At the beginning of December, workers at the Cargill meatpacking plant in High River, Alberta, reached a last-minute deal with the Minnesota-based company. The deal narrowly averted a planned strike and retaliatory lockout. The plant is infamous for being the site of one of North America’s largest workplace COVID-19 outbreaks.
Almost half of the two-thousand-strong workforce at the High River plant, which processes 40 percent of Canada’s beef, tested positive for COVID in April 2020. The outbreak led to the deaths of workers Benito Quesada and Hiep Bui. The casualties extended beyond the walls of Cargill’s meatpacking plant. Armando Sallegue, who had flown in from the Philippines to visit his son who worked at the plant, also died from the infection.
Quesada’s death is under criminal investigation for alleged negligence. Cargill kept the plant running, in spite of pleas from the union and the local Filipino community, from which Cargill disproportionately draws its ranks, ignoring their calls to close the plant for two weeks to avoid a massive outbreak. The inquiry is the first instance of a criminal probe related to a COVID outbreak in Canada.
“They’re big and they’re bad, but we are not afraid,” says Tom Hesse, president of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 401, Alberta’s largest private sector union, which represents the Cargill workers. Cargill workers voted 97 percent in favor of strike action on November 10.
On November 25, the company retaliated by issuing a lockout notice. The move was part of a strategy to preempt the strike — the lockout would go into effect if a deal wasn’t reached by December 6, the very same day the workers would have been in a legal strike position. Cargill, which recorded a record $4.93 billion in profit in 2021, sought to prepare for the lockout by hiring scabs. The company put advertisements up on public transit around Calgary, the closest major city to High River, boasting a starting wage of CAD$19.55 an hour plus a signing bonus.
UFCW Local 401, working with their union, were able to successfully demand proper compensation and respect from the company, but it took organization and determination. Preparations for the strike were a 24-7 affair. The union erected tents in front of the plant, requiring propane heaters, and cleared nearby fields to accommodate parking for hundreds of potential strikers. A picketing payroll system was in the works, and the union booked flights to High River for its representatives from across Canada.
The new contract includes a 21 percent wage increase over its six-year duration, thousands of dollars in bonuses, and increased health benefits, including counseling and massage therapy. The contract also stipulates “provisions to facilitate a new culture of health, safety, dignity, and respect in the workplace.”
The plant and the union approved the contract on December 4, two days before the lockout deadline, with 71 percent support. The company’s previous offer was rejected by 98 percent of UFCW 401 workers who voted — one percentage point more than the vote to go on strike.
Jamie Welsh-Rollo, a cryovac operator at the plant, told Rankandfile.ca that the offer the union ended up accepting was a massive improvement on the previous one. A major point of contention with the company’s initial offer was the lack of sufficient bonus pay to compensate workers for the adversity they went through in the early days of the pandemic. Smoothing over this sticking point was difficult, but the bargaining committee ultimately opted for a larger wage increase. Welsh-Rollo went on to say that meatpackers deserve “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 every day.”
Welsh-Rollo, who has worked at Cargill since June 2018 and was among the half of the workforce that didn’t get COVID, was friends with Quesada and learned of his death from the media. Quesada wasn’t initially named in news reports, so she had to ask a colleague if it was him. “I just started bawling. It was really hard not to know for sure, but to have that gut feeling that that was your friend.”
It didn’t help that the Alberta government and Cargill lied to the workers after the first cases were identified at the plant. At an April 18 town hall, employers told workers that returning to the plant was safe. Bosses excluded the union from this meeting.
Documents obtained by the Alberta Federation of Labour revealed that the province’s chief medical officer of health, Deena Hinshaw, had privately warned the government that, even with the company’s safety measures, cases at the plant were out of control. This was the same government official who publicly reassured the workers at the town hall. On April 20, Hiep became the first fatality of the plant’s outbreak and the company agreed to close the workplace for two weeks.
Her death, as well as those of Quesada and Sallegue, could have been avoided, but the company chose to put production ahead of safety and ignored the effects of the pandemic. According to Sean Tucker, a professor of human resources at the University of Regina and an expert on workplace health and safety issues, if the company had “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.”
This desire to keep profits churning would ultimately prove to be a liability for the company. It played its part in motivating workers vote to go on strike, thus threatening a work stoppage that would have been far more detrimental to the company’s bottom line than taking the effects of the pandemic seriously.
UFCW 401 president Hesse described a tense round of bargaining, the tone of which was shaped, in large part, by workers’ trauma from the past twenty months. “At the time of the outbreak, we were not in a legal strike position, so there’s this ball of sentiment, anxiety, anger, emotion, frustration, stress and trauma that’s all built up,” he says. “They’ve been waiting to express themselves. They’ve been waiting for their moment to arrive. It’s all been bottled up.”
The impact of the outbreak “undergirded every word that’s been articulated at the negotiating table,” Hesse adds, explaining that while union negotiations tend to be oriented around financial considerations, this time was different. “In terms of money, how much is enough? How much will compensate people for what they went through? What is that figure?” Professor Tucker confirms this view, noting that health and safety considerations were front and center in the bargaining process. “This was more than monetary.”
Bob Barnetson, a professor of labor studies at Athabasca University, says the new contract is undoubtedly an improvement for workers, but that the jury is still out on its long-term effects:
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. 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.
Professor Tucker figures that it will require effort on the company’s part to actually implement its promises to establish a “new culture” regarding health and safety. Tucker believes that an independent consultant must be brought in to establish benchmarks with which to compare existing conditions.
Furthermore, if Cargill truly wants to demonstrate that it’s serious about reform, Tucker thinks that it should consider giving the boot to some of the people in upper management who were around and did nothing during the deadly outbreak. “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 says.
Regardless of how the new protocols and work culture are implemented, Tucker predicts the deal itself will have reverberations throughout the meatpacking industry. The industry is infamous for not being “too keen [on receiving] a lot of public attention.” It prefers that its treatment of both its workforce and the animals it slaughters be kept out of the public eye. It’s not like the problems at High River were particular to the plant; the only reason the company is now airing its dirty laundry is because “there’s just more public attention,” says Tucker.
The results of the High River collective agreement will have repercussions beyond the Cargill work floor. The industry will soon witness the extent of the Cargill workers’ contract win when 2,500 workers at the JBS meatpacking plant in Brooks, Alberta, negotiate their new contract. The Brooks plant was also the site of a major COVID outbreak in April 2020, in which 650 workers tested positive, and its workers are also members of UFCW 401. “I would think [JBS] workers are looking at least at this as a starting point for a deal,” Barnetson says.