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The Cargill plant in High River, Alta., is seen on Thursday, April 23, 2020. The union representing workers at a meat-processing plant that was the site of Canada's largest outbreaks of COVID-19 last year says members should accept Cargill's latest contract offer, which includes $4,200 in retractive pay and $2,000 in bonuses.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

The union representing workers at an Alberta meat-packing plant that was the site of one of Canada’s largest outbreaks of COVID-19 is recommending its members accept a new offer from Cargill Inc.

If accepted, the proposed collective agreement would avert a strike or a lockout that could begin next Monday. Workers rejected a previous offer with 98 per cent voting against; the company responded last week by issuing a lockout notice.

The plant accounts for more than a third of the country’s beef production, processing about 4,500 head of cattle a day. The company said it would move production to other facilities in the event of a labour disruption.

The dispute has focused on wages as well as health and safety issues. Two workers and a relative of an employee died after a COVID outbreak that forced a shutdown of the plant in the spring of last year. Nearly 1,000 workers were infected in what was the largest outbreak in the country at the time.

The outbreak revealed the risk to workers in meat-packing plants and other facilities where staff work in close quarters. There have since been major outbreaks at other slaughterhouses in Alberta and elsewhere, as well as other large workplaces such as warehouses and manufacturing plants.

A statement from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union said the proposed agreement, which was reached late Tuesday, includes $4,200 in retractive pay and $2,000 in bonuses, as well as wage increases of about 21 per cent by 2026. The pay increases appear similar to the company’s previous offer, though the signing bonuses have increased.

UFCW also said the contract will ensure “a new culture of health, safety, dignity and respect in the workplace,” but didn’t include specifics. The previous offer had 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. There are also improvements to benefits, the union said.

“The company’s new offer is a dramatic improvement from the offer that union members saw last week and will significantly improve Cargill workers’ lives,” the union statement said.

“If ratified, the offer would be the best food-processing contract in Canada, thanks entirely to the strength and determination of Cargill union members in seeking justice.”

In a message to its members, the union said it was unlikely that workers could secure a better deal by going on strike, which could involve picketing outdoors in harsh winter weather.

Voting is scheduled from Thursday to Saturday.

Cargill spokesman Daniel Sullivan said in a statement that the company is optimistic the offer will be approved by workers.

“While we navigate this negotiation, we continue to focus on fulfilling food manufacturer, retail and food service customer orders while keeping markets moving for farmers and ranchers,” the statement said.

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, many of whom are 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.

The threat of a strike also threatened to disrupt an already constrained supply chain at a time when prices have been increasing significantly. The price of beef increased 14 per cent in November compared with the year before, according to Statistics Canada’s most recent inflation report – one of the highest increases listed.

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