Cargill workers tough strike stance wins them a new contract

Union staff Scott Payne, Secretary Treasurer Richelle Stewart, President Thomas Hesse, Dr. Annalee Coakley, and Dr. Gabriel Fabreau pose in strike bibs that announce a beef boycott in preparation for a potential strike at Cargill


. . . the readiness is all.
Shakespeare, Hamlet

IT WAS NO BLUFF. And the Cargill bosses knew it. They knew the 2000 members of UCFW Local 401 who work at the Cargill slaughterhouse in High River, Alberta were more than ready to strike. So the bosses kept negotiating.

There was no strike. The members of UCFW Local 401 voted 71% in favour of a new contract on December 4.

None of it came easy.

A hellhole of a workplace

The largest single outbreak of the COVID-19 started at the High River slaughterhouse, last year.  It made the plant the most dangerous place to work in all of North America. Three people died. Nearly half the workforce tested positive for the virus. The workers stayed on the job.

Another outbreak in 2021 resulted in dozens more infections. The workers stayed on the job.

The company had a lot to answer for.

The terms the company finally offered were not bad. They were good enough for the union negotiating team to recommend acceptance. But the union is not ready to forgive or forget all the pain and suffering the company recently put their members and their families through.

A win, but no ending

“A victory has been won and this is a day to celebrate,” said a statement from the UFCW Local 401.

“The injustices at Cargill, however, are not made right by the contract. Local 401 and its activists look to the future to enforce the new rights of Cargill workers in this unprecedented collective agreement.”

Cargill says the settlement includes a six-year collective agreement with retroactive pay, signing bonuses, a 21 per cent wage increase over the life of the contract and improved health benefits.

The deal also gives workers a $1,000 signing bonus and a $1,000 “COVID-19 bonus,” according to the union.

Always ready, never helpless

“At times over the last number of months, workers have felt helpless,” said Local 401 union president Thomas Hesse.

“Chaos has swirled about and it often felt like workers have been treated like lightbulbs: you burn out and the forces of greed and power simply screw in another bulb. But our members, have shown that the vulnerability of the individual is overcome by the strength of the many.”

Being so ready to go on strike proved it. The union had prepared for a potential strike setting up tents, bringing in heaters and floodlights, levelling nearby fields for parking space, and finalizing a picketing payroll system.

Canada-wide union representatives even booked flights to get to High River.

“The union is ultimately the power of the people,” says Hesse. “It is through the union that worker power shines brightly. And so, by this victory, we can see that there is hope. You are never helpless.”

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