A union, a meat packer, and a government walk into a crisis

(USDA photo by Alice Welch; public domain)

The COVID-19 outbreak has the animal protein sector in flux at all levels of the value chain, and everyone is attempting to find reasonable measures to balance their own interests with others’.

Producers want packers to stay open so they have a place to ship animals, and to avoid the problematic scenarios that could unfold is market-ready animals don’t have a place to go.

Packers want to keep their employees safe while also operating with a profit margin.

Governments also want to keep everyone healthy but are desperate for economic activity with treasuries being emptied to save industries and carry through this pandemic. Consumers are starting to pay attention to headlines referring to possible food shortages as processing facilities close.

And finally, unions are concerned about the increasing number of COVID-19 cases among their members — both workers and inspectors — who work at processing facilities.

At the end of the day, a packing plant can’t run without workers or inspectors, and that means keeping a plant open can depend on the union.

The UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) union, which represents workers at many packing plants across Canada, has been pushing to have several major facilities closed for at least two weeks, including Cargill’s plant at High River, Alta., and JBS’ facility at Brooks, Alta. As of April 16, Cargill has stopped taking animals at the High River plant.

If industry initiatives, like the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association’s push for a set-aside program, are not successful, Plan B could be to increase pressure on the federal government to step in and get involved by forcing the union back to work. After all, the Canadian government has declared agriculture and food production as essential.

Under the premise of food security, the livestock and meat industry may shift very quickly to asking the federal government to provide clarity on the definition of essential service. If food is an essential service, can the federal government force the union back to work within the preventative protocols the plants have attempted to provide? Where is the line when it comes to producing something as essential as food?

Not too long ago, we saw a strike among workers for CN Rail. Pressure mounted for the federal government to step in, with rail being essential to the Canadian economy. But Ottawa did not intervene in any sort of aggressive fashion and chose to play more of a mediator role, allowing the most recent strike to continue for over a week.

Eventually, the strike ended while the Minister of Transportation Marc Garneau and his cabinet colleagues celebrated it as a win-win.

If we use this history as an example of this government’s behaviour in a labour crisis, quick government intervention should come with low expectations.

But livestock producers and the packing industry do not have weeks to solve this crisis. Workers and inspectors need to be kept safe, and, as evidenced by the grocery sector, it is possible to implement shields, distance, extra cleaning and more to decrease the COVID-19 risk to all. Whatever it takes, we need to keep plants running — Canadians are counting on it.

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Categories: Cattle / COVID-19 / Livestock / Opinion