Skip to main content

A single cattle truck crawls through the scattered picket line at the Lakeside Packers slaughterhouse as strikers bask in the warmth of a brilliant Prairie autumn.

There's an occasional gibe thrown at the driver, but the strikers out yesterday afternoon were not worried about that one truck, but about the dozens that could come this morning, as management attempts to restart full operations at the slaughterhouse, largely shut down since a strike began five days ago.

It is the calm before the storm that pickets expect before dawn, when they think that other workers will try to enter the meat plant, one of the largest slaughterhouses in Canada.

Alberta's Labour Relations Board has banned the strikers from doing more than delaying vehicles, but the workers on the picket line say they have other ideas.

"If they kill us, they can go in," says Iyob Meles, 25, who has worked at Lakeside for six months, flipping cow stomachs.

The union, which has been fighting for a first contract since the 1980s, is pushing for higher wages, among other demands. But that's not why Mr. Meles is on the picket line.

"You can't go to the washroom," he says, referring to the company's restrictions on bathroom breaks.

"This is modern slavery for me."

The strike is five days old, but it has already ripened into anger and bitterness, with criminal charges laid against company and union officials. Doug O'Halloran, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, was briefly in hospital after his SUV crashed into a ditch on Friday.

Mr. O'Halloran's vehicle and two others collided, police say, and a fourth vehicle was involved.

RCMP charged former plant CEO Garnet Altwasser, 65, and Patrick Gummeson, 52, the company's manager of farm operations, with dangerous driving. Plant employees Kaye Kronebusch, 25, and Derek Lewis, 35, also face the same charges.

RCMP also announced that Mr. O'Halloran, 53, has been charged with two counts of willful damage and one count of possession of a weapon for a dangerous purpose.

Those charges stem from an incident that occurred on the first day of the strike, when buses transporting workers across the picket line had their windows smashed.

But the accident Friday has union members seething.

Tyson Foods Inc. spokesman Gary Mickelson said his company, which owns Lakeside, feels it is unfortunate there have been violent incidents, and that it hopes an order by the LRB allows it to bring in employees who want to work.

In the town of Brooks, public opinion is consumed with worry over the effect of a strike on a plant that employs close to a quarter of its population. The strike comes just as the town, and the cattle industry, have begun to recover from the economic catastrophe of mad-cow disease. "Public sentiment is, 'Get back to work,' " said Brooks Mayor Don Weisbeck, who added he is worried that a prolonged strike will devastate local businesses and leave lasting divisions between the town's citizens. While the economic effects might dissipate, that animosity could linger, he said.

There are even concerns that the strike, like others before it in the industry, will result in Lakeside closing. Mr. Mickelson said Tyson has invested heavily in the plant and has long-term plans for the facility, which has a work force of more than 2,000 people and a payroll of approximately $100-million annually.

But there are some -- looking at the largely immigrant work force employed at Lakeside -- who would welcome the Lakeside plant closing, said one local resident. "This town would probably not care if it left. A lot of my friends are hard-core rednecks and they wouldn't miss them a bit," said Bob McLeod, a 48-year-old oil-field worker.

The mayor disagrees that the strike has a racial undercurrent, suggesting that the abundance of immigrants on the picket line could reflect the ability of native-born Canadians to find other employment more easily.

Alberta has a long history of labour conflict in its meat-packing industry. In the mid-1980s, Burns Meats Ltd. closed its Calgary plant a week after a strike began.

In December, 1986 the bitter, sometimes violent, labour battle at the Gainers Inc. meat-packing plant in Edmonton ended after more than six months.

During the strike of more than 1,000 members of the UFCW, heavily shielded buses carrying 900 replacement workers into the plant frequently had to pass groups of strikers and supporters armed with rocks and bats.

Early into the strike, Edmonton police, backed by a riot squad, wrestled protesters to the ground. There were more than 600 arrests that clogged courts for weeks and caused the police force to spend its annual overtime budget in a few days.

With a report from Canadian Press

Interact with The Globe