May 7, 2020 - No. 32

Workers at Cargill Defend Their Rights

Opening of Cargill's High River Plant

Honouring Bui Thi Hiep

Fellow workers, friends and family honour Cargill worker Bui Thi Hiep with ceremony and online vigil, May 4, 2020. Hiep died of COVID-19 on April 20.

Alberta Labour Relations Board Refuses to Act to Uphold the Rights of Workers - Peggy Morton

British Columbia
 Transit Workers Oppose Cuts to Service - Brian Sproule and Barbara Biley

Workers at Cargill Defend Their Rights

Opening of Cargill's High River Plant

UFCW Local 401 President Thomas Hesse speaks outside the Cargill plant, May 4, 2020, denounces the company's decision to re-open the plant. The union had tried unsuccessfully to have the Alberta government prevent the plant from re-opening.

The giant U.S. owned monopoly Cargill reopened its High River plant on May 4 in violation of the clear stand of the workers and their union that the plant should not re-open until they were satisfied that it was safe. As of May 4, 981 workers out of 2,000 had tested positive for COVID-19, and the workers point out that many workers who were sick have never been tested.

UFCW Local 401 President Thomas Hesse said that Cargill is on probation. The union advised workers that if they are healthy and have been called and medically cleared to return to work, they should report to their supervisor. However, Hesse emphasized again, if the workers find the plant to be unsafe, they have the right to refuse unsafe work. "If you don't really think it is safe to work, then don't," he said. He also advised the workers to immediately contact the union if they felt the company was not keeping them safe.

"Governments may disappoint us in their failure to put ordinary, working people first, but being part of a union is the best way to be able to push back and not be silenced. As your union, we will never let you be invisible. We will never let you be without a voice. Never!" Hesse said.

"THE SITUATION AT CARGILL IS SERIOUS, AND THE NUMBERS DON'T LIE. COVID-19 is deadly. It has killed a Cargill worker and made people desperately ill. It is reported that 921 [now 981 -- WF Ed.] of the roughly 2,000 people who work at the Cargill High River plant have now tested positive for COVID-19. There are over 1,500 positive cases now linked to the plant. No one should be surprised that we have looked for the plant to close until it is clearly safe. There are few who disagree with us."

Alberta's two major beef processing plants are the site of Canada's largest two COVID-19 outbreaks the first at Cargill and the second at the JBS beef-processing plant in Brooks. On May 5, it was announced that a third plant in Alberta, Harmony Beef, located in Balzac just north of Calgary, has 34 cases of COVID-19. The Agricultural Union which represents the meat inspectors at the plant has called for the plant to be closed. The plant itself is non-union.

The Alberta Labour Relations Board refused to hold an emergency meeting and to act on the union's demand that the plant remain closed until the union could determine that it was safe for the workers to return. Alberta Occupational Health and Safety also refused to take immediate action needed and issue a stop work order to safeguard the health and very lives of the workers. The Labour Board hearing will begin on May 7, three days after the plant reopened.  

"There will be a reckoning at Cargill," UFCW Local 401 President, Thomas Hesse, said on May 6. "In a matter of months, our members at Cargill will be in a legal strike position, and the anxiety and fear they are feeling now will need to be addressed. Fear becomes anger. All eyes are on their employer, and Cargill is on probation."

On May 4 the harvest department or kill floor was opened and the fabrication department where meat is processed opened May 6. Representatives of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 have been at the plant gates every day to provide information to workers who came to work and to provide workers with masks, and other unions have joined them, to show their support. On May 4 about 60 to 70 workers came to work. There are 2,000 workers at the plant. Three school buses retrofitted with seat partitions to bring workers who normally carpool to work arrived. One was empty except for the driver, and another carried one person. Local 401 President Tom Hesse told the CBC that Cargill is barely running on one wheel, not four as they suggest, and that while a cow would normally be disassembled in 40 minutes, it actually took one hour and forty minutes. 

Hesse stressed that it is the workers who know what is going on in the plant, and what has happened there. However the Chief Medical Officer of Health is not basing her decision that the plant is safe on the evidence of the workers, but on hearsay evidence, which is not a valid foundation for drawing conclusions. Workers have spoken out about how they were cleared to work even though they had symptoms, had positive COVID-19 test results, had not completed the required isolation periods and had recently travelled abroad.

Who do those in authority think they are fooling when they repeat over and over that Cargill has assured them that the plant is safe? The workers are not reassured by Public Health Officer Dr. Hinshaw or any other official, Hesse pointed out. But no government or legal authority has intervened to keep the plant shut until the workers and their union are satisfied that the plant is safe, he said.

Hesse pointed out that the union has tried to work with Cargill to develop sensible procedures and policies, but the company's culture is about moving as many cattle through the plant as they can. Cargill normally processes about 4,000 head of cattle each day, about 40 per cent of Canada's beef supply.

Migrante member sorting food for temporary foreign workers at the also hard hit JBS Foods plant in Brooks.

"Cargill is owned by the Cargill family. When we communicate with them we communicate with Wichita, Kansas. Cargill is a family owned business. Fifteen of the family members are billionaires, the fourth richest family, I am told, in the United States, and you don't get rich like that unless you know how to make money and every cow that moves through that plant is profit and so that motivation is a natural part of business. But it is incumbent upon society and policy makers and governments to ensure that workplaces are safe, and profit does not just drive what happens in society and this is especially important at this time."

"We believe that this plant should close until Cargill has proven that they care about worker health and safety and that it matters more than profits. Unfortunately, our pleas to the Alberta government and Alberta Occupational Health and Safety have fallen on deaf ears so far, Hesse said. "We have not given up. We are continuing to pressure Cargill in every possible way to ensure your safety....

"Some positive things are happening. There has been an outpouring of sympathy and support for Alberta's food workers. So many groups are working with us to be there for you. For example, today, we delivered grocery gift cards to Migrante, a group working hard to build solidarity and deliver essential supplies to those in need. Every Albertan and every Canadian is now watching Cargill. The public wants to know that you are safe when you eventually enter that plant.

"Our hope is in each other. Workers themselves can control their destiny by acting in solidarity. As your union, we will be there to support every choice you make."

Representatives of CUPE Alberta and Health Sciences Association of Alberta join UFCW Local 401 members at the Cargill plant, May 5, 2020.

(Photos: UFCW Local 401, Bayan, Action Dignity)

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Alberta Labour Relations Board Refuses to Act
to Uphold the Rights of Workers

UFCW Local 401 greets workers going into the Cargill High River plant as it reopens
May 4, 2020, with masks and information.

United Food and Commercial Workers Canada, Local 401 filed an Unfair Labour Practice complaint on April 29 arguing that Cargill had violated two sections of Alberta's Labour Relations Code by interfering with the representation of the workers by the union, and the workers' rights to representation.

The Unfair Labour Practice exposed that since the first cases of COVID-19 were identified at the plant, Cargill has consistently refused to recognize the union as the workers' representative. It further presented the workers with false and misleading information about the union's involvement, in an attempt to undermine confidence in the union and wrongly suggest to workers that the union had agreed to re-opening of the plant. The complaint showed that on the contrary, Cargill management had consistently refused to provide information to the union, to provide answers to questions and even to respond to the union regarding the issues raised in the union's letter to Premier Jason Kenney.

The complaint provides information about how Cargill has responded since the death of Bui Rhi Hiep on April 20. At every step of the way it has refused to carry out good faith negotiations with the union and instead has used disinformation, threats, bullying, and dictate.

For example, it took almost a week after Hiep's death, and an order from Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S), before the company began an investigation into her death as required by law. Alberta OH&S finally toured the plant on April 27, but conducted no interviews with the workers. OH&S officials requested that Cargill provide certain documents, but the company did not comply. On April 28 Cargill held a virtual town hall with the workers and did not ask the union to participate. Cargill did not inform the union that it would be re-opening the plant, nor did it conduct any discussions with the union. Despite this, Cargill sent a letter to every worker stating that it was carrying on discussions with the union about the plant re-opening, leaving the impression that the union was on board.

The union asked that the Alberta Labour Relations Board (ALRB) hold an emergency hearing and requested "interim relief," pointing to the irreparable harm if workers were required to return to work without their union being able to determine if they could do so safely. The entire country has heard the evidence of the workers as to how the company pressured them to come to work sick, refused to provide proper protection, refused to slow the line to enable social distancing, and showed utter disregard and contempt for their health and very lives. That Cargill management cannot be entrusted with the safety of the workers who they consider things and not human beings is evident to everyone, as is the fact that it is the health and very lives of workers, their families and communities that are at stake. Everyone but those who in name constitute the public authority, but who instead act as Cargill's apologist and enabler.

It is difficult to imagine a situation more fraught with the danger of irreparable harm, with half of the workers already positive for COVID-19, the death of a worker and close contact, and others who are seriously ill in hospital, some in intensive care. Despite the clear urgency of the matter and where 85 per cent of the workers had indicated that they felt it was unsafe to work, the ALRB set the hearing date for May 7, three days after the plant was to reopen, and appointed a mediator to meet with the parties over the weekend.

Local 401 asked for the matter to be reconsidered. The Labour Board's decision stated,

"The Union raises a natural justice concern, saying the Decision effectively deprived it of the ability to pursue interim relief. What I take from the summary of the reasons provided is that the Board was concerned about the complexity of the litigation given the current circumstances. The Union's complaint contained detailed particulars and was only filed on Friday. The Employer has yet to file its response. The Decision reflects a balancing of interests that is not unreasonable or unfair during these extraordinary times."

In its decision, the Labour Board does not say what is being balanced. It does not mention that it is "balancing" the lives of human beings with the greed and narrow interests of the foreign billionaires who are intent on opening the plant. The fact that the Employer has yet to respond is even stated as having some relevance -- an employer which has yet to even offer condolences to the husband of Bui Thi Hiep, who had worked for Cargill for 23 years and who died of COVID on April 20.

Yes, much is revealed during extraordinary times, first and foremost that the workers can only count on themselves and on their own organizing work and the strength of their numbers and conviction to defend their rights and that it is this fight which defends the rights of all.

All Out to Support the Most Vulnerable Workers at the Meatpacking Plants!

Cargill High River Plant, May 4, 2020

(Photos: UFCW Local 401)

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British Columbia

Workers Taking a Stand Against Transit Cuts

Close to 1,000 transit operators and 200 maintenance staff, employees of Coastal Mountain Bus Company (CMBC), received layoff notices on April 20, effective May 18, 2020. The union representing the workers issued a press release on April 23 stating that it will challenge the layoffs. The press release reports that "Unifor will argue that CMBC breached the Labour Relations Code by not giving 60 days notice. The union will be seeking to have the lay-offs rescinded, or at minimum pay workers during the 60 days."

News of the layoffs and further cuts to transit services in BC's lower mainland, came without notice. The recorded message on TransLink's automated 24 hour "next bus" service simply states "Due to low ridership, TransLink is suspending some transit services."

TransLink is the body responsible for public transit -- bus, SkyTrain (light rail trains), West Coast Express rail service to the Fraser Valley, and passenger ferries in Metro Vancouver either through operating subsidiaries or private contracts. Following service cuts made in March TransLink recently announced huge cuts to its operations effective April 24 with more service cuts expected in May. Hundreds of transit operators, mechanics, administrative staff and other workers are being laid off "temporarily." According to a Vancouver Sun article dated April 20, transit ridership is down 80 per cent since the COVID-19 outbreak and TransLink is losing $70 million per month. Fare collection has been suspended for the duration of the pandemic and most buses have back door boarding only, to support physical distancing and protect drivers. TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond claimed that TransLink "has no other options" and according to TransLink there will be other options for riders on "most" of these routes. Further cuts are expected to be announced in May. SkyTrain frequency has been reduced. SeaBus passenger ferry service between Vancouver and North Vancouver is operating at reduced levels and late evening runs have been eliminated. West Coast Express commuter rail service between Vancouver and the Fraser Valley has been reduced from five to three trains daily in each direction.

The transit system cannot be treated as just a business. Government has a social responsibility to provide safe and adequate transit services for workers, students, youth, seniors, and people with disabilities. Ridership and revenue statistics released by TransLink do not deal with the needs and the real life experience of the people and the society which depends on the transit system to get workers to their jobs. Social distancing regulations demanded by bus operators and their union and implemented by TransLink have resulted in buses running at less than one third of capacity. Even without the newly announced service cuts there are many occasions on which passengers have been passed by because of the reduced capacity of buses, making essential service workers late for work. In hospitals and long term care homes some workers are forced to remain on the job after the end of their shifts if those who are on the next shift have not arrived because they are stuck in transit. Longer commute times are a huge problem for essential workers who are unable to ensure that they pick up children in time. Many people who have no other means of transportation are late for scheduled medical appointments. Others are required to carry groceries farther as a result of closed bus stops. These hardships are even greater for seniors and people with mobility challenges. If schools re-open, even partially, this will result in even more pressure on the transit system.

Unions representing essential workers were quick to condemn the cuts and layoffs. Jennifer Whiteside, secretary-treasurer of the Hospital Employees' Union (HEU) stated "These service cuts mean added stress for health care and other essential workers on the front line of BC's pandemic response. Our members have limited options to get to work and they've already been facing lengthier commuting times as a result of previously announced service reductions. We need federal and provincial leaders to take emergency measures to support public transit through this pandemic slowdown. It's essential for those on the front lines of this public health crisis." An HEU press release on April 20 pointed out that one in five health care workers depend on public transit to get to and from work in hospitals, care homes, community agencies, First Nations' health centres, etc. Many work overtime or take on second jobs in order to support their families. The housing crisis has resulted in longer commute distances for many workers. 

Unifor western regional director Gavin McGarrigle called the cuts "a reckless and irresponsible move. Right now there are tens of thousands of workers taking transit because they have to be on transit. They are making sure that people get the health care they need in long term care homes and hospitals... and grocery stores... the list goes on for essential workers." David Black, president of Move Up, the union representing administrative workers employed by TransLink and its operating subsidiary, Coast Mountain Bus Company, stated that 160 union members were laid off with only two days' notice instead of the required four weeks' notice. He said that his union will advocate for short term emergency funding for public transit. BC premier John Horgan responded by passing the buck to the federal government. Horgan claims that the federal government has "access to resources that can be deployed across the country." So far there has been no commitment from the federal government.

While governments shirk their social responsibility, front line essential service workers are stepping up to the plate, making sacrifices and putting their health and lives at risk to serve others. Transit workers and others are speaking in their own names and demanding authorities provide personal protective equipment and implement life-saving sanitary measures in order that services like transit that are essential to society can continue to operate. This is the activation of the human factor that is blocked by the political system which marginalizes workers and excludes them from decision-making. With the awareness of their leading role in solving the problems posed by the COVID-19 emergency, workers are also coming to realize the need to organize for their empowerment.

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