U.S. meatpacking giant Cargill Inc. and union workers at one of Canada’s biggest beef plants are bracing for a showdown, with talks early next week offering up a chance to break a labor impasse that threatens to upend the country’s meat supply.
Cargill is scheduled to meet union representatives from its beef processing plant in High River, Alberta on Tuesday in what’s likely to be a final attempt to reach a deal on a new labor contract for about 2,000 workers. The stakes are high: Cargill’s facility accounts for roughly 40 per cent of Canadian beef processing capacity, so any threats of a strike or lockout could disrupt the nation’s meat supply when beef prices are already soaring amid supply chain snags.
Cargill’s last offer included a 19 per cent wage hike over the course of the five-year contract, plus a one-time $1,200 (US$940) bonus. That was rejected on Nov. 24 by workers represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada Union Local 401. The union has since said the plant workers will go on strike at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 6 unless a deal can be reached. Cargill responded with the threat of locking out employees on that date, and shifting production to other facilities to avoid disruption.
“We’ve both reached the end,’’ Scott Payne, a spokesman for UFCW Local 401, said in an interview. “It’s their final flex of muscle, saying we either get a deal next week or we’re locking you out.’’
The labor dispute comes about a year after a massive COVID-19 outbreak at the High River plant sickened nearly half of the facility’s 2,000 staff and led to disruptions across the Canadian meat supply chain. The spread of infections led to the facility’s temporary closure, leaving thousands of cows awaiting slaughter on farms and prompting McDonald’s Corp.’s Canadian unit to start importing beef to meet its needs.
Meat plants in Canada and the U.S. became hot spots for COVID-19 last year as outbreaks forced the closure of some of the biggest slaughterhouses. Employees work in close proximity on some processing lines, sometimes described as “elbow-to-elbow.”
Workers “have just been through hell’’ and are pushing Cargill to put forward an offer acknowledging that, Payne said. He said Cargill will probably have a difficult time finding replacement workers in the event of a stoppage as the meat processing jobs require special training and Cargill is already having difficulty attracting new staff.
Workers across North America have been able to get the upper hand in labor negotiations as businesses struggle to recruit staff just as economies are reopening and recovering from a pandemic slump. A four-week strike at Deere & Co.’s U.S. plants ended earlier this month after about 10,000 unionized workers accepted a contract that boosted pay and retirement benefits.
For Cargill’s High River plant workers, company spokesman Dan Sullivan says its current offer is five times higher than the industry standard.
“We remain determined and hopeful that we can reach an agreement during this period,” he said.