommend the new offer to its members, Cargill spokesperson Daniel Sullivan said. Workers voted between Thursday and Saturday.

The union released parts of the proposed offer to CBC earlier in the week. The contract included $4,200 in retroactive pay for many Cargill union members; signing, holiday and COVID-19 bonuses; and a $5 wage increase.

Workers prepare beef to be packaged at the Cargill facility near High River, Alta. The plant is the site of what became the largest COVID-19 outbreak in North America last year. (Name withheld)

UFCW had said the plant's roughly 2,000 workers would strike Monday unless an agreement was reached.

The union also said they brought in tents, floodlights and heaters for the possible strike, while nearby fields were levelled to provide parking.

Cargill had also planned to lock out all UFCW union staff as of 12:01 a.m. Monday, according to a statement from the company's vice-president of labour relations, Tanya Teeter, which was obtained and made public by the union.

"We are pleased to have reached an agreement that is comprehensive, fair, and reflective of their commitment to excellence at Cargill and the critical role they play in feeding families across Canada," Jarrod Gillig, the company's president of business operations and supply chain for North America protein, wrote in a statement to CBC Saturday. 

"As an organization that leads with our value to put people first, we truly believe this ratification is in the best interests of our employees and we are eager to move forward to build a stronger future — together."

"We also look forward to the citizens of Alberta joining with us in calling for reforms and restructuring in the meat-packing industry," UFCW president Thomas Hesse wrote in a statement Saturday. 

"Workers have been ripped off. Ranchers have been ripped off. And we've all been ripped off at the supermarket counter. Government failed to protect these workers, as well as failing to protect Alberta ranchers and consumers. Change must occur." 

With files from Tony Seskus, Joel Dryden and Reuters

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