Union workers at a Cargill Inc. plant that accounts for about 40 per cent of Canada’s beef supply have accepted a new labor contract, averting a strike that threatened to disrupt the nation’s meat market.

Employees of Cargill’s plant in High River, Alberta, voted 71 per cent in favor of the contract offered by the U.S. agricultural giant, the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada Union Local 401 said in a statement Saturday. The agreement included a 21 per cent wage increase over the life of the six-year deal, and was touted by the union as the best food processing contract in the country.

The dispute threatened to disrupt Canada’s beef supply when food prices are already soaring within the country and around the world as labor crunches squeeze meatpackers and supply-chain snarls add to freight costs. Workers were set to strike on Dec. 6 if a deal wasn’t reached with Cargill. 

The deal comes as workers across North America flex their bargaining power, bolstered by a labor squeeze that has left many businesses struggling to hire and retain staff.

The agreement includes as much as $4,200 (US$3,282.3) in retroactive pay and more than $6,000 in total bonuses for many workers, according to the union. The previous contract offer, which included a 19 per cent wage hike over the course of the contract, was rejected on Nov. 24 by the union members.

Meat workers have complained about pandemic health and safety after a COVID-19 outbreak last year sickened half of the plant’s staff and resulted in a temporary shutdown. The closure left thousands of cows awaiting slaughter on farm and prompted McDonald’s Corp.’s Canadian unit to import beef to meet its needs.