COVID becomes part of food worker contract talks


Union says employee frustration over how companies have handled the pandemic could result in labour disruptions

An Alberta union representing about 35,000 workers ranging from meat processors to grocery store employees said frustration over how its members have been treated during the COVID-19 pandemic is raising the risk of them going on strike.

The impact of the crisis on such workers directly affects farmers and ranchers, said president Thomas Hesse of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401.

“They are affected by it because unless every intersection of the food supply chain makes sense and is working smoothly, it will have a profound impact on their lives.”

The union’s members include workers at companies such as Cargill, JBS Canada, Sofina Foods Inc. (Lilydale) and Superstore. Major contract negotiations are underway or slated to start at Cargill, Sofina Foods and Superstore, while “JBS negotiations are imminent, and these are all food processors or retailers,” said Hesse.

COVID-19 outbreaks caused temporary shutdowns at several meat processing plants across Canada, underlining how both farmers and consumers are vulnerable to disruptions in the country’s centralized food processing system.

Hesse said he understood how many producers “feel like they’re held hostage by some of these food processors.”

But he asked farmers, ranchers and producers to see the faces of the workers and view them as their partners.

The family of Benito Quesada, 51, recently filed a complaint with the RCMP seeking an investigation into his death May 7 from COVID-19.

He was among more than 950 employees who were infected during an outbreak last year at Cargill’s meat processing plant in High River, Alta. Two workers died, including Quesada.

“I know farmers are humans — they’re good people. They’ve got big hearts,” said Hesse. “They’re not unsympathetic, first of all from a humanitarian point of view or human rights point of view for the workers that handle their product.”

Hesse said Cargill is “a place where there’s a lot of pent-up anxiety, and that union contract is expiring as we speak, so those workers are going to be in a legal strike position in the coming months.”

He described Lilydale’s plant in Calgary as being at an imminent risk of a strike.

The company is a major employer in the poultry sector.

The union held two telephone meetings Jan. 31, he said. Members heard information from a physician and a lawyer, asked questions and took part in polls.

Due to the nature of their work as an essential yet vulnerable part of Canada’s food supply chain, members indicated they want to obtain a higher priority for COVID-19 vaccine inoculations, said Hesse.

But they also want to ensure companies don’t have the right to force them to get inoculations, with an “overwhelming majority” of the union’s members believing they should each be allowed to make up their own minds, he said.

Employers such as grocery stores have mused that vaccinations for workers should be made mandatory to reassure the public their operations are a safe, he said.

Workers also want to receive pandemic pay, he said, pointing to how Seattle’s city council recently approved a $4 per hour mandatory pay boost for grocery store workers during the pandemic.

“Most people in society agree there ought to be a minimum wage, and most people in society believe that workers ought to get something extra for the risks that they’re taking in essential services.”

Above all, the union’s members want to ensure they are safe at work, he said.

“I mean, they want to make sure that there’s PPE (personal protective equipment), they want to make sure there’s Plexiglas, they want to make sure that there’s social distancing, they want to make sure that line speeds aren’t too fast.”

About 60 percent of members who were respondents in polling Jan. 31 said they feared going to work, with about 80 percent believing they should fall into “some sort of priority group” for inoculations, said Hesse.

“Now, I don’t think (our members are) necessarily saying that they should be ahead of health-care workers, or people with pre-existing conditions, or that they should be ahead of the elderly, but they do believe that they ought to receive some priority over people who, for example, are working at home because they’re being forced to go to work.”

Union members were divided about actually receiving COVID-19 vaccines as individuals, with about 50 percent in favour of getting it as soon as possible and 50 percent nervous about it, said Hesse.