June 23, 2021 - No. 60

Unconscionable Attacks on Striking Exceldor
and Olymel Workers in Quebec

Defend the Dignity and Rights of Slaughterhouse Workers!

Olymel and Exceldor Workers Demand a New Equilibrium and Refuse to Be Considered Workers Without Rights - Normand Chouinard

Unconscionable Attacks on Striking Exceldor and Olymel Workers in Quebec

Defend the Dignity and Rights of
Slaughterhouse Workers!

At this time, 1,200 workers at the Olymel pork slaughterhouse in Vallée-Jonction in the Beauce have been on strike since April 28, and 600 workers at the Exceldor chicken slaughterhouse in Saint-Anselme, Quebec, have also been on strike since May 23. The Vallée-Jonction workers report that since 2015 more than 1,800 workers have been hired at Olymel Vallée-Jonction and nearly 1,700 have left their jobs because the wages and working conditions are so bad. The workers are fighting for wages that they consider acceptable and that will keep workers at the plant. Many migrant workers are also employed in these two plants, as is the case in many meat packing plants in Canada.

The workers report that working conditions at the plant are unacceptable, particularly with regard to their health and safety. Exceldor workers point out that group insurance is also an issue in their strike, as it provides a level of financial protection when workers are injured or become ill and must be absent from work. These workers have been providing food for the population under the conditions of the pandemic, often at great risk to their health and lives. Their efforts to negotiate a new collective agreement and their strike reveal the urgent need for working conditions that guarantee their safety and that of the public. The experience of meat processing workers across Canada has shown that making their voices heard is essential to defending their rights and in defending lives and it is our duty to help them smash the silence on their situation and the dictatorial rule that keeps their conditions from being improved.

Far from showing a whit of concern for the workers, the Quebec and federal governments do not recognize any of what the workers are saying or experiencing. Quebec Premier François Legault and his Labour Minister Jean Boulet can't get a sentence out without talking about "labour shortages," which they say is one of the main problems with the economy, and yet they slander these workers who are addressing this problem with their demands and their strike.

The Quebec and federal governments and the media have decreed that the issue with this strike is "food waste," namely the euthanasia of chickens that cannot be sent to the slaughterhouse. What kind of governments pit euthanized chickens against human beings? If they do not want euthanized chickens then take care of the human beings and there will be no euthanized chickens. The workers are not the ones harming the food supply. These workers are considered non-persons who do not even deserve the most basic things including proper wages, working conditions and peace of mind and are not allowed to speak out by fighting for their demands. This shows that the fight of all humanity today is the fight for the right to be of human beings. Without this, without the dignity of all human beings, talk of guaranteeing the food supply or meeting any need of the society in any way, shape or form means nothing.

The Quebec government has called for binding arbitration in the dispute at Exceldor, which workers and the union have refused because it would mean ending their strike and imposing a non-negotiated settlement. Premier François Legault said, "Nobody should have the right to waste such huge amounts of food so foolishly. It's indecent," and he called on the union to accept arbitration. His Minister of Agriculture, André Lamontagne, called for "a sense of civic duty" from workers and the union, adding that they have a "moral responsibility" to Quebecers. Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said, "This cannot go on. Frankly, it's intolerable to let food animals be slaughtered for no purpose," urging the union to accept arbitration.

Attacking those who produce social wealth and deliver services, who feed and protect the
population, and trying to turn the people against them is criminal. Using the prerogative powers of government executives and state agencies to attack and silence workers makes all the problems worse. We have seen this starkly with the ministerial orders which have been imposed on health and social services workers in Quebec since March 2020. These have accelerated the wrecking of the health care system by imposing untenable conditions on staff and attempting to silence them. The voice of workers is essential for solving problems, defending their rights and the rights of all and defending lives. That is what the Exceldor and Olymel workers are fighting for.

Workers' Forum calls on all workers to step up joint efforts to denounce the attacks that are being launched by governments, the media and others against these striking workers and all workers, especially the most vulnerable who are forced to fend for themselves. The fight of theslaughterhouse workers is a fight for the rights and dignity of all.

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Olymel and Exceldor Workers Demand a New Equilibrium and Refuse to Be Considered
Workers Without Rights

Striking workers from Olymel Vallée-Jonction join Exceldor workers' picket line, June 2, 2021  

Workers at the Olymel pork slaughterhouse in Vallée-Jonction, Beauce and at the Exceldor chicken slaughterhouse in Saint-Anselme, Quebec are continuing their strike. The mass media, the government and organizations such as the Union des producteurs agricoles are putting pressure on the striking workers that these strikes must end, without any concern for or addressing the workers' demands for wages they deem acceptable and improvements in their working conditions, especially around health and safety.

A new theme has recently emerged to increase the pressure -- food waste caused by the strikes because the break in the slaughter chain requires the euthanasia of chickens and pigs at the farms where they were raised.

The monopoly media are now talking about banning all strikes in slaughterhouses or severely restricting them by declaring them an essential service. When a television host asked Minister of Labour Jean Boulet of Quebec's Coalition Avenir government if it was possible to declare slaughterhouses an essential service, he said that the idea was worth discussing, but current labour law in Quebec does not allow it. The category of essential services in labour law applies only to public services, he said. He added that companies can, however, argue to the Administrative Labour Tribunal that their services are akin to essential services and request a court decision to restrict the strike. Of course, governments have a long history of passing special back-to-work legislation against private sector workers in construction, air and rail transportation and other sectors, and so passing back-to-work legislation against these workers is always possible.

Olymel and Exceldor workers went on strike because the conditions in the industry imposed by the private monopolies are untenable. A new direction is needed to achieve a new equilibrium for the workers themselves and the agricultural producers.

Anti-Labour Restructuring of the Industry in the Early 2000s

It should be remembered that the workers at these two plants have suffered wage reductions of nearly 20 per cent over the last several years. Olymel workers were the victims of major reorganizations by the company in the early 2000s.

In 2006, Olymel went after the Vallée Jonction workers with the help of the government and former Premier Lucien Bouchard, who acted as mediator. Olymel had carried out a major restructuring of its operations, closing several plants and demanding concessions from the workers. It concentrated its greatest efforts at its largest plant, the one in Vallée-Jonction, where workers' resistance to concessions was the strongest. By defeating the workers at Vallée-Jonction that year, it was able to continue its anti-worker activities in the years that followed, up to the present. This has allowed it to run the show in the agri-food industry in Quebec and to some extent in Canada. It has grown rapidly through the acquisition of companies operating in the same field at a cost of several billion dollars, including -- to name but one -- Agromex and its agricultural facilities, for which it paid more than $2 billion. These acquisitions have made Olymel one of the largest agri-food companies in Canada and a relatively major player in North America, with the acquisition of companies in Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan. The "Quebec model," which was imposed by Olymel, inspired many similar companies to establish the same pattern. Exceldor is one of them.

The main characteristics of the "Quebec model" are:

1. Tight control of workers' wages in the regions, either through concessions or through very low wage increases.

2. The use of cheap immigrant labour recruited by agencies in the big cities and bused directly to the factories in the morning and evening and even for night shifts.

3. The use of the temporary foreign worker program through international agencies, some of which are owned by these companies.

4. Obtaining government subsidies, such as the recent $150 million grant from the Quebec government to keep Olymel's head office in Quebec.

5. The development of vertical control of the production chain, from breeding to the finished product and through to the sale of the products on the national and international markets.

This "Quebec model" is nothing more than a copy and paste of what exists in the United States and has nothing to do with developing the national economy, let alone a nation-building project.

Big agribusiness, taking advantage of this system, has de facto created several categories of workers in order to further exploit them and expropriate more of the new value they create. The demand of Canadian workers is to guarantee the rights of all workers, no matter where they come from or how the monopolies recruit them.

The struggle of the workers in these two plants is a struggle for life, for the life of their region and their community, for their livelihood and for their right to be. It is a categorical stand against the "Quebec model" of exploitation of workers which divides the workers and violates their rights, and it is also a call for working class unity to defend their lives.

Food processing workers were among the first victims of COVID-19 due to the working conditions in the slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants. From the beginning they fought for their right to safety and together they learned to organize. Now, the claim by the monopolies that agri-food workers are essential, a claim that was used during the pandemic to insist on continued production, is being used to justify the violation of the rights of the workers, including the right to strike.

Calls to legislate workers back to work, supposedly to avoid food waste or food shortages, are unacceptable. Workers are defending their rights and fighting for an industry organized to meet the needs of the people and not the narrow private interests of a global empire.

Pork and poultry producers who supply the animals for the slaughterhouses must join with industrial workers to bring an end to the control of the industry by the oligopolies who rely on ever-increasing exploitation of the workers. This includes through human trafficking, which is part of the arrangements that exist today in all agricultural sectors. Producers must add their voices to the demand for a guarantee of food self-sufficiency and a system that guarantees the rights of all throughout the entire agri-food industry.

This neo-liberal imperialist system is totally bankrupt and inhuman. The Olymel and Exceldor workers' strikes are a fight for rights and for lives. These strikes are taking place in the context of untenable conditions that workers face in the industry throughout North America. They point the way forward for an agri-food industry independent of the large supranational monopolies and independent of imperialist arrangements and monopoly right. This struggle is part of the fight to transform the situation. In defending their rights the workers are defending the rights of all. These workers, who have braved the most difficult working conditions during the pandemic, are showing exemplary courage that demands our unwavering support.

All Out to Defend the Rights and the Fight of the Olymel and Exceldor Workers!

(Photo: Stovj Vallee-jonction)

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