BY MAGGIE TROWE AND JACQUIE HENDERSON
RED DEER, Alberta - Seven weeks after responding to a lockout by going on strike, members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1118 remain solid on the picket line outside the Fletcher's Fine Foods hog plant here.
The picket lines are up 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Morale on the picket line continues to be high. But several workers expressed concerns about the impact of the replacement workers and are beginning to talk about the possibility of a long strike.
The lines swell to meet the strikebreakers as they cross in the morning and again in the afternoon as they leave. On June 5, five buses with cardboard covering their windows crossed the picket line of close to 200 angry strikers. The company claims they have around 200 replacement workers killing 2,000 hogs a day, down from more than 6,000 a day before the strike. Fletcher's applied for an injunction to restrict picketing, and on June 10 succeeded in getting an order limiting pickets to 50 immediately in front of the plant's main gate.
The main issue of the strike is the company's demand for a one-third cut in the workers' base rate. In the expired contract, new workers started at CAN$8.00 (Can$1=US$0.68) an hour, and went up by $0.50 increments every six months for four years until they reached the base rate of $15.35 plus an $0.08 hourly premium for every "bracket" that their job is rated. The company's proposal, which was rejected by a 98 percent vote, would raise the starting rate to $10.55 but freeze the wage there and bring everybody's wage down to this level. A $10,000 signing bonus was also offered.
The Fletcher's lockout follows the defeat of the four- month-long strike by UFCW members against Maple Leaf Foods last winter, during which Maple Leaf closed its Edmonton, Alberta, hog plant. Maple Leaf wrested concessions from workers similar to those Fletcher's is now demanding.
Workers on the picket line expressed concern about the growing attack by the meatpacking bosses. "Let's reverse the domino effect and pick up the one domino that fell," said striker Dave Barrett.
Felipe Fuentes, 20, said "I'm fighting for the people who have been here 6 to 10 years. They have families. I'm not going to take Fletcher's bribe."
The strikers are also concerned about the company's plan to further speed up production. The company is expanding its kill floor operation and has raised production from 4,000 hogs a day to over 6,000 a day, with the goal of reaching 8,000 by the end of the year. Sergio Fuentes, Felipe's father, described the speedup going on. "When I started, five people trimming loins got out 3,200 a day," he said. "Now they want 6,400."
A 20-year-old worker, new to the plant, said he had bought a motorcycle just three weeks before the strike and ended up losing it because he couldn't pay. Despite this, he said, he never considered crossing the line.
Jody Spellman, also 20, started in the plant in February, getting $8.25 as a skinner on the butt line and was just short of completing probation when the strike began May 4. He disagreed with company claims that their offer would benefit workers like him. "The raise is only temporary. I would get more money at first, but then I would lose," he explained. "And I hate what it would do to workers who have worked here for years. Fletcher's wants to take away what they have. I don't think that is right."
Ed Zwaan, who has worked in the plant for more than 15 years, said the unionists are united. "There are lots of nationalities here, but we're all friends and we're solid on the picket line," he said. "People realize if they go in they won't have a say inside the plant, and we'll all be working for much lower wages." While many workers were born in Canada, there is a significant component of workers born in Asia, the Philippines, Central and South America, as well as from Iran, Russia, Poland, and other European countries.
On June 5, Rouz Aghmiouni, 24, who had been riding the buses across the picket lines for two weeks to work in the plant, quit and walked out to join the pickets.
He told the Militant, "I needed a job, but I felt bad about these people. When I was leaving the bus at the drop- off place after work one day, Darren, a striker, asked me if he could talk to me for a minute. He told me about the strike and said, `If you want to find a real job, come to us.' So I decided to quit, and the union president is helping me find another job. I feel really happy now."
That same day in Regina, Saskatchewan, about 100 UFCW members protested in front of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool's head office to show support for the striking workers in Alberta. Fletcher's is 45 percent-owned by the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool. The pool, an agribusiness giant with $4.1 billion in annual revenues, is on a drive to increase pork production while driving down costs.
Upon purchasing Fletcher's last year, CEO Don Loewen said the pool's "hog production initiative in Western Canada" aims to triple hog production within the next four to five years, entering into joint ventures to build hog farms, each to produce around 55,000 hogs per year.
Alan Weenink, who has worked in the plant for two years, used to have a cattle ranch, but he "couldn't make a go of it." His cousin is a hog farmer. He doubts the company's claims that farmers would benefit if Fletcher's wins their wage cuts. "What's going to guarantee farmers will get more for their pigs just because the company has more money? Fletcher's has said their mandate is lower taxes, lower wages, lower pig prices. I don't think our demands hurt farmers."
Sergio Fuentes summed it up, "The company makes money out of the farmers and out of us."
Jacquie Henderson is a member of the International Association of Machinists in Vancouver, British Columbia. Maggie Trowe is a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union in Marshalltown, Iowa. Aiden Ball, a student at Burnaby High School, contributed to this article.
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