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Potential Cargill strike/lockout could be ugly for so many

Posted on 1 December 2021 by Ryan Dahlman

As of late November, the calm before the storm, beef producers across Alberta and the prairies in general wonder what will unfold with the Cargill beef processing plant in High River. 

As much as the potential strike brings back memories of the extremely ugly labour disruption in Brooks in 2005, when the then Lakeside Packers owned by Tyson Foods, faced a picket line. 

In High River, close to 97 per cent of those United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) members who voted, voted to go on strike Dec. 6. In retaliation, Cargill issued a lock-out notice of its workers on Nov. 25.

For those not in the beef industry, it doesn’t seem like a big deal but it affect things along the food chain. 

Ask any cattle producer about the problems created with a strike, they will tell you that when Cargill had to shut down for two weeks in 2020 what problem it created.

What many consumers may not realize is that beef packing plants are a cyclical thing, generally they are strict schedules and they constantly need supply. It is not a stop and start, 9-5 time of business. 

This year with the lack of feed for producers, there will be a need to unload herds at some point. Besides not having feed, which you need to keep weight and quality up, there does come a point when producers need to ship them off as they get too big and lose quality.  If there is a major strike in Cargill, the beef producers will be hurting as they will be scrambling to send their animals to further destinations for slaughter, thus increasing their transportation/fuel costs. A major backlog will be created as JBS in Brooks won’t be able to handle the numbers. Cargill reported processes 4,500 animals a day. About 1,900 are employed at Cargill. 

As well, if they know they are the only destination, minus much smaller private operations, the beef producers will be stuck with low prices for their animals. 

This, of course, may mean some will be forced to rebuild with small herds (i.e. less supply) or out of the industry all together. 

With simple supply and demand economics, the less supply/thus more demand, the price goes up. 

Consumers already anecdotally complaining about the high prices of beef and groceries in general, will really not like the price of beef.

This of course is not good news for those in the cattle industry. Beef producers get compensated decently at times but beef packing plants seem to have control the prices and make a lot of money. Of course this passed on to the grocery chains who are charging $30 for a decent steak which is what one used to pay for a prepared steak in a decent restaurant. 

With beef producers having to face soaring costs in fuel and fertilizer for growing feed crops due to the Carbon Tax and an ugly dry summer, profits are working against them. A heavy campaign for non-beef protein based foods such as pulse crops (beans, lentils, chick peas) and whatever is in the beyond meat burgers (which look and supposedly taste like beef, check out the ingredients sometime).

“Alberta Beef Producers (ABP) continues to monitor the ongoing labour dispute at the Cargill High River processing plant. We have connected with Cargill and the Government of Alberta, and remain optimistic that a mutually beneficial agreement will be reached between the two parties before December 6. Alberta’s beef farmers and ranchers rely on continuity in the processing sector and those workers who contribute to the success of our beef supply chain. During the height of the pandemic, we saw the impacts of a processing disruption, coupled with the drought and soaring costs of production, which continue to affect both cattle and beef markets. As the December 6 deadline approaches, we are strongly encouraging a timely resolution,” read a statement from Dr. Melanie Wowk, Alberta Beef Producers’ chair.

One can only hope that they can settle before Dec. 6 and that it doesn’t turn into the ugliness which happened in Brooks. In 2004, the workers unionized under the same United Food and Commercial Workers Union currently involved in High River. It was the first time a union was at Lakeside and it got ugly as the company didn’t like the idea of union, nor did some of the workers. There was some volatile picket lines, with some workers crossing the lines. During some of the strike, riot police were standing by. It was ugly. For everyone’s sake, hopefully it doesn’t get to this but there was a lot of bad feelings when Covid-19 swept through the plant, with CBC reporting 950 being infected and three workers losing their lives due to the pandemic.

If non-union, replacement workers are brought in, it could get ugly and no one wants that.

Could this potential strike be disastrous? Time will tell, maybe not right away but consumers and those in High River will notice soon enough.

Ryan Dahlman is managing editor of Prairie Post West and East

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