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A union representative greets workers returning to the Cargill beef processing plant in High River, Alta., that was closed for two weeks because of COVID-19 on May 4, 2020.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Workers at an Alberta meat-packing plant that had one of the largest jobsite outbreaks of COVID-19 in the country have voted overwhelmingly in favour of striking in a dispute that has focused in part on health measures.

Contract negotiations with the employer, Cargill Ltd., are scheduled to resume on Tuesday after mediation broke down. The United Food and Commercial Workers union says working conditions at the High River plant, wages and benefits are also at issue.

“Our Cargill union members came to bargaining with a genuine interest in improving working conditions at the plant,” Richelle Stewart, the secretary-treasurer of the union local, said in a news release.

She said the company is not taking the bargaining process seriously.

“Unfortunately, Cargill has focused on playing games that have slowed the process down and stopped real progress. That has been very disappointing.”

The union said in its news release it has asked the company to address health concerns related to COVID-19 that workers have raised repeatedly, but did not outline any specific measures. A spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

Cargill’s High River plant accounts for more than a third of the country’s beef production, and processes about 4,500 head of cattle per day.

In the spring of last year, the plant had what was the largest outbreak in the country, and demonstrated the risk to workers in meat-packing facilities. Plants operated by Cargill and other companies in Alberta and elsewhere also had outbreaks.

Nearly 1,000 workers were infected. The plant was shut down for two weeks in April and three people died, two workers and a relative of a Cargill employee. The facility re-opened in early May.

A Globe and Mail investigation found that Cargill was slow to implement measures to protect workers.

Some employees, who are mainly immigrants and temporary foreign workers, said they were pressed to continue working even as the number of positive COVID-19 cases at the site rose.

The company’s medical staff would clear them for work despite symptoms, positive COVID-19 test results, incomplete isolation periods, and recent travel abroad. The workers added that they did not have adequate personal protective equipment; masks were not required until mid-April, when the outbreak was well under way.

Cargill has said 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 union news release said talks have been going on for months. A government-appointed mediator was involved for just one day of those negotiations before the union asked them to leave to allow a strike vote.

Lead negotiator Devin Yeager said in the news release that the company had proposed changes to benefits that would cost workers more money.

Cargill spokesman Daniel Sullivan said in a statement that the company continues to engage with the union and is optimistic a deal will be reached.

More than 2,000 union members work at the plant. About 1,400 participated in the strike vote last Thursday, with 97 per cent supporting it.

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