Relationship between union and plant management suffers under COVID-19

The union and management had a "good working relationship" pre-pandemic, but the coronavirus has ratcheted up tension.

As Western Canada’s big packers gear back up, the companies that run them are focused on getting past the crisis and clearing the backlog of market-ready cattle. But there are also fences to mend between management and the union.

John Keating, managing director of Cargill’s protein supply chain and business operations in North America, said they will be looking back to figure out what could have been done better. There are areas where they led, he said, noting that Cargill was one of the first to put up physical barriers for inspectors and shared information with other companies through the North American Meat Institute.

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There were also things they did wrong, Keating said, and they’ll need to make sure they don’t repeat those mistakes. But for now, they are “trying to get through this crisis,” he said.

“We’re running our plants differently every day. We’re having different conference calls. We’re having different conversations with the producer-partners. We’re having different conversations with our customers.”

Part of that effort will include mending the company’s relationship with the union, he said. “Something we did to that union really upset them. They’re targeting us and so we’re going to have to mend that relationship.”

Michael Hughes, senior communications and education representative with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, said that workers were angry and felt disrespected.

“They didn’t feel that what they were going through was being treated as seriously as they felt it should have been,” said Hughes.

Hughes said a lack of open communication about the COVID-19 situation at Cargill’s plant pushed the union to escalate earlier this spring, calling for plants at Brooks, High River and Red Deer to close temporarily. A week later, the union filed a complaint with Occupational Health and Safety.

Keating said that what happened in High River has been “a really, really sad situation.”  He noted they have many long-term employees, and indicated that the tension between plant management and workers hasn’t  been the norm.

Hughes said they’ve had “good working relationships” with both JBS and Cargill. They did have a strike in the mid-2000s at Brooks, before securing the first agreement with JBS, he said, but have been through bargaining twice since with no strikes.

“Cargill — we haven’t had a strike here in decades,” said Hughes.

Hughes said that whether Cargill is able to regain the union’s trust will depend on how the company responds when the union comes forward with concerns and proposals.

The union hasn’t been in a position to strike during the COVID-19 crisis this spring because it has agreements in place. But Cargill’s agreement with the union is up at the end of the year.

Hughes already has some ideas on what they’ll be trying to negotiate when the agreement is up. “We’re going to have to have pandemic responses in place. And we’re going to need to work together on that.”

This is the third article in a series. For more, see:

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Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is the editor of Canadian Cattlemen. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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