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Strike looms as Cargill employees reject contract offer

Ninety-eight per cent of Cargill workers pass on contract, inch closer to strike
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Cargill workers in High River rejected the company's contract Nov. 24 and move closer toward the Dec. 6 strike date.

It's back to the bargaining table, said union president Thomas Hesse, after 98 per cent of the workers he represents from Cargill's High River meat processing plant rejected the contract offer Wednesday night (Nov. 24), with the Dec. 6 strike deadline just days away. 

"Cargill workers have told their employer through another overwhelming vote that they matter and they deserve something more," UFCW Local 401's Hesse said. 

Ninety-seven per cent of voting members endorsed strike action on the heels of a deadly COVID-19 outbreak last year and notice of strike action was served Nov. 10.

"You look at one of these and it's what's the company offering, what do the employees want and what's the gap between the two," Hesse said, noting this case is particularly unique. 

"This is one where employees have felt trauma, fear, anxiety, they went to work scared, some of their friends died and they're looking for a sign that trust can be restored," he said.

It's difficult, however, to put a figure on that in this instance, he said.

The workers the union represents seek agency and a seat at the procedural table, Hesse said, and appropriate compensation.

"That's a hard thing to quantify," he said. "Employees need to feel they'll be safe in the future, that it's OK to work there and that they're going to be compensated for their suffering and obviously the company didn't hit those targets," he said.

Cargill spokesman Daniel Sullivan said the company remains optimistic an agreement can be made before the Dec. 6 deadline. 

"Our team in High River is one of the best workforces across Canada and our proposal reflects their tremendous skill and dedication," Sullivan wrote in an email. "Unfortunately, we have yet to reach an agreement...

"We are willing to keep meeting to avoid any labour disruption which is in no one's best interest during an already challenging time."

Hesse said the union has been in touch with Cargill and he's hopeful bargaining meetings will take place this week and while he remains "cautiously optimistic," the bargaining environment is unique, citing an unstable political and economical environment combined with a global pandemic. 

"The edge they [workers] have, the anger, the anxiety, the pushiness has been authored by Cargill, and frankly, the Government of Alberta."