VALLEE-JONCTION, Quebec — After a hard-fought, four-month-long strike here, the 1,000 members of the Union of Olymel Workers at Vallee-Jonction voted by 78% to accept a new contract Aug. 31. They have seen their union strengthened through the battle and made some well-deserved gains. Olymel is the biggest pork producer in Canada.
The strike began April 28 when the packinghouse workers walked out. They were fighting to get back concessions given up in 2007 — including a 38% wage cut, elimination of their pension plan, and reduced sick days — when bosses threatened to close the plant.
A key demand was a major wage increase.
Another central issue was the bosses’ attempt to get the workers to accept the introduction of 10-hour afternoon shifts without overtime pay. Workers rejected that one by 82% Aug. 9.
During the strike the union organized protests in this town and in Quebec City, 40 miles north of here. They brought solidarity to striking workers at the nearby Exceldor poultry plant. And won support from other workers and area unions.
The boss media waged an anti-union campaign centered on the possibility that tens of thousands of pigs would be euthanized because the strike idled the factory and they couldn’t be processed.
The workers rejected a tentative agreement negotiated between Olymel and the union executive by 57% Aug. 14.
The company then threatened the entire afternoon shift of 500 workers would be shut down if a settlement wasn’t reached by Aug. 29. “The company makes threats like this every time,” Louis Laforest, who works in slaughter with 25 years in the plant, told the Militant. This time some workers took the threat seriously.
A tentative agreement, which included more flexibility for scheduling summer vacations, was accepted by the union membership. Workers will receive a 26.4% increase over the six years of the agreement, including 10% the first year, as well as a signing bonus of 65 Canadian dollars ($52) for each year of seniority. This comes after 14 years where a majority of workers’ wages increased only CA$1.13 an hour.
The company agreed to introduce a new pension plan and to contribute more to workers’ health insurance.
An important component of the strike was participation by immigrant workers, many from Mauritius and Madagascar, who work on two-year contracts that deny them the right to look for other work. “Everybody was really united to have better conditions,” one worker from Madagascar told the Militant.
“I think the union is stronger compared to the 2015 negotiations,” Etienne Vachon, who works in the cutting room, told the Militant. “This time the union stuck it out. Confidence in the union has been strengthened.”