Major strikes in Quebec’s meat industry lead to food waste and demands for change
When a poultry factory near Quebec City announced last month that it had euthanized a million chickens due to an ongoing strike, it sparked outrage from the public and politicians.
Within days, workers and employer Exceldor reached an agreement, but only 66 percent of those workers voted in favor.
“This is not a victory. It means that a third of the workforce is unhappy,” said Roxane Larouche, union spokesperson representing workers, United Food and Commercial Workers. , known by its French acronym, TUAC.
Now pork producers say if another strike in Quebec’s meat industry lasts longer, thousands more animals may have to be slaughtered. The chickens were sent to a rendering plant to make animal feed.
Industry executives say having two strikes, with so much food waste potential and so closely spaced, is unprecedented and should bring about change in an industry long plagued by some of the worst working conditions in the economy.
But a severe labor shortage in the province can give workers more leverage in their demands.
“If you take the slaughterhouses, for example. You have workers, who, day after day, work with live animals that are going to be slaughtered. You have to desensitize yourself to this violent part of the job,” said Larouche.
“It’s not pleasant at all.”
Repetitive movements, cold temperatures, strong smells, and tight spaces in another part of the meat industry – processing plants – don’t make the job any more appealing.
“All over the food processing production chain, there are labor shortages because wages are not enough. And we need better working conditions, ”said Larouche.
The pandemic has also brought to light the difficulties faced by workers in these jobs, some of the biggest COVID-19 outbreaks in the workplace occurring in meat processing facilities, including one who faces a strike in the Beauce region of Quebec.
A strike lasting several months at Olymel in Beauce
The strike, which affects the Olymel pig slaughterhouse in Vallée-Jonction, began at the end of April and has seen several stops. Union representatives and management are back at the bargaining table this week, but pay remains a sticking point.
This plant is one of the largest in the province, handling between 35,000 and 37,000 hogs each week. About 1,150 people work there, while 550 work at the Exceldor poultry plant.
An Olymel spokesperson, Richard Vigneault, blamed the union for the long strike.
“It’s a shame. A factory is supposed to be in operation,” Vigneault told Radio-Canada earlier this week. “The union is the one that decided to have an indefinite strike.
The union is quick to refute this claim.
“With the workforce retention problem that we have, the employer has to realize that they have to pay people properly if they are to keep them. Vallée-Jonction employees.
On this point, says Vigneault, “there is a gap between what they are asking for and what we can offer while remaining competitive”.
Olymel estimated the union’s demanded wage increase at about 35 percent for the first year of a deal and 51 percent for three and a half years thereafter.
In May, the Quebec government invested $ 150 million in Olymel, an incentive to keep the Saint-Hyacinthe business operating in the province.
Larouche, the TUAC spokesperson, believes that the deaths of Exceldor’s million chickens could have been easily avoided thanks to the union’s prior warning to the cooperative of its intention to strike.
“Our belief is that it was a strategic decision by Exceldor to kill so many chickens to put pressure on the workers,” she said.
Larouche believes that Olymel handled his strike better, noting that politicians have not had to make statements saying “the waste must stop”, as Quebec Premier François Legault did last month in the Exceldor case.
Psychological impact on producers
Whether the union or the employer are the source of the waste does not matter to the producers, for whom the ordeal was distressing, according to Marcel Groleau, president of the union agricultural producers (UPA), the largest farmers’ union in Quebec.
“The psychological impact – the producers found it really difficult,” Groleau said of the dead chickens to Exceldor.
“The damage [of the strikes] are to the industry as a whole, however. This gives consumers a bad image of the industry and how it works. “
Automation has led to the consolidation of meat plants across North America. But with fewer but larger factories, there is little room left for contingency plans should something go wrong.
Groleau says that the fusion of plants is a “natural phenomenon” that is difficult to prevent from happening. Meat processing and slaughter plants want to meet the demands of the industry and need to modernize their equipment to do so.
To make these upgrades profitable, they have to produce more, so smaller factories merge or are bought out by larger factories.
Companies need to make plans to transport the animals elsewhere, even if that means bringing them to another province or even the United States, Groleau said.
“So far, however, we haven’t seen those kind of impacts. It’s going to have to teach us a lesson. We have to be able to prevent what just happened.”