Calgary meat plant workers begin negotiations

Once a new collective agreement is negotiated and ratified, it’ll apply to over 300 workers.

Earlier this month, Local 401 of the United Food and Commercial Workers published a bargaining update regarding the start of negotiations with Cargill.

These negotiations are on behalf of over 300 workers employed at the company’s case ready meat plant in Northeast Calgary. Their previous contract expired at the end of last year.

The workers’ bargaining team met with the employer on 25 July 2023 to discuss negotiations and to exchange their initial proposals. As is custom, because the negotiating process is just starting, the proposals as just non-monetary items.

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Monetary proposals, such as wage increases, will come up later in the process as the non-monetary proposals are resolved and accepted.

A lot of the proposals are minor language edits, but there are a few proposals that I thought were worth highlighting.

Let’s start with Cargill’s proposals.

Under the previous contract, the probationary period for new workers was 50 days from the dat of last hire, with an option to extend it to 80 days, provided that they notify the union and the worker affected by the extension.

In the new contract, Cargill wants to change that to a base of 480 hours and a possible of extension of 800 hours.

Assuming workers put in 8-hour workdays, that amounts to a base of 60 days with a possible extension of 100 days. That works out to an increase of 2 weeks for full-time workers on the base and nearly 3 weeks on the extension.

Cargill also wants to eliminate line ownership. Currently, if an opening comes up on a production line, workers already at the plant can bid to get assigned to that line. Workers with the most seniority get first dibs.

When a vacancy arises, Cargill has to post an internal notice regarding the position, including job title, shift, level, department, and line number. Cargill wants to remove the line number requirement from the new contract. They also want to make an exception for “flexible employees”, what they call part-time workers: if no candidates can be found, Cargill wants the option to award the position to a flexible employee, something that isn’t covered in the current contract.

According to Cargill, the concept of line ownership “causes hardship to the business and creates and inflated need for flexible employees”. They claim that line ownership leads to “a constant rotation of open positions”, as workers move from one line to another, and that this rotation “impedes operations”.

The company also wants the freedom to post the job opening externally after the 7 days have expired and if no one internally ends up filling the role.

To sweeten the deal, Cargill is prepared “to convert a significant portion of current flexible employees to regular [or full-time] employees”.

UFCW Local 401 is aware of the issues Cargill has with line ownership. They haven’t offered a counterproposal, but they are willing to “discuss and explore opportunities to resolve issues with” job bidding.

Under the previous contract, anyone promoted to a position outside of those covered under the contract would retain their seniority within the bargaining unit for 90 days. Cargill wants to eliminate the time limit and make it open to any promotions to a definite term, regardless of length.

Cargill also wants to change eligibility for vacation days to be based on the calendar year, rather than years based on a worker’s date of hire.

The current contract states that the union “shall designate a reasonable number of stewards for each department”. Cargill wants to change it to 3 stewards per shift in production and 1 each in warehouse and maintenance.

The employer wants to amend the section on so-called flexible employees. The current contract states that “the flexible work group is to supplement the full-time employee, not to permanently replace”. Cargill wants it to instead say, “The purpose of flexible employees is to meet the variable needs of the business.”

Now on to the workers’ proposals.

The current contract states that the company will notify the union when it decides to subcontract work that is covered by the bargaining unit. The workers want to remove that; instead, they want it to say, “The company will not subcontract bargaining unit work”.

New workers, under the existing contract, had up to 10 days to become union members. Now, the union wants to cut it in half, reducing it to just 5 days.

One section in the contract said that Cargill had until the 10th of each month to remit any dues to the union that had been collected from worker paycheques the previous month. That was supposed to be accompanied by a statement with the names of the workers, as well as the amount or percentage of their wages that the deduction comprised.

The workers want the written statement to also include regular hours worked for each week, as well as regular dues, initiation fees, and assessments.

In the new contract, the workers want to add a new section that’ll require Cargill to supply a monthly report to the union for every employee, including name, employment status, date of hire, seniority date, vacation date, termination date, current rate of pay, and other information (such as contact info).

Under the most recent contract, Cargill had to give 24 hours of notice of a change in shift. The workers want to triple this to 72 hours. As well, they want an notice of 6th day work to be given by noon 3 days prior to that shift starting. Previously, it was just 3 days prior.

The workers want to add more to the section on overtime pay. They want Cargill to pay time and a half to any worker for all hours they work on their scheduled day off. However, they want that to increase to double time if the worker has to work on their 2nd scheduled day off.

They also want double time for any workers for any work they do in excess of 12 hours. Even then, the workers’s bargaining team is insisting that shift longer than 12 hours should be reserved for emergencies only.

The union is also introducing a new section into the contract for a 32-hour guarantee for regular full-time workers. If approved, Cargill must give workers either 36 hours of work a week or pay equivalent to 36 hours of work at their regular rate of pay. However, they want to give Cargill the ability to shorten the guarantee to 32 hours per week, but they’d have to do it for one week at a time, provide advance notice of the change, and wouldn’t be able to do it for more than 15 of the weeks in a year.

Under the existing contract, workers can’t carry over unused vacation into the new year. The workers’ bargaining team wants up to 2 weeks of unused vacation time to be allowed to carry over into the following year, and any unused vacation time beyond that to be paid out to the worker.

The workers want to add National Truth and Reconciliation Day to the list of general holidays observed by the employer. As well, they want the ability for workers to transfer general Christian Holidays (such as Good Friday of Christmas) to days that are observed as holy days in their own faith traditions.

In the new contract, the union also wants workers to be able to take up to 5 days of in paid personal and family responsibility leave within each calendar year. They also want each worker to be entitled to 10 paid sick days per year. The most recent contract appears to have no paid sick days.

The negotiating team for the workers wants to add two new sections under meals and rest periods: one allowing for bathroom breaks and another prohibiting Cargill from permitting workers to work through their breaks and rest periods.

They also want to increase bereavement leave for immediate family members from 24 hours paid leave for time lost on regularly scheduled work days to 32 hours over 4 days. They also want step-sibling to be included as immediate family.

The next bargaining session will begin on 26 September, and there are two bargaining sessions scheduled for October.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

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