As we prepare to go back into negotiations with the new owners of Lakeside Packers, JBS Food Canada Inc, it’s important to reflect on where we’ve been. Negotiations aren’t just about improving wages and benefits, like the mainstream media would have you believe. It’s also about protecting jobs and creating security in the lives of the workers who are responsible for a company’s success, in both good economic times and bad. On the eve of new contract talks, let’s shine a light on an incredibly important part of the Union Contract that is worth protecting.
On July 12, 2011, 2,200 unionized members of UFCW Local 401 at Lakeside Packers- XL Foods in Brooks, resoundingly accepted a new Collective Agreement by 92%. There were excellent improvements made in the contract that covered things like wages, overtime pay, as well as increases to health benefits for union members. These were improvements members benefited from immediately upon accepting the new contract.
However, there was another important gain in the new Union Contract. One that protected and insulated a regularized workweek that had, for too long, been very unstable at times. The effects of this language meant that workers had significant added stability in their pay cheques.
This new language is called the “Letter of Understanding #4 – Guarantee” and provides something previously lacking; a guaranteed work week!
In a nutshell, Letter of Understanding (L.O.U.) #4 provides all workers who have passed their probationary period a guaranteed minimum of 32 hours of regular pay per week. The company could only utilize this guarantee 15 times per year, then the workweek increases to 36 hours.
L.O.U. #4 was agreed to by both parties during a period of time where Lakeside was flourishing. Operations were “full steam ahead” as they say. All of the workers were receiving full regular hours every week and all the overtime they wanted. There had not been a “dark day” (a day in which the plant shuts down and no one receives hours) in over a year, with no signs off a slowdown ahead. It would have been easy to ignore the possibility of slower times or unforeseen events but the union knew this important language would serve as an invaluable insurance policy for the workers. Despite the employer’s optimism that this language would never have to be used, therefore, agreeing to it on that basis, your union’s bargaining committee knew that it’s just as important to make improvements during good times as it is to plan for protections and safeguards during hard times. Little did anyone know just how precious this language would be for hundreds of workers only 14 months after it was ratified.
XL Foods’ Lakeside Packers found itself at the epicenter of a disaster that would rock the entire Canadian Beef Industry to its core, and more importantly, the 2,200 hard-working UFCW members within the plant. These were very difficult times for the people of Brooks and the surrounding areas. After all, thousands of people are dependent on the success and stability of Brooks’ largest employer, Lakeside Packers. There were more questions than answers. The workers wanted to know how they would survive. Where their next dollar would come from. Should they stay in Brooks or search for work in another city? The city of Brooks was left with a dark cloud of uncertainty hovering above.
Eventually, the dust settled in Brooks and the tide turned with a major announcement from an unlikely source.
On October 17, 2012 just three days after XL Foods had announced their plans to lay off workers, JBS Food Canada Inc. declared their intentions to manage and potentially purchase the XL Foods facility after they had an opportunity to assess the business and its viability. The official purchase was announced several months later, on January 14th. There were many obstacles and challenges for JBS, including getting their operating license reinstated, retaining employees and regaining the trust of consumers. To say business was slow would be a massive understatement; the working hours were slashed to a quarter of what they had been previous to this crisis.
The employees would have had to make major financial sacrifices during this critical time. But this is where the “Guarantee” L.O.U. became so critical for 2,200 unionized workers who were now guaranteed a minimum of 32 hours of regular pay for each week it was slow. It had become the difference between workers paying their bills or going bankrupt. It had become the difference between employees leaving Brooks all together or staying to work for JBS. It had become the difference in the survival of local businesses and the viability of the very city itself!
If not for the careful and strategic thinking of the union’s bargaining committee having negotiated the guarantee of hours protection in the Union Contract, you’d have to wonder where we would all be now.
This is the union advantage! This is worth fighting for! Stay tuned for updates on upcoming negotiations
Being on a picket line will often change how union members relate to their union. The experience of striking increases both their knowledgeable of and involvement in the union.
My own experience with a picket line is telling in this regard. And I was reminded of those experiences and their impacts during the October strike at Superstore. The members with whom I had the opportunity to protest brought back fond memories for me and I watched as their involvement on the picket line stoked their interest in getting involved with their union.
The Safeway strike in 1997 was the path through which I became active with UFCW Local 401. I was a Shop Steward when the strike commenced, volunteered to be a Picket Captain, and was recruited by a Union Representative to be an Area Representative for numerous stores that were on strike. Over the 75 days that Safeway members exercised the right to strike, I became very empowered and built bonds with my coworkers that would not have developed had the strike not occurred. Those relationships and the strength and solidarity that developed between those who walked the picket line was something that management could never take away,
The knowledge I gained about my union by participating in the strike drove me to become even more involved. Soon after the dispute ended, I requested to be considered for relief duties at the Local. I also began attending more general membership meetings and was elected to the union’s Executive Board, a group of members who oversee the general direction of the union with the Executive Staff. Eventually, that involvement led to my hiring as a full time Union Representative in 2006.
As I watched our Superstore members exercise their democratic rights, standing up to their employer, and making gains through the bargaining process, it has been rewarding to see that process play out again with a new group of members coming forward and expressing their desire to become more active within the union.
Many of those members are now becoming Shop Stewards in their workplace. In just one store I service, four people have come forward to act as Shop Stewards and advocate on behalf of their coworkers. That response is overwhelming and I know that their leadership and strength on the picket line will contribute greatly to the conditions in their store.
Additionally, due to the large number of members who have shown a desire to enforce the new language around hours in the Superstore Union Contract, UFCW Local 401 will be holding a Conference in March, uniquely designed for Superstore employees and exploring how we can all work towards enforcing the gains we won through our protest. This Conference will be a great opportunity for anyone working at Superstore who wishes to become more active within their workplace and union to step up.
Activism within your union can open doors to many opportunities that you may not have known existed. That activism brings with it a sense of pride in knowing that you have contributed to making a difference in the lives of those you work with, in your community and in your workplace. Special thanks goes out to the picketers at my South Edmonton store who made me so proud and reminded me that exercising their democratic rights and standing strong together in solidarity really can created change in everyone’s lives.
UFCW Local 401 members working at the McKesson warehouses in Edmonton are currently in the midst of negotiating a new Union Contract, which expired on December 31st, 2013. The bargaining committee is hopeful to be in a position to go to those members in the next few months with improvements to the expired Union Contract. In the meantime, McKesson workers continue to work under the provisions of the expired contract.
There have been approximately 13 days of negotiations and more dates in April, May and June have been tentatively scheduled.
The parties have already reached agreement on several important non-monetary issues and progress is being made. However, the negotiating committee cautions that they are “not out of the woods yet”. The Employer has been reluctant to move on some issues that are very important to their employees and gives rise for concern from the union’s committee. The employer has also put the union on notice that they want to make changes to certain monetary items members currently enjoy, “and we have made it clear that we have no intention of accepting concessions”, says UFCW 401 negotiator, Al Olinek.
The union’s committee remains diligent and cautious and will continue working through the issues that matter to McKesson workers.
Future negotiation dates can be found on our website once they are finalized. Please look for them under “News and Events, Negotiations”.
All the best to the union’s negotiating committee!
Documents released on February 20 by the Alberta Federation of Labour further highlight the Alberta government’s failure to protect and expand our public health care system.