Meatpacking plants were the sites of COVID-19 outbreaks across the continent, and the outbreaks in Alberta killed several meatpacking workers. What is it about this industry that made workers so vulnerable to this pandemic, and why do the corporate meat-packing giants command such influence and power? Team Advantage examines the role of corporate agribusiness in rural Alberta and the labour struggles that have shaped the industry.
Alberta Labour History Institute: Alberta’s Summer of ’86
24 Days in Brooks [National Film Board documentary]
Michael Broadway: Small Town, Big Changes Meat-packing, refugees and the transformation of Brooks. [Alberta Views, 2006]
George Melnyk: Faces of the Lakeside Packers Strike [Alberta Views, 2006]
Michael Broadway: Cut to the Bone: How changes in meatpacking have created the most vulnerable worker in Alberta [May 2012]
A transcript follows the break.
Kate: When people think “I <3 Alberta Beef,” they think about ranchers and they think about eating beef, and the people who get that beef from those ranchers to your table are made completely invisible by that resource pride.
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Kate: Hello, and welcome to The Alberta Advantage. I’m your host, Kate Jacobson, and on Team Advantage today we have Will —
Kate: Joel —
Joel: Hello, hello.
Kate: And Patrick —
Patrick: Hi there.
Kate: Today, we’ll be talking about yet another truly awful situation ripped from the headlines that turns out to be not only more fucked up than we could have possibly imagined when we look at its history, but also yet another example of something that was pioneered in Alberta. And, folks, I regret to inform you that we will be talking about the meat packing industry on today’s episode. You may have heard Alberta meat packing plants noted in the news recently as having the largest industrial-site outbreaks of COVID-19 in North America, with 1500 cases and three deaths linked to Cargill’s High River, Alberta plant, and 1046 and two deaths confirmed in Brooks, Alberta, where an outbreak at a JBS food plant contributed 600 confirmed and probable cases, and one of the deaths included a worker. About 7% of the city of Brooks, population 15,000, has contracted the virus, and not reassuring in the slightest is the fact that the two giant plants with record outbreaks make up 70% of Canada’s beef-processing capacities. So, we are going to be looking at: how did this truly outrageous situation come to be? Why is so much beef processed in Alberta by transnational corporations with terrible reputations? Who does the work, and who wants to make sure nothing in this industry changes, even if current conditions are literally costing workers lives? We’ll be looking at the shift from the family farm to global agribusiness, the impacts of this shift on rural Alberta communities, strikes and unionization in the industry, Jason Kenney (because of course you knew he had to be in the middle of this) and his key role in developing the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, and we’ll also be looking at Cargill and JBS as they exist today. Plus we’ll share some of our thoughts on what can be done going forward and recommend organizations that are supporting workers through a truly appalling crisis.
Joel: So, it may be somewhat surprising to us now, but up until the late 1980s, meat processing consisted of smaller Canadian-owned plants distributed across the country in major cities. These became the sites of pitched labour struggles: the Gainers strike in the summer of 1986 in Edmonton is one such example.
Announcer: This morning, things appeared calm, but there was an underlying current of anger: anger at statements attributed to Gainers owner Peter Pocklington, particularly the comment that he would never have the union back in his plant.
Interviewee: If the union will never get back in, then nobody else will, either.
Announcer: Several hundred angry workers have been manning the picket lines at the three entrances to Gainers since the strike began Sunday. A line held firm at the main gates when the lead bus and a convoy of four tried, first to inch its way through the picket line, and then accelerated for a few feet, knocking some picketers to the ground. By that time, the strikers had started to smash out the windshield.
Announcer: Ten minutes after the bus tried to crash the picket line, it backed up and pulled away, with the other three buses following.
Joel: So, the Gainers strike started on June 1st in 1986 in Edmonton. It lasted six and a half months, with 1080 workers, and was one of the most violent strikes in modern Alberta history. The Gainers plant was owned by Peter Pocklington, owner of the Edmonton Oilers —
Kate: And I just want to say — Peter Pocklington, you have the name of a villain from a children’s book where the hero is a small bunny rabbit who has two brothers.
Joel: Yeah, there’s a very good moustache-twirling energy to the name Peter Pocklington. Previously, there was a national pattern for meat packing bargaining — in 1984, however, in the face of a, quote, “struggling industry,” unquote, Pocklington demanded concessions from workers, including dropping the starting rate from 12.99 an hour to 7 and freezing the base wage after dropping it from 14.99 to 11.99. The UFCW 280P protested, only to be met with strikebreakers lining up outside the plant. The UFCW was intimidated into making concessions — sick pay was slashed, health benefits were slashed or taken away, lost holiday hours and extended probationary period was implemented and a two-tier wage system was established.
Kate: And what a national pattern for bargaining means is that collective agreements are being negotiated across the country or across the province, with, oftentimes, small wins or small increases, and then all of the employers in that given industry are basically following the pattern set by that initial contract. This is really, really common, even today, across employers; and it’s really rare, and it’s explicitly evil, what Pocklington did, to buck the trend of this national-pattern bargaining for concessions is rare and is absolutely rare, and it’s absolutely a tactic of union-busting.
Will: So, the concessions made in 1984, the denigration of these workers’ pay and benefits, kind of set the groundwork for what the strike that happened in 1986, when they went on strike, essentially, to return to the national pattern and called for parity with Canada packers. So, as was mentioned, these strikes were tumultuous to say the least. On the first day of strikes, there were massive picket lines and tremendous solidarity — not one meat packer crossed the picket line, which successfully blocked strike breakers and livestock from entering the plant. Things got more violent from there on out, though — the second day of striking, the police showed up to clear the way, and the first eleven days, over 300 people were arrested. And, after that, state repression continued with the first-ever deployment of Edmonton’s riot squad in early June. An entire third of the police force was being used for escorting strike breakers, and you can imagine that this was extremely expensive — the entire police department’s annual budget for overtime, which was $500,000, was used in the first month of repressing these strikes. There was also court injunctions that aimed to limit the gathering of people and to suppress the strikes. After that, with options starting to be limited, there was a successful boycott campaign that was done in collaboration with unions across the country. And then, after months of failing to resolve the labour dispute through the courts, under pressure from then-Premier Getty and with the help of a bribe from the goverment in the form of a $65,000,000 loan, which Pocklington defaulted on a mere two years later, a reluctant Pocklington agreed to negotiate with the union with mediation from the Premier. And, while the reception to the agreement was mixed, it nevertheless reinstated people’s pensions and kept the union, which Pocklington was trying very hard to get rid of.
Kate: It was a really remarkable moment in Alberta labour history, and there is a really wonderful documentary about it that I do really recommend watching if you’re more interested, but one of my favourite moments from that strike and from that picket line is: they actually received a lot of support from Edmonton’s Catholic community, including — if I’m recalling this correctly — some local monks coming up to the picket line and dragging big wooden crosses back and forth in front of the gates to stop a bus full of scabs from getting into the plant, which is a really remarkable scene.
Will: That’s fucking cool as hell.
Joel: I mean, as far as monks go, yeah, great stuff from the monks, I gotta say.
Kate: Catholics — they’re good now.
Joel: Yeah, so, Gainers didn’t make an offer to the workers for six months; so, it took until December for a strike that started in the summer. In 1989, the provincial government took over the plant due to Pocklington’s failure to repay his loans that he had taken out. It was sold to Burns Meats in 1994, absorbed by Maple Leaf in 1996, and then shut down after another strike in 1997. Some 850 workers lost their jobs, plants in both Calgary and Edmonton were shut down within the same decade, and operations moved away from urban centres to rural Alberta.
Kate: And this is a really important factor to consider when ask ourselves: why are these huge meat packing plants now in rural Alberta? Why are the meat packing plants that are in Brooks and High River in those places and not in Calgary or Edmonton, which have much larger labour forces? And part of it is relocating and reorganizing in a way that avoids the labour costs which were associated with these plants being in major industrial centres.
Joel: Yeah, and this goes hand in hand with a whole bunch of other changes that were occurring within the agricultural sector, generally. So, before looking at meat packing in depth, we should look at the rest of the supply chain, as well. Changes that were happening in meat packing went hand in hand with what was happening in agriculture. The last two decades of the 20th century saw significant transformation of agriculture in the Prairie provinces. The family farm was increasingly being superseded by multinational corporations, such as Cargill, within the Canadian food system, and this transformation was the result of political decisions by governments to dismantle protections for small farms in favour of the big players, and the free trade agreements that usually went along with those subjected farmers to global competition. Basically, this was: neoliberalism goesto rural Alberta, neoliberalism goes to the agricultural sector. So, this had enormous negative impacts on the viability of the rural Prairies, contributing to an accelerated decline — in some cases, even rural depopulation. Hog farming is a good example of how this change played out. The federal government’s wind down an elimination of the Crow Rate, which subsidized grain transport by rail until ‘95, forced farmers to search for new products with better margins, such as livestock. Specifically, it created a large pool of cheap animal feed grain that wasn’t economical to export anymore.
Kate: And what happened is, during the 1990s, you get the emergence of these really intensive livestock operations that are often called mega-barns; and, basically, what this means is, whereas a family farm might produce several hundred hogs a year, these corporate-owned farms could produce hundreds of thousands for slaughter. And, furthermore, these operations became very vertically integrated so that a single company would control the entire barley-to-bacon pipeline — because we sure as shit love pipelines in Alberta — which means that a single company might own feed stock inputs, the hog farms themselves, and the processing plants and the wholesalers. So I think there’s a really interesting parallel here with how the oil industry in Alberta becomes extremely vertically integrated at this time and since its inception, and how this same dynamic plays out with hog farming. These are enormous companies that often have revenues in the billions, and they have an international scale, and this type of vertical integration for family producers to compete against them, and this expansion of hog production basically contributed to a 1998 price crash that ruined many family farms.
Joel: Yeah. There’s lots of detail we could go into here, but it’s basically just the fact that the scale of these operations are so huge, and the control of these companies over all of the inputs and all of the various stages of the commodity chain as it goes from inputs to actually growing hogs or whatever to slaughter to processing to being sold — when you have a single entity that can control that whole chain, it really puts your family farm, or anybody who’s attempting family farming, at a severe disadvantage. At best, they can provide some sort of inputs to this giant corporate machine somewhere; it’s very unlikely tha they’re going to be able to compete from a price point of view, right?
Patrick: When we think of competition in a marketplace, we typically think of the cost of whatever the product is that’s on the shelf, but the central insight that these mega meat-manufacturing is that a lot of profit can be made on the supply side of it, as well. So this entire consolidation, this entire efficiency maneuver that occurs over these last two decades in the last century, it’s all about squeezing the cost of labour and, also, squeezing the price of the raw inputs — the feed and the cattle — that go into the system. And that’s where a huge amount of the profits are then able to be captured in this industry.
Kate: And, obviously, this is not very good for our society because there’s been a lot of studies, and they’ve shown that small producers, they spend significantly more in local areas, and they hire a lot more people, while corporate farms are engineered to extract wealth out of rural communities and out of shareholder pockets. And I don’t mean to do glorification of small businesses or the family farm or anything like that, but the truth is that working conditions on these corporate farms were usually substantially worse, and it’s exacerbated by the aforementioned glorification of small businesses and the family farm, because these labour law exemptions that were maybe originally, in a very charitable interpretation, meant for family farms get extended to these really, really giant corporate agribusiness. Which is also a huge, massive source of pollution, primarily in the form of manure, and that’s just not going to be an issue with smaller-scale farmers. And, economically, this has been absolutely devastating for farmers in the Prairies. So, the 1980s and 1990s, for example, saw farm net income in Alberta at lows that had not been seen since the Great Depression. So, this is a real crisis in the way agriculture is being done in Alberta, and it was also part of a larger political strategy on the part of the governing PCs who, at this point, had been in government for about 20 years and were about to be in government for 20 more years.
Joel: Oh, god.
Kate: I know. Really cool place we live, eh?
Joel: [laughs] But no, the rural effects are kind of mind-boggling to think about because, in a normal society, if a giant, evil corporation came and absorbed all of the market power and political power and installed itself and ruined your small, rural community or whatever, you might be inclined to, I don’t know, change to a government that might offer different options as far as your community’s concerned. But that’s just not what happened in rural Alberta, right?
Kate: Well, the PC government had such a patronage-based style of governing and doing politics, particularly in rural Alberta, that it really discouraged this type of politics and, in particular, led to a kind of political deskilling which, broadly, I think we’ve all experienced over the past 40-50 years with the advent of neoliberalism, but it was especially stark in rural Alberta. And what I mean by “political deskilling” is that the act of doing politics, of being able to talk about politics, of being able to look at the world around you and interpret it politically, of being able to organize your neighbours and your coworkers to do things about it, these are all skills which we only rely develop through practice, through failure, through loss, through wins, and if that is not happening, you are going to lose those skills and lose the ability to be effective political actors. And the PCs were really, really good at deliberately robbing people of those skills in rural Alberta through what I would call a patronage form of government where there was constantly little things here and there being gifted to rural Alberta. Of course, this was all coming from tax revenue, which you could argue that municipalities are owed anyway because that is how a government works, or a society works, but all sorts of community institutions were instituted their patronage, or the arrival of businesses that would employ people in certain communities — that was through patronage. So, it encouraged people in rural Alberta to develop really specific relationships with their elected officials that did not include politically confronting them. And, as we can see, that’s been extremely disastrous for rural Alberta because what happened is the rural Prairie economy became pretty much fully subordinated to the needs of global capital accumulation, and local people were increasingly put beneath the demands of multinational commodity firms. And that is bad, bad, not good.
Joel: Quite rather bad. Whenever I think of the PCs dealing with rural Alberta, part of me just can’t help but think of the mob.
Kate: Yeah. [laughs]
Joel: They install themselves and they set up certain people so that they’re successful business or whatever, or community leaders or whatever, and then it’s kind of like, “Well, it would be a shame if something happened to your small business, if you know what I mean.”
Kate: “Oh, it would be a shame if something happened to this industry that employs 30% of the people who work in your town.”
Joel: Yup. Anyhow. So, getting back on the globalization in rural Alberta vibe — the concentration of ownership was obviously very strong across the board when it came to agricultural commodities, but particularly so in meat packing. The Cargill meat plant in High River processes 4500 head of cattle a day, and, it is responsible for 40% of all Canadian beef processing. That’s 1,600,000 cattle per year. Together with the JBS plant in Brooks, the vast majority of Canadian beef is processed by two plants that have both had enormous and deadly COVID-19 outbreaks.
Patrick: So, shutdowns and slowdowns caused by the virus have had really wide-ranging impacts on producers who are considering destroying household livestock to save feed costs, and consumers are going to face higher beef prices and potential shortages. And it seems obvious that concentrating essential production in just a couple of plants creates these serious vulnerabilities in the food system, but how did we get here? How did we get to just two plants controlling so much of our beef processing? The short answer is that it is extremely profitable to concentrate production in just a few facilities. The Cargill High River plant opened in ‘89, a state-of-the-art facility that could process 1200 cattle per day, and, in ‘94, the Iowa Beef Packers purchased the Brooks plant and immediately announced an expansion to it. The plant would have a number of foreign owners after the Iowa Beef Packers, including the current ones, Brazilian-based JBS, and these two plants represented a notable change in the industry structure of beef processing.
Kate: So, before this, beef processing in Canada mostly consisted of smaller Canadian-owned plants that were distributed across the country in major cities, but, by the beginning of about the 21st century, these urban slaughterhouses had mostly closed, and processing shifted to fewer, larger, and foreign-owned plants in rural areas. Now, this shift had actually already occurred in the United States starting in the 1960s, and Iowa Beef Packers was really a pioneer of the new model. I want to be careful, here, that we’re not suggesting that centralization in an industry is inherently bad, because I do not think that is necessarily true. Certainly, with COVID-19, we have seen the way that this industry, in particular, has been unable to absorb any shock to its system, but that is not necessarily because of centralization — it is because it is run for profit, and when you run something for profit, it incentivizes you to not have any slack in the system through which you could absorb these types of shocks, like a global pandemic. But I just want to be careful, here, that we’re not suggesting that everything has to be local and dispersed and decentralized in order to be good — the real issue with this here is the profit motive of these companies and the particularly unique and ruthless way in which they go about conducting business.
Patrick: Yeah. And there are some sort of technical reasons that pushed the industry towards centralization, and one of the really big ones was the widespread use of refrigeration, where, previously — at the end of World War II, for example — slaughterhouses would be located in cities, cattle would be moved into cities, butchered, transformed into meat products, and sold right shortly after being processed there — where, once refrigerated transport was available, it made more financial sense to raise the animals, process the animals right close to home, and then the refrigerated products could be moved off to the cities more efficiently. And there are other technical features that lead to this sort of higher efficiency of these mega-plants, but, as we’re going to discover, there are some pretty serious risks that also come with an extremely large processing facility. So, turning back to Cargill’s High River plant — when it opened, it could slaughter 6000 cattle a week, and with 410 workers, compared to the Canada Packers Winnipeg plant, which moved through 3000 cows per week with 475 workers. These new plants used capital to reduce labour costs and had innovations like a disassembly line, which was a deskilling of butchering work — and, as a result, the IBP Brooks refused to abide by a industry-wide union master agreement and lowered the wages of the people there. Furthermore, the Brooks plant implement box beef, which meant that, instead of shipping whole carcasses onward to grocery stores and restaurants to butcher, they would cut it down to retail specifications, which allowed them to keep to keep additional by-products and reprocess them in a plant for sale.
Joel: Improvements in transportation and communication, coupled with NAFTA abolishing tariffs, meant that these new plants could out-compete older Canadian firms in a now-integrated North American market. The reason why these plants were built in Alberta is unsurprising — Alberta produces a lot of beef cattle. Between 1984 and ‘99, the number of cattle increased from 1,100,000 to 2,400,000, and Alberta’s share of national cattle production went from 47% to 70%. Shipping live cattle to a processing plant is a significant expense, and, with reliable refrigeration technology, it’s easier to locate a plant near the livestock and ship the meat to outside markets. Also, the Tory provincial government did a lot to entice meat packing companies for rural economic diversification. They used subsidies, low taxes, and anti-worker labour law brought in response to the 1986 Gainers strike, and the size of the labour force at these plants requires thousands and means that rural areas usually can’t supply enough workers and the companies source workers from outside, particularly immigrants, with numerous negative impacts for both local communities and workers. The low-pay work usually has few knock-on economic benefits for a rural area, while the influx of thousands of new people strains available housing and social services. The nature of the job itself has bad health consequences and puts big demands on rural healthcare. I mean, it’s a factory system, a disassembly line set up in these plants, so you’re doing repetitive motion things day after day after day, shift after shift, which, obviously, is not great for one’s physical health. And many workers will bring their families, and existing schools don’t have the capacity, especially if immigrant children have extra learning needs, such as ESL.
Kate: And, fortunately, this was all happening right around the time that Ralph Klein’s giant austerity hammer was coming down on Alberta; so, the already-lean social services that existed in this province were being, basically, stripped away for parts and sold to the highest bidder, so there was even less capacity in our social services — and, really, in our ability to have a society and our ability to care for each other — that exacerbated a lot of these issues.
Will: So, the Cargill plant’s close proximity to Calgary meant that most of the workforce commutes from the city. So, High River hasn’t seen as big of an impact as what we were just describing with the extra stress on social programs and so on and so on. However, Brooks is almost 200 km from Calgary, so the town has gotten the full spectrum of issues that we’ve been describing. After the plant expansion was complete in December of 1996, management needed more workers than the local area could provide. So they first tried recruiting from the Atlantic provinces, where the recent collapse of the cod fishery had created severe unemployment, which was over 30% in some places, but they also recruited recent immigrants, particularly from Africa. So, by mid-1997, Brooks had a 0% vacancy rate, and the company started to build dormitories for workers as a result of this, with all the paycheck deductions one would expect from company housing. The company wanted the dormitories, with their curfews and pass systems, to be transitional for workers, so they would also progressively increase rent for the longer that people would stay. So, very nice stuff.
Kate: And I want to be really clear, here, in the way that we talk about this — because this new workforce is primarily made up of migrants and is primarily racialized, a lot of the way these issues get discussed are in incredibly racist terms about migrants, particularly Black people and people of colour, bringing crime and social disorder into rural Alberta. And I want to be really clear in the way that we address these issues, that it is, without a doubt, 100% not the fault of the workers (who are victims of capitalism and of imperialism and of racism), that these things happen, but rather of, really, two systems: one, of a government that was enforcing brutal austerity, leaving workforces struggling in poverty, not providing the bones and the institutions you need to have a society in these places, and the other, of companies that ruthlessly exploited workers in these particular ways. And, you know, these negative social consequences, they are the direct result of highly-profitable business practices. This — all the things we just discussed — these are the reasons that these companies make such large profits. These are the reasons they pull in billions of dollars; these are the reasons that they are able to sustain themselves. They’re not two unrelated issues that just happen to be interacting with each other — one happens directly because of the other.
Patrick: I was just going to say, what a sweet job to set yourself as not only the employer, but also the landlord, for these folks who are being important in a very vulnerable position. You get to control their entire employment future, typically, under the TFW programs here, and you also get to progressively put the screws to them by increasing their rent until you force them out and replace them with some more workers. Really cleverly thought-out way to extract all the possible value from your employees.
Kate: Oh yeah, absolutely.
Joel: Yeah. There’s some real “company store” energy coming from this little detail. I mean, from what I’ve read, they geared the rent so that the rent went up the higher you stayed — it was kind of a disincentive for you to stay there long-term, and they were providing short-term housing just because of the general market failure to build adequate housing in the area to begin with. Still not a great look, though.
Patrick: I also wanted to comment really briefly on the nature of the job of working in one of these plants because, like we mentioned earlier, it is really difficult work in a whole bunch of ways. Besides the potential for repetitive stress injury, you’re working with knives and grinders and other heavy machinery that can cause injuries, moving large animal carcasses around, which can cause stress and can cause damage to your body; you may be responsible for ending the lives of animals, for actually slaughtering them, which comes with all sorts of emotional challenges — it’s a very difficult thing to do, and not all workers are actually capable of performing that kind of work over time, just because it is harmful in that sense. And, also, some workers are exposed to partially-digested or fully-digested food inside these animals — because, of course, before they arrive at these plants, they are alive — and so you’re exposed to blood, you’re exposed to fecal matter, you’re exposed to all sorts of potentially-infectious stuff. And you’re doing all this in extremely close quarters with extremely high volumes from all the machinery going on. It sounds like an extremely stressful and incredibly difficult work environment, and all of that contributes to the healthcare needs that any population doing this sort of job is going to require, and the intensification of work, of course, only makes all of those features more difficult, only increases the impacts that they have on the workers.
Joel: In the mid-1990s, Alberta beef recruited workers from Atlantic Canada — ex-cod fishers and others — to work in the plants, but turnover was high, worksite conditions were poor, and housing unavailable, so many returned to the East Coast, and many told their families what it was like to work there — and, for some reason, interprovincial migration to do those jobs dropped dramatically. Alberta’s attempt to diversify away from raw resources meant attracting global agricultural firms to Alberta. A national contract for the whole industry determined meat packing wages from 1947 to 1984. Essentially, what you saw after these companies moved from urban centres to rural Alberta was a deskilling of the work involved, and these unskilled categorizations for the work meant that workers now earned far less than they did, proportionally, compared to their counterparts in the mid-20th century.
Kate: The way in which labour becomes “unskilled” — and I am making a lot of air quotes with my fingers right now — it often occurs in tandem with the processes of the racialization of the workforce. And we see this in meat packing, and we just released an episode on long-term care, we see this in healthcare as well, where, as more and more racialized people begin participating in the workforce and begin participating in certain types of jobs, that work becomes devalued. And healthcare literally becomes devalued through creating new categories of healthcare workers, like licensed practical nurses, in order to lower people’s wages and put downward pressure on wages. And the same thing happens meat packing, where this idea that the labour is unskilled, and therefore deserves unskilled wages, comes with the entry of more and more racialized people into the workforce.
Joel: What’s really interesting about this migration pattern, all these workers coming to a small community and insufficient investments in the social infrastructure needed to support people as far as education, health, any number of things, social services — it reminds me a little bit of the similar rush that happened in Fort McMurray where, when the oil prices were red-hot, Fort McMurray was absolutely swamped with people seeking paychecks because the labour market was so tight, but there was no housing, there was very little amenities for people to actually be able to spend their money — there was very little infrastructure, and you even had the mayor of Fort McMurray at the time complaining about how overheated the economy was and hoping that it would come down a bit so they could try to deal with what was going on, rather that just having the number of people increase and increase and increase.
Patrick: Something else that I find quite telling is that, in the midst of the cod fishery closure, we had all these folks, Canadian workers, who were unemployed, who decided to give this sector a try, and the found the conditions to be too terrible to work in, that they decided to work somewhere else. So, it’s quite telling to me that, in order to find people who could be compelled to work, or who would tolerate working in these sorts of environments, we had to turn to temporary foreign workers who could be placed under all sorts of other pressures to put up and tolerate these work environments where no one else would.
Kate: And by interesting, whenever we say interesting on this podcast, we mean, “Oh, this extremely upsetting.”
Patrick: We mean horrific, yeah.
Will: Grimly interesting.
Kate: Just to be clear.
Joel: There’s also a fair amount of labour action that happened at these plants. In 1995, Brooks, having seen this wave of immigration, was basically starting to recruit very heavily.
Kate: And, once again, I strongly recommend a National Film Board documentary — in this case, 24 Days in Brooks, which is about the 2005 strike at the then-Lakeside meat packing plant in Brooks, Alberta that was basically a strike over union recognition in the plan. It is a very, very interesting documentary, and it goes over a lot of some, frankly, really wild things that were happening in labour disputes in Alberta in the 21st century. We were all alive when this was happening.
Joel: So, it’s a fantastic little documentary. It’s only about 45 minutes long, and it really gives you a very good overview of this 2005 strike effort that happened at Brooks. What the documentary doesn’t talk about is some of the earlier unionization efforts that happened throughout the mid to late ‘90s up until that point, but there’s just some wild stuff that happened in 2005 in Brooks.
Will: There was a fucking car chase. Like, the president of the union, Doug O’Halloran, was driven off the road by the CEO of Lakeside, among other top guys with Lakeside. It was fricking crazy.
Kate: There was a literal car chase. And it’s really interesting because you get a really clear sense of a lot of the dynamics that existed in these meat packing plants. So, as we’ve gone over, this is not a pleasant job — there is a lot of poor treatment of workers, firing injured workers, no washroom breaks, things like that. It is work that is accident-prone, injury prone; it is repetitive, it is bloody, it is difficult, and it also goes into the way that, even within the workforce, there was basically a caste system in terms of race in terms of who did what job. It was disproportionately immigrant workers who had the worst jobs on the killing floor and disproportionately white workers who had jobs as clerical workers or maintenance staff. And this really comes out in this particular strike in 2005 where a lot of the strike leaders are migrants — one of the main strike leaders is Sudanese — many of the line workers who are people of colour are supporting the walkout, and the mostly-white clerical and maintenance staff are crossing this picket line, trying to get the union decertified. And there was really violent confrontations that were taking place between picketers and strike breakers despite, I guess, the presence of the RCMP — but I think, knowing what we know of the RCMP’s function in perpetuating capitalism and colonialism, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. And one of the particularly interesting ways that this plays out is that, if you’ve ever been on a picket line before, you’ll know that the police and the mainstream media love to trump up really outrageous claims of violence on picket lines, or union thugs; and then, in this particular strike in Brooks, this takes on an extremely racialized dimension because there’s this deeply racist idea of African migrants bringing disorder and violence into this previously majority-white community in rural Alberta. And it was interesting, to me, to see how neatly this was paired by Lakeside packers with these very traditional anti-labour, anti-union ideas of unions as undemocratic and violent, and how they were used to really exert pressure on the strike. Fortunately, on the 24th day of the strike, there was a workplace-wide vote on unionizing and they narrowly won an agreement.
Will: Going off of Kate’s point there, too, there was also another kind of racialized spinning of the coverage of the strike where there was also a lot of rhetoric that was kind of victimizing these racialized minority workers, where they were demonizing the union and framing it like, “The union preys on these brand-new immigrants that are just trying to come to Canada and provide for their families, and they don’t know what’s good for them,” or, “The union is preying on their insecurities.” It’s quite astonishing. It’s interesting in the bad way. [laughs]
Kate: Yeah, there’s two things going on here. One is the idea that the workers and the union are two different things, this idea that the union that the union is a third party rather than the expression of workers and collective struggle, and then, also, this very racist, infantilizing idea of, “These workers don’t know what’s best for themselves and they’re being taken advantage of and manipulated by the union,” rather than what was certainly happening is: people who were extremely oppressed coming together and fighting to improve their lives in a really immense struggle with a lot of things against them, which is actually incredibly remarkable and inspiring.
Joel: Yeah, that characterization is just so gross because, first of all, the union is somehow an outside agitator or whatever, and secondly, these new workers are empty-minded worker shells that will just do the first thing you tell them, or whatever, right?
Kate: Yeah, it’s anti-communist propaganda against unions meets racist infantilizing ideas about immigrants, which are two bad tastes that taste bad together.
Patrick: Just absolutely dripping ideology.
Joel: Yup. So, when thinking about the working conditions and the labour conditions in these plants, ultimately, we have to start thinking and talking about the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, immigrant labour, and also Jason Kenney’s role in shaping that program. A quick look at the Temporary Foreign Worker Program: it’s origins are in 1973, a majority of TFWs were high-skill employees — engineers, professors, specialist doctors — with the remainder being domestic and agricultural jobs. But, slowly, that program shifts. In 2002, a change creates a new low-skilled worker category. In 2006, a change created a fast-track category for some jobs, which came with lower standards for providing that weren’t enough Canadian residents to do that work in the first place, which is, supposedly, the rationale for bringing in TFWs. And then, a change in 2012 allows employers to pay temporary foreign workers 15% less than a Canadian doing the same work. And this all occurred during the Harper administration, and a lot of it happened with Jason Kenney as the federal immigration minister. And it’s quite strange when you look at the history of the program because, up until about 2014, they were huge boosters of the program, and then, in 2014, there was a bit of a scandal with the Temporary Foreign Worker program — if I recall correctly, it had to do with some McDonald’s locations in Victoria, BC where a job got posted and someone local applied for it and never got a call back, and then the McDonald’s chain went ahead and hired a bunch of temporary foreign workers, and then that became the basis for creating a scandal about the program.
Patrick: As a consequence of these reforms to the TFW program, in 2002, we had 100,000 TFWs working in Canada. By 2012, ten years later, we are up to 338,000 TFWs. The government makes it challenging to get timely information about how many TFWs are currently working in Canada, but we do know that 84,000 TFW permits were issued in 2018, which is up a tick from 78,000-some in 2017, and permits are good for several years, so the last few years’ worth of permits represent people who are probably still in the country working. And what’s increasingly happened on the labour side is that the tests that were meant to be followed, that you have to get an opinion to prove that there aren’t enough Canadians willing or able to do the work that you’re bringing in TFWs to perform, those tests got weakened and slackened and, increasingly, the labour market, particularly for jobs like agricultural workers and meat packers, they became, basically, addicted to the availability of relatively low-cost work and workers who had a relatively limited ability to exercise their rights. One of the important features of TFWs is that their residency in Canada is tied to their employer — they only get to stay here as long as their bosses want them to stay here, and this has an incredibly chilling effect on their ability to exercise the rights that anyone with residence in Canada would expect you to be able to exercise. So, one more fun feature of the TFW program is that, usually, only workers considered “high-skilled” or working in the trades actually have a path to permanent residence as a TFW. Our current government has a trial program that will allow a small slice of agricultural workers to become permanent residents, including some meat packing workers, but this is a very modern innovation and has not been part of the TFW program for most of its life.
Kate: And this is actually a place where unions can do some really remarkable work for temporary foreign workers. I happen to know that, in the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 agreement with Cargill, they have it that Cargill must put forth all temporary foreign workers as, basically, for entrance into the Alberta Immigrant Nominee Program as soon as possible, but no later than six months after each candidate’s arrival in Canada. So, they basically got, in writing, with some teeth to it in a collective agreement, that, basically, anyone that Cargill brings to this country to work in one of their meat packing plants must be put into the Alberta Immigrant Nominee Program, and I think that is really quite a remarkable win to have in writing in a collective agreement.
Patrick: It’s also a remarkable illustration of power that employers have in this situation, where it’s only at the employer’s say-so that a TFW actually can enter into a program that lets them establish permanent residence.
Kate: Yeah. We’ll get into some things that we think need to be done, but there needs to be a guaranteed path to citizenship for all temporary foreign workers. If you’re good enough to work in Canada, you are good enough to live in Canada from the day you arrive, period, end of, not up for negotiation. It should not be something that unions like UFCW have to go to the table and fight tooth and nail for.
Joel: Yeah, and I mean, just taking a quick look at the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, it seems like a very obvious way of manipulating the labour market to prevent wages from creeping up. When you look at when it was implemented and when it was really (quote unquote) “needed,” it mostly had to do with the economy heating up because of the high price of oil and the oil sands, basically, in their red-hot development. So, basically, to prevent labour shortages/to prevent wages from going up, this program was introduced so that they could siphon labour in but not have the — this is cynical, but — (quote unquote) “costs” associated with bringing in labour, which is: giving them citizenship rights, giving them the right to vote, giving them all the rights that a citizen might have when they work in this country. So, it’s a way of getting the work out of them without getting the same commitments of citizenship.
Kate: It is truly disgusting.
Patrick: And I’d really like to stress how the incredible brittle nature of meat packing jobs goes hand-in-hand with the incredible power that the employer gets to have over its workers. There’s a reason why a lot of people who want to exercise a certain amount of dignity choose not to take these jobs, even if they are available, and why only a person who is compelled to work on threat of deportation actually will tolerate working at a meat packing plant. It’s remarkable.
Joel: Bringing this lens of temporary foreign workers to bear on the meat packing industry — at the Lakeside plant in Brooks, after the 2005 strike and the unionization vote, the company turned to temporary foreign workers. In 2006, Lakeside announced that they were bringing 250 TFWs to Brooks from China, the Philippines, Ukraine, and El Salvador. Starting pay in 2006 was $14 an hour, which is about $17 an hour in our current dollars, which is half of what the inflation-adjusted wage was for equivalent work in 1984. Hundreds more temporary foreign workers were recruited. As of 2008, 775 TFWs were working in Brooks, mostly at Lakeside. In 2009, Lakeside was sold to XL Foods, a division of Edmonton-based Nilsson Brothers. XL Foods expanded their recruitment of TFWs, adding workers from Mexico and Columbia to its labour force. And, by 2011, temporary foreign workers comprised about one third of the plant’s labour force. Immigrants and refugees already accounted for about 60% of the labour force by 2006.
Will: Workers under Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program can’t change jobs, and they can’t bring their families with them. They’re allowed to stay in Canada for up to four years. When their contract expires, companies can nominate the workers for permanent residency, but that’s only if the company so chooses — so, the company here holds an incredible amount of power over the temporary worker’s life and livelihood.
Kate: Unless, of course, you are a worker who belongs to a union that has been able to negotiate this through remarkable organization and struggle; but, of course, when you negotiate it, that is something that comes up and you have fight over every single time you go to the bargaining table, which might be every two, three, four years. So it is something that is — of course — absolutely remarkable to win, but also something that is tenuous.
Joel: In 2014, Canada’s meat industry loudly complained about difficulties in getting temporary foreign workers hired. You’ll recall that the oil price boom created tight labour marker conditions throughout the 2000s up until the price of oil sank in late 2014. The Temporary Foreign Worker Program has been very important to both of these meat packing plants as far as staffing them, as far as maintaining a steady supply of labour that was relatively docile or that was relatively easy to manipulate. And, so, these plants were out in rural Alberta in the first place because they were trying to avoid the problems with labour organizing that urban-based plants had encountered in the 80s.
Kate: And now, to change track a bit from our largely worker-focused episode, I think it is worth it to talk about the real villains in this whole story, and that is Cargill and JBS. And I’m not using “villains” in a flippant or ironic way — these are corporations that are truly monstrous and truly evil. They have gotten thousands of workers sick during a pandemic because they refuse to put people before profits, and they have caused the death of several workers already in Alberta, let alone in other places. They are truly monstrous, truly evil, truly villainous, and I think it is worth learning a little bit more about them and about the particularities of the way they operate and what makes them so bad.
Will: So, yeah. Cargill — been literally called the worst company in the world, and we’ll find out, shortly, why. They’re a Minnesota-based agribusiness giant. They’re actually the biggest privately-owned company in the US, and just to get a sense of that, they surpass even the Koch brothers, and their record in just about every domain is terrible, whether it be the environment, treatment of Indigenous peoples, poverty, health and safety, child labour, you name it. And it goes back to almost their entire existence. So, just to start off: Cargill had its membership from the Chicago Board of Trade revoked for trying to corner the market on corn, artificially driving up corn prices shortly after their incorporation about 80 years ago. And then, more recently, Cargill was fined $10,000,000 by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission for, yet again, misreporting trade values. On another front, in 2018, Cargill distributed over 70 tonnes of contaminated beef to markets. On the environmental front, Cargill has a long history of clear-cutting forests, decimating ecosystems — which produces a lot of carbon emissions; these practices actually account for 10% of total global emissions. And this is a multinational endeavour — Cargill is very active in South America, and so this is especially dangerous when you take into account the fact that they have a lot of operations in places like Brazil, who just elected Jair Bolsonaro, who has vowed to abandon conservation efforts of the Amazon. And so, quite similarly to what has happened more locally, this environmental degradation, these human rights abuses, are the result of political decisions. And so, Cargill is one of the top perpetrators of deforestation in South America — as I was mentioning — and much of this is for soy production, which is then used for feeding livestock. And, very interestingly, just to put this into perspective, more than three quarters of the world’s soy production is used for this purpose of feeding livestock. And this has also been accompanied with pushing Indigenous people off their traditional lands, and there have been reports after reports, when this has happened, of these Indigenous communities reporting serious health issues due to the pesticides and herbicides used. Cargill is also involved with the production and importing of cocoa and is one of the three companies that control more than half of the global trade. And so this has also entailed huge amounts of deforestation, near extermination of animal life (especially in West Africa, where this is produced). So we’re really getting all across the globe here. So, Cargill has also repeatedly, knowingly benefited from, and purchased cocoa produced through, brutal child labour and exploitation over which suits have been filed against them by the International Labour Rights Fund. They also are one of the largest importers and exporters of palm oil, which, again, has been accompanied by massive destruction of tropical rainforests, expropriation of Indigenous lands, again, child labour and trafficking, and this has been especially the case in Southeast Asia. More locally, Cargill is the second-largest feed beef processor in North America and the largest supplier of ground beef. And it’s important to remember, here, too, that meat production is one of the most environmentally destructive industries in the world and that, as we had mentioned before, their safety standards have not been up to par, either, leading up to their massive E. coli outbreak in 2007. Federal investigators in the United States repeatedly found that Cargill was violating its safety measures and its handling of ground beef, so you also have their negligence actively putting people in danger in that regard, as well. So, pretty evil stuff.
Kate: I think this is a really interesting example of a phrase that sometimes gets thrown around of “colonialism at home and abroad,” or “imperialism at home and abroad,” where we see the exact same social factors that are destroying the land and the environment in so-called Canada, that are destroying the lives of racialized workers, are doing the same things to other colonized and oppressed peoples abroad, and I think it is a really illuminating and evocative example of how capital is internationalist and why our struggle against capital must also transcend borders, because they’re not only doing this here, they’re doing this in other places.
Joel: Yeah, and it turns out that JBS is also not a great company. [laughs] They’re most famous for, perhaps, corruption accusations — there was a handing over of $150,000 in bribery money in Brazil and Operation Car Wash, so you can read up about that if you really want to get into it. There’s also an industry-wide scandal about the sale of rotten beef that they were involved in, slave labour allegations (specifically about their operations in Brazil, where they were forcing men to live in conditions described as “inhumane and degrading” with inadequate shelter, toilets, or drinking water), incidents of animal cruelty, price fixing, deforestation. Yeah, there’s a lot there. So, not a great organization in my humble opinion.
Patrick: I wanted to touch on the larger economic impacts that these mega-corporations producing our meat have had. The United States and Canadian meat packing industries are tightly integrated — there’s a lot of flow of animals and products across the border, and so a lot of what applies in Canada also applies to American companies, and the major mega-corporations are names like Cargill, Tyson, Perdue, and JBS. When it comes to cattle in particular, there’s basically three stages that the animals go through: there’s a growing phase where growers start the animals, they move to a feed lot phase where the animals are fed really energy-intensive food, really protein-intense foods, to fatten them up, and then there’s a slaughter step. And the feed lot phase is a big centre for a lot of the pollution and a lot of the disease risk in the meat packing sector today, and it’s only possible because these animals are medicated with antibiotics. It’s the only possible way for large numbers of cattle to be grown and kept on a single feed lot together without infections ripping through the entire herd. So, these mega-corporations manage to capture an awful lot of value, in part because there’s so little competition, there’s been so much consolidation, that growers will get one, maybe two offers from different corporations when they are ready to sell their animals from the grower phase to the feed lot phase of the industry. And that’s where a lot of value gets captured by these huge corporations. And we’ve also discussed in great length how a lot of value is also captured by intensifying the production and placing workers in very precarious positions to work really, really hard, in the slaughterhouse phase in particular. Of course, because there’s a very small number of corporations doing all this work, one of the other fun consequences is that the cost savings of producing meat very efficiently don’t actually necessarily get passed on to the consumer — again, because the grocery stores have to deal with a very small number of very large corporations producing the large bulk of our meat. A lot of the efficiency that has been achieved by these corporations just gets captured by them, and that’s how these mega-corporations can be so incredibly profitable.
Joel: Not great. I hate it. So, we’ve gone through, so far: the shift in production from urban centres to rural Alberta; the accompanying increase in scale and the speed-up and assembly line, or disassembly line, process that’s involved in the new clients; the integration of this particular kind of industry into big agricultural industries in general and how they all are operating on enormous scales and, also, are incredibly vertically integrated. We’ve also talked a fair bit about labour struggle and the use of status, and the use of precarious labour — primarily through the temporary foreign worker program — in order to keep wages low and promote a kind of docile, or less likely to organize or protest, workforce. So, given all that and the picture we’ve painted of the industry and what’s going on, how could we possibly start moving towards making things better when it comes to thing industry?
Kate: I said this earlier on the episode, but there has to be guaranteed paths to citizenship for temporary foreign workers. Anyone who is good enough to work in Canada should be good enough to live in Canada. From the very second that a company or a government brings you to Canada to work, you should be eligible to live in Canada for the rest of your life — no negotiations — and you should be able to bring your family with you. That is an absolute nonstarter and an absolute non-negotiable for me because, otherwise, you are creating a class of people in Canada who are uniquely oppressed and uniquely vulnerable to being exploited by their employers, which is not only bad for the people who are experiencing that oppression, but it is also bad for our society in general because it erodes the conditions of workers who are born in Canada or who have permanent residence in Canada, and it erodes our ability to organize temporary foreign workers, and it also erodes everyone’s wages. It is a no-win situation for everyone who works for a living, and the only people who benefit off of it are governments like Jason Kenney’s and companies like Cargill and JBS.
Will: Something else that would help a lot would be to have regulated caps on plant sized, on slaughterhouse sizes. No more 500,000 or 1,000,000 head per year plants where disease can spread really rapidly among workers, as we’ve seen with COVID-19, and where we’ve also seen that any contamination problem with the products that are being created in these plants can affect really huge batches of meat.
Kate: Another really important thing that we need to look at is line speed. So, line speed is basically referring to the pace and the rate of work that occurs in meat packing plants, and the high pace of work in these plants is a huge part of what makes them efficient, but it also leads to repetitive stress injuries, exposure to infectious materials from animals, and higher rates of injury from knives and macinery. And one thing that’s really interesting here is: we talked about national-pattern bargaining earlier in the episode, when it came to the Gainers strike — a really similar thing happens here with line speed in that no company will touch line speed in a collective agreement. And the reason that no company will touch line speed in a collective agreement is because they all have a hell of a lot of class solidarity with other, and they realize that, as soon as you put anything in writing in a collective agreement with regards to having union and worker control over line speed, a) that becomes a point of negotiation every single time you go to the bargaining table, and b) when you go into these formal labour processes of arbitration or mediation over collective agreements, oftentimes, what those processes do is: they look at the status quo, and they look at other agreements, and then they just give people what is in those agreements. So, it’s something that they want completely off the table and, so far, to the best of my knowledge, have been really successful in keeping off the table. We recently did an episode on long-term care, where a lot of the similar dynamics that we discussed here with regards to precarity and the workforce exist in the same way, and a similar thing with regards to line speed exists in long-term care when it comes to staffing ratios. This is something that is, overall, the underpinning structure of your entire workday and your entire experience as a worker, is how many staff you have to do things in long-term care and how fast that line is moving in meat packing, but it’s something that companies are so, so, so resistant to touch, and they really are going to have to be forced to through incredibly powerful workers’ organizations, otherwise that is never going to get on the table and get in writing. So, union-mandated line speed limits. Failing that, I guess a benevolent social democratic government could regulate it, but I personally think that is unlikely and, of course, any win that is won through struggle is much more likely to be durable on the long run, pending a change in government.
Joel: What’s so interesting about the line speed question, as well, is that the speed of production is quite intricately linked to the profit rate. The number of cows you can slaughter, the sheer amount of beef you can produce and get out the door within a given day or shift or hour, will determine the profit margin in a large part. And it also determines how shitty it is to work there that day or not, right?
Kate: It is literally the mechanism that is extracting profit from these workers.
Patrick: So, yeah. Shrinking plants and reducing the pace of work — likely to make meat slightly more expensive, but that’s simply the price of safer workspaces, safer food supply. We should pay it gladly. And the costs of not taking these steps, as it turns out, are horrifically high, as we’ve seen with COVID and as we also see with things like listeria outbreaks that aren’t properly controlled.
Joel: And just to add to that — the gains in efficiency, if you want to call it that, from these line speedups and from this whole production process, they’re not going into deliver the cheapest product possible, they’re going to profits, right? So it’s not even like these costs would necessarily be borne by consumers, they might just result in a lower rate of profit.
Patrick: Yeah, and that ties into another one of our recommendations, which is to break up the big agricultural mega-corporations. They extract value from the bottom end, from putting the squeeze on people who supply them with animals and putting the squeeze on the workers, they extract value from us by not passing the savings on when they produce meat incredibly efficiently on the shelves, and it’s only because we’ve allowed these companies to consolidate and become really monstrously large international corporations.
Kate: Pat, I have an idea. We don’t even have to break them up — it should simply be considered immoral, in our society, to make profit off of providing others with food, and workers should run these plants.
Joel: I like it. This is a good plan. We should go somewhere with this.
Patrick: You don’t say.
Kate: I know you’re trying to be realistic, Patrick. I just, you know —
Patrick: No, you’re absolutely right.
Kate: It’s our podcast — I can say “nationalize meat packing” if I want.
Patrick: And, you know, they have conveniently consolidated all of their resources into just a couple mega-corporations, making the nationalization easier to organize.
Kate: More and more people are saying this. It would piss off, like, three families.
Patrick: The last point — and this is a slightly more technocratic one — would be to ban the routine use of antibiotics in animals. We haven’t really begun to dig into the issues with our industrial food production system — that would be an entirely different episode — but the consequence of using antibiotics; antibiotics are the only reason why extremely large-scale feed lots are possible to be used, and so this one regulatory change would actually have quite a lot of knock-on effects in terms of the industry being forced to operate in slightly safer ways. And, you know, not using antibiotics in animals means that their effectiveness would be extended for use in humans, which I would suggest is a much more important use of a finite and shared resource.
Joel: So, to begin to wrap up this episode, it’s worth mentioning a few organizations that are doing very good work on a lot of these fronts. First of all, it’s worth mentioning Migrante and Action Dignity, which are two very good organizations working on this issue. We had a mini-episode that featured a spokesperson from Migrante about healthcare for all, which I recommend everybody listen to.
Kate: The other group, or organization, that has really been at the forefront of responding to these outbreaks at meat packing plants in Alberta has been the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, which is the union that represents workers at both JBS in Brooks and at Cargill in High River, and they have been able to do some pretty remarkable things in terms of winning pandemic pay and hazard pay for their members. They have been outside the plant at Cargill in High River this past week handing out PPE, information on right to refuse unsafe work to members who are still going to work at Cargill (which reopened quite recently). But I also think some of the things that we have seen when the UFCW Local 401 have really shown the limitations of their approach to this issue, and perhaps to trade unionism more generally, in that they haven’t been able to enforce real consequences on Cargill, and there are three deaths connected to the Cargill plant, two of them being workers from the plant, one of them being the father of a worker from the plant. Yes, the plant was closed temporarily, but when they wanted to reopen it and the union did a poll saying that 85% of workers were scared to return to work, they were unable to actually get the plant closed. And I think there’s a couple things here. One is the trade union movement’s general over-reliance on legal mechanisms — these are things like the Alberta Labour Relations Board, the Occupational Health and Safety Act, anything that goes to grievance or arbitration — a bunch of extremely boring words — and the reason that these things so often don’t work for workers is that labour law is really stacked against us. Labour law isn’t designed to give workers like you and me a fair playing field on which to fight the boss; labour law is designed to allow the boss to, effectively, neuter and restrict the ability of workers organizations to express power collectively on the worksite, so you are always going to lose when you play by their rulebook. The other frustrating thing that — I tend to hear a lot about this — is, “Well, we have to direction from our members on this issue.” And, obviously, I’m a really big believer in member-driven grassroots unions, but, at a fundamental level, it is your job as a union organizer or a union rep to show people the connections between what they want and actions you are asking them to take, because the fact is that most people don’t experience problems at work and think, “Oh, I should go on strike,” or, “Oh, we should blockade the gates to our workplace so no one can get in,” and that’s because, like I mentioned earlier in the episode, people have been really politically deskilled — this is something that very few people, even workers who are in unions, have any type of experience with in their lives, so it’s not something they’re going to feel comfortable doing. And it is the job of trade unions and of the staffers who work for trade unions who are relatively protected and insulated from the pressures that these workers on the worksites are feeling, to do that work and to make the link there, between what workers are experiencing and what can be done about it. And the last thing I think that is a really important lesson, for me, looking at this and looking about how I think, honestly, weak, in many ways, the trade union movement came looking from this, and what a serious blow was struck to it, is that you can’t wait until a crisis to organize workers. You have to get organized, and you have to stay organized so, when a crisis like this happens, you already have robust shop-floor organization and robust workers committees who can take advantage of these situations rather than trying to do all that legwork once a crisis has happened. Because — of course — you can’t organize a major job action in three weeks, which is why you shouldn’t try, you should be prepared to do that on a regular basis. And I think one of my frustrations with how UFCW has reacted to this is: we know this is a plant that has the capacity — I’m talking about Cargill here — to be very, very well-organized. This is a plant that has taken strike votes before, that has been very aggressive in bargaining, that has won very incredible things in their contract. At JBS, they had that magnificent strike in 2005. We know these are places where workers can be organized, can flex on the boss, but it was a little bit of a missed opportunity here, and I think there’s some very real lessons for the trade union movement going forward.
Joel: And, just to end the episode, I think it’s worth actually naming and remembering several of the workers who have died due to this pandemic in meat packing plants in Alberta. Let’s take a moment to remember Bui Thi Hiep, age 67, Armando Sallegue, 71, father of a worker, Benito Quesada, 51, shop steward, and the unnamed JBS worker whose name has not been released.
Kate: So, it turns out that, the more you look into meat packing, the worse it gets. It is like a terrible box that you keep opening and every layer that you open turns out to be worse and worse. So, you have this incredibly cruel and environmentally destructive industry, and you open it to look at the working conditions and it turns out those are awful, and then you look past the working conditions to see the impact of this industry on rural Prairie communities and it turns out that is awful, and then you look past that to see what kind of companies and actors are involved in meat packing and — oh — it turns out they’re all awful villains. So, it really is a terrible, unfolding box/onion of absolute horrors. So, to end the episode, I would like to go around the table and have everyone name, for me, one of the worst, most upsetting things you learned about meat packing from researching this episode.
Joel: My personal least favourite fact was that they avoided unionization and a fight for fair working conditions in urban centres by creating a whole new set of labour conditions, and labour market, outside of urban centres. That, to me, is just like, wow — the lengths they will go to to avoid paying people well is impressive.
Patrick: I learned that, at the Cargill plant, the pace of work for workers who were cutting up parts of animals is so high that workers who have to hold a knife all day will begin to see their fingertips turn black because they have to have such a tight grip on this knife for hours at a time. And this is, apparently, just a normal problem that happens to a lot of workers who do this particular type of work, and it’s just a feature of their job — there’s little they can do about it.
Tyler: Yeah, I think one of the most shocking or terrible things I learned was when I was doing some of the research about the Lakeside packers strike and the working conditions there in Brooks. In 2005, there were reports of workers being told not to go to the hospital when they were injured, of Lakeside firing injured workers — which, we can only imagine, because we were talking about the precarity of temporary foreign workers (which, presumably, some of these workers were — and also things as awful not allowing washroom breaks and workers literally peeing their own pants. It was awful, awful conditions. This seems to be quite normal across the industry.
Kate: Yeah. One thing I knew going into this, but that doing all the research really brought home how cruel all of this was, is: forcing people to work in these conditions under the threat of deportation if they leave their jobs, which makes it incredibly difficult for these workers to organize and to fight back. And it really, profoundly humbled me when I looked at the history of meat packing in Alberta and I saw how much workers had risked, at places like Cargill and at places like JBS, to form unions and to sit at the bargaining table with their employer. It was very impressive to me, but also incredibly, incredibly sobering, what great risks they were taking and how there is an entire second class of labour that exists in this country solely to drive down conditions for everyone and exploit people. So, I wish I had a better, happier note on which to end this episode, but the truth of the matter is that it is an incredibly upsetting topic that only gets more upsetting the more and more you learn about it, and I hope that this episode has been illuminating, if not particularly pleasant, listening for all of you out there in Hellberta. Take care out there, stay safe, and see you next time. Bye!
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Kate: The Alberta Advantage is part of a loose affiliation of left-wing podcasts hosted by the bilingual journalism collective Ricochet, who you can find at ricochet.media. Our podcast is primarily supported through Patreon by listeners like you. We use the money for equipment and other semi-serious pursuits and, as a thank you, we send out fun packages with grain elevator-themed stickers and weird tote bags a couple times a year. You can support us at patreon.com/albertaadvantage. Thanks so much for listening, and take care out there.
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