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The Cargill beef plant in High River, Alta. on April 23, 2020. Workers voted to strike earlier this month and this week rejected an offer from the company, with 98 per cent voting against.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Unionized workers at a Cargill Inc. meat-packing plant near Calgary that was the site of one of Canada’s largest workplace outbreaks of COVID-19 rejected the company’s latest offer as a strike deadline approaches. The company responded Thursday by issuing a lockout notice.

If negotiations aren’t successful, workers at the facility in High River, Alta., could be off the job just after midnight on Dec. 6. The plant accounts for more than a third of the country’s beef production, processing about 4,500 head of cattle a day.

The two sides have been negotiating a new collective agreement in a dispute that has focused on wages and COVID-19 health protocols. Workers voted to strike earlier this month and this week rejected an offer from the company, with 98 per cent voting against.

Union representing workers at Cargill plant in Alberta gives strike notice

In the spring of last year, the plant had what at the time was the largest coronavirus outbreak in the country, which revealed the risk to workers in meat-packing plants and other facilities where staff work in close quarters. There have since been large outbreaks at other meat-packing plants in Alberta and elsewhere, as well as other large workplaces such as warehouses and manufacturing facilities.

Nearly 1,000 workers at Cargill High River were infected. The plant was shut down for two weeks and three people died, including two workers and a relative of a Cargill employee.

Thomas Hesse, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union local that represents the workers, said the outbreak has cast a shadow over “emotional” contract negotiations.

“The Cargill circumstances – both in the symbol and substance – are, in many ways, all that was wrong with the pandemic; all that was wrong with the treatment of workers [and] the government’s failure to protect workers,” he said in an interview.

Despite the apparent brinkmanship, Mr. Hesse said he was “cautiously optimistic” that a deal on a new collective agreement would be reached by Dec. 6. While there were positive elements to the company’s offer, it was clear workers did not believe it was good enough, he added.

Cargill declined an interview request, but spokesman Daniel Sullivan said in an e-mail that the company is hopeful the two sides will reach an agreement before the deadline.

“We are willing to keep meeting to avoid any labour disruption, which is in no one’s best interest during an already challenging time,” he wrote.

Mr. Sullivan’s e-mail said the company would shift production to other facilities if work at the High River plant is disrupted.

The company’s latest offer includes an immediate $2-per-hour wage increase for production workers, a retroactive increase of $1 per hour backdated to January, and then annual increases of 50 cents in each of the next five years. Altogether, that amounts to a 21-per-cent increase by 2026. The offer also includes a $1,200 “COVID bonus.”

But Mr. Hesse said temporary pay increases during the pandemic boosted workers’ wages by about $8 an hour, so some workers view the company’s proposal as an immediate pay cut.

The contract proposal also includes provisions related to a health and safety committee made up of equal numbers of unionized and non-unionized staff, along with annual health and safety training.

A Globe and Mail investigation last year found that Cargill was slow to implement measures to protect workers when the COVID-19 outbreak began. Some employees, who are mainly immigrants and temporary foreign workers, said they were pressed to continue working even as the number of infections at the site increased.

Cargill said at the time that it worked with Alberta Health Services and the province’s workplace safety agency since the start of the pandemic to protect its employees and implemented additional measures after the outbreak.

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