The message to the 450 striking employees of Burns Meats Ltd. in Winnipeg was unmistakable. The company, in the seventh week of a strike by 1,700 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) at its plants in four cities, delivered an ultimatum to the strikers at its flagship Winnipeg operation. In a full-page ad in The Winnipeg Sun, Burns announced that the plant would resume operations at midweek and that the employees should report for work or nonunion job seekers would be hired to replace them.
The day after the ad appeared, 50 pickets surrounded four unemployed youths seeking jobs at the plant and jeered at them until they left. But the threat of a major confrontation was averted when the province’s NDP acting labor minister, Eugene Kostyra, intervened and arranged a temporary truce: talks resumed, the union agreed to call off a mass protest and the company delayed the plant reopening until this week.
The episode at the Burns plant was the most bitter outburst in a six-week wave of labor strife within the $8-billion meat-packing industry. In a separate development last week, 3,700 UFCW members employed at 12 plants owned by Canada Packers Inc. of Toronto, the largest meat-packing firm in the country, went on strike after two months of negotiations. The reason for the turmoil: plagued by losses or anemic profits, the firms are seeking—and in some cases winning—major wage rollbacks in bargaining.
The Burns strike in Winnipeg erupted
on June 6, when the company sought a $2-an-hour wage cutback. Similar requests for pay reductions were also followed by strikes at Burns operations in Calgary, Lethbridge, Alta., and Kitchener, Ont. For its part, the UFCW has refused to accept Burns’ proposed wage reductions and it wants a return to a previous practice under which a contract settlement is first reached with a major firm, then used as an industrywide guideline.
In other contract negotiations for UFCW workers, the union has been will-
ing to compromise. On July 13, 1,000 meat handlers at Gainers narrowly avoided a strike by accepting a two-year wage freeze for current employees and a 40-per-cent wage cut for new workers. Last week union executives recommended that the Canada Packers employees accept a two-year wage freeze for existing workers and a 25-per cent pay cut for new staff. But 60 per cent rejected the offer.
The firms say that they have taken a tough stance because of production inefficiencies and competition from U.S. firms where base wages are in the $6-to$9 (U.S.)-an-hour range compared to $12 an hour in Canada. Still, UFCW Canadian director Frank Benn remained obdurate last week. Referring to the firms’ demands for two-year wage freezes, Benn said, “Our people recognize that there are too many packing houses chasing too few hogs. The industry deserves consideration, but not two years worth of consideration.” -ANN WALMSLEY, with Andrew Nikiforuk in Winnipeg.
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