February 19, 2021 - No. 8

Workers' Key Role in Curbing the Spread of COVID-19

Meat Packing Workers Achieve
Closure of Unsafe Olymel Plant

The COVID-19 Pandemic and North American Meat Packing Plants

Firm Opposition to Rule by Decree
Quebec Workers' Demands for Solutions to the Crisis in Health Care

The Fight for Job Security During the Pandemic
Hotel Workers in Vancouver Are Not Backing Down in Their Fight for
Their Jobs

Workers' Key Role in Curbing the Spread of COVID-19

Meat Packing Workers Achieve Closure of
Unsafe Olymel Plant

Olymel abruptly announced on February 15 that its pork processing plant in Red Deer, Alberta would close for an indefinite shutdown, ten days after the union informed Olymel that the workers overwhelmingly declared in a survey that they considered the plant was unsafe and should be closed. During these 10 days the number of active cases in the plant more than doubled. 

Olymel has not responded to the demand presented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 for full compensation for all the workers. Instead it says it will "help" the workers access available resources. This is unacceptable.

The serious outbreak at Olymel began around January 20 and a young worker, Darwin Doloque, tragically died on January 28. Alberta Health confirmed 192 active cases, and 326 total confirmed cases linked to the plant, as of February 15. The Mayor of Red Deer expressed her grave concern as COVID-19 cases rose in the city but the company did not heed this either. Alberta Health Services (AHS) stated on February 8, "Olymel has robust processes in place to limit the spread of illness within their facility and has strict protocols in place regarding physical distancing, PPE, disinfection and other safety measures to support physical distancing of staff." Three days later AHS wrote a confidential letter to Olymel stating that testing revealed that one in five workers were likely positive for COVID-19. Olymel announced the shutdown soon after the letter became public.

Had AHS spoken to the workers, it would have confirmed that their concerns were based on the actual situation and required immediate action. Workers said the cafeteria, where workers must remove their masks in order to eat, was very congested. Why is it that restaurants are shuttered or required to implement social distancing but this does not apply to workplaces? Workers also explained that they were sent back to work after testing, only to be informed later of a positive test. And as the union pointed out, the PPE and Plexiglass is not enough once a serious outbreak is raging in a plant where 1,850 workers work in close proximity.

Both AHS and the Chief Medical Officer of Health (CMOH) have brought their offices into disrepute by blaming the workers instead of taking up their social responsibility. The CMOH suggested it was some "off-site activities" that were responsible for the growing number of cases, while AHS encouraged Olymel to threaten workers with fines, discipline and possible termination for any infractions of public health requirements.

The situation at Olymel confirms that it is the collective actions of the workers speaking out in their own name and demanding that their rights to a safe workplace and to refuse unsafe work be upheld that are decisive. The state agencies like AHS and Occupational Health and Safety have become captive to the global oligarchs and their interests and drive for maximum profit. It is the workers who are standing up to protect their collectives, their families and their community and they must have the final say in what constitutes safe work, and to exercise this right without loss of pay or livelihood.

(Photos: WF, UFCW)

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The COVID-19 Pandemic and North American
Meat Packing Plants

The outbreak of COVID-19 in the Olymel Red Deer plant which has now resulted in the indefinite closure of the plant is once again putting the spotlight on the conditions of workers in meat processing plants, who have been particularly hard hit by COVID-19 across North America. Neo-liberal globalization has imposed inhuman conditions in the industry despite militant resistance of the workers. These include breakneck line speeds, a big contributor to the high rate of workplace injuries and illnesses, low pay, threats, intimidation and bullying, including the pressure to work sick even under COVID-19. The "help wanted" sign never goes down outside these plants and on the Canada Job Bank, reflecting the difficulties in recruiting and keeping workers. The meat packing giants rely heavily on the most vulnerable workers including refugees, undocumented workers in the U.S. and workers recruited through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program in Canada.

According to data collected by the Food and Environment Reporting Network in the U.S.,[1] as of February 12, at least 1,389 meat packing and food processing plants (569 meat packing and 820 food processing) and 387 farms and production facilities have had confirmed cases of COVID-19. At least 87,237 workers (57,332 meat packing workers, 17,114 food processing workers, and 12,791 farmworkers) have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 374 workers (283 meat packing workers, 48 food processing workers, and 43 farmworkers) have died.

Former U.S. President Trump ordered U.S. meat packing plants to remain open on April 28, 2020. The U.S. Department of Labor imposed only two fines for failure to protect workers. JBS, the largest meat packer in the U.S., was fined $15,615 after 300 workers were infected and six died at its Greeley, Colorado plant. JBS racked up more than $1.6 million in profits from April to December 2020. Smithfield, the largest pork producer in the world, was fined $13,949 after 1,294 workers were infected and four workers died at its Sioux Falls, South Dakota plant. The president of the union representing the workers called the fines "an incentive to make these workers work faster and harder in the most unsafe working conditions imaginable."

In Canada not a single fine has been levied and the global oligarchs continue to operate with impunity. In addition to the outbreak at Olymel, there are currently eight additional outbreaks, defined as five or more cases, in meat and poultry processing plants in Alberta.[2]

The actions of workers and their families at Cargill have resulted in the RCMP opening an investigation into the deaths at Cargill's High River plant in 2020, and a class action suit is being prepared. The support of the authorities for the global oligarchs who consider endangering the lives of workers for their private benefit a "normal business practice" shows the extent to which the public authority has been destroyed. Workers who are fighting to hold the wealthy owners, as well as the authorities who serve them, to account are defending their rights and the interests of society as well.


1. U.S. Food and Environment Reporting Network

2. Outbreaks have been reported by Alberta Health at Cargill Foods High River, Cargill Case Ready Calgary, Lilydale poultry plants in Calgary and Edmonton, Harmony Beef in Balzac, Sofina Foods in Edmonton and Calgary, and Maple Leaf Poultry in Edmonton.

(Photo: UFCW)

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Firm Opposition to Rule by Decree

Quebec Workers' Demands for Solutions to the
Crisis in Health Care

While health care workers in Quebec are insisting their demands be met to deal with the health care crisis which is aggravated in the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic, government executives are attempting to strengthen rule by decree to deprive workers of any say over their working conditions and the direction of their sector and of the economy. This is part of the state restructuring that has been going on for over 30 years and is being intensified, using the pandemic as a pretext, to impose the will of narrow private interests.

Already, health and social service workers are subject to ministerial orders that give the government and employers the power to declare their existing collective agreements null and void and to unilaterally change working conditions, under the pretext of facing the public health emergency. These orders have been used many times since they were issued in March 2020 and they have created havoc in workers' lives, leading to resignations and workers becoming sick and unable to work because of their untenable conditions.

At this time, the close to 550,000 Quebec public sector workers are trying to renew their collective agreements. This includes about 260,000 workers in health and social services. All collective agreements in the public sector expired on March 31, 2020. Negotiations began a year and a half ago and only one tentative agreement has been reached so far.

Health care workers report that the Quebec government is demanding that unions agree that instead of having negotiated and enforceable working conditions that allow workers to do their jobs safely and in a manner that permits them to provide quality care, they should endorse some "recommendations" to be made to the Ministry of Health and Social Services, which will then issue ministerial directives over which workers and their unions have no control.

An example is the effort of the Quebec Health Federation (FSQ-CSQ) to renew the collective agreements of its members. The FSQ-CSQ represents 5,000 nurses, licensed practical nurses and respiratory therapists in the Montreal, Laval, Gaspésie and Northeastern Quebec regions. Among the issues that government negotiators propose be handled through ministerial directives are staff-to-patient ratios and private hiring agencies, two of the main issues of concern for workers in the sector. Important issues on which workers are fighting to assert their needs and their rights are to be declared out of their reach.

The government's January 21 comprehensive settlement offer was unanimously rejected by FSQ-CSQ's Federal Council on February 7. The council is comprised of delegates from all member unions.

One of the main reasons for the rejection of the offer is the firm opposition to rule by decree and the demand that the Quebec government must meet the demands set by workers to immediately improve working conditions and the delivery of services, which will contribute to alleviating the crisis.

Among such demands are the immediate improvement of wages, which have been either frozen or barely maintained at cost of living adjustments for over 15 years, making it impossible to retain and attract workers in the sector; the elimination of mandatory overtime which is rampant and creating chaos in the lives of workers, wrecking their health and family life and the services they provide; the general improvement of working conditions with a humane work load, stable teams and stable schedules; the establishment of staff-to-patient ratios which enable workers to provide quality service to the people; the reduction of the use of private hiring agencies which are extremely costly to the public health care system and the investment of those monies in the public system to improve the conditions in line with the demands of the workers.

Workers are expressing the strong conviction that their decisive say in the determination of working conditions is key to humanizing their conditions and the delivery of the services. They have waged several mass actions to oppose the ministerial orders and government dictate in negotiations and are determined to have their demands met. 

(Photos: FIQ, F. Couto)

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The Fight for Job Security During the Pandemic

Hotel Workers in Vancouver Are Not Backing
Down in Their Fight for Their Jobs

There are new developments in the battle of workers in several Vancouver hotels to ensure that as hotels reopen, workers laid off due to the pandemic-related shutdowns retain their jobs. Unite Here Local 40 announced on January 20 that a class action lawsuit had been filed against the Pan Pacific Vancouver on behalf of workers wrongfully terminated during the COVID-19 pandemic. The case was filed by a worker who had worked at the hotel for 24 years until he was terminated, along with dozens of other workers, in August 2020. At the time of filing the workers at the Pan Pacific were not unionized but throughout their fight have had the support of unionized workers in other Vancouver hotels, most represented by Unite Here Local 40. The Pan Pacific is a high-end hotel in the Vancouver Convention Centre East owned by an affiliate of Westmont Hospitality Group. Westmont is one of the world's largest privately held hospitality companies.

In a January 20 press release, Unite Here Local 40 spokesperson Michelle Travis said, "Early in the pandemic, hotel management concocted a plan to drastically reduce its staff from 450 workers to 80 and dismiss the rest. Instead of informing workers of their plans, the company sent workers repeated messages delivering false hope suggesting they intended to bring workers back. Pan Pacific began terminating staff in batches, without cause or advance notice. The suit alleges that the hotel did this to avoid group termination provisions in the Employment Standards Act that requires advance notice and would trigger larger payouts to workers. Between firings, the hotel offered workers $250 to sign a contract taking away their regular full-time status to become casual, on-call workers and waive their severance rights. Those who refused to sign were among those fired."

Many of the workers are immigrants and women with families who have worked at the hotel for 20 to 30 years or more. The union estimates that the workers could be owed as much as $3 million if the lawsuit succeeds.

Hotel workers and other workers in the hospitality sector, in bars, restaurants and businesses providing services to tourists, have been demanding throughout the disruption caused by the pandemic, that employers and governments, both provincial and federal, ensure that their jobs are there for them to return to as things reopen. This court action is part of that ongoing fight.

On February 11 Unite Here reported that the Pan Pacific workers had voted in favour of joining the union.

(Photos: WF, Unite Here Local 40)

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