Canadian workers' victory
Jim Selby* Lakeside Packers has been a benchmark in Alberta labour relations for 20 years. (Alberta is a central western state of Canada). The meat packing plant in Brooks was decertified in the mid-1980s after a long and protracted strike/lockout and employers have resisted efforts by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) to re-organise them ever since. Organising Lakeside seemed almost impossible. The company's anti- union campaigns were thorough, vicious and well beyond what are allowed by Alberta labour laws — yet none of the unfair labour practice charges upheld by the Alberta Labour Relations Board could compensate for the effects of the coercion and intimidation practiced by the employer during organising drives. The news that UFCW 401 had successfully certified the plant in a vote on August 27 spread rapidly through the Alberta labour movement. The union's success was completely unexpected, because any organising drive is a huge job under Alberta's labour laws, and because of Lakeside's history of successfully resisting unionisation. This is the most significant and successful union drive in Alberta in the past 20 years. UFCW never gave up on organising Lakeside. According to UFCW 401 organiser Don Crisall, "We've been there every year since 1991. My first Lakeside campaign was 1996 — and I've been back every year since then until last summer." The fact is that the union's efforts year after year were seldom rewarded with enough signatures to meet the government's requirement for proving support from 40 per cent of the workforce before a certification vote will even be held. Immigrant workers When the union showed up, the company would kick its anti-union machine into gear and the workers, many of them immigrants from diverse backgrounds, would be intimidated into inactivity. Still, the union presence every year obviously had a lasting cumulative effect on the workers. Every year they got union pamphlets and a union message. The background presence of the union was a fact of life for the packing house workers. Refused to quit Canadian Labour Council Alberta representative Les Steel attributes the union staying power to UFCW 401 President Doug O'Halloran. "Doug refused to quit", said Steel. "There was no way he was going to let the anti-union management at Lakeside win." Despite the seeming invulnerability of the company to the union's organising efforts, a walkout by 70 plant workers in April this year to protest bad working conditions gave the first indication that attitudes were changing inside the plant. The company, instead of bringing in the workers and dealing with their concerns, simply fired all of them. That gave UFCW an opening that they quickly seized. "This year was different", said Crisall. The union met with the protesters at the Sudanese Friendship Centre in Brooks. Although the media portrayed the wildcat as ethnically based, claiming that the workers were all Sudanese, the union notes that the 70 sacked workers came from all over the globe. Many of the fired workers volunteered to help the union campaign, leafleting the plant and talking to their former co- workers and friends still employed at the plant. "The phone in the union office started ringing constantly", said Crisall. "That's when we knew something was in the air at Lakeside, that we had a good chance." By mid-July, hundreds of workers had signed up through word of mouth. Door-knocking "That's when the union brought in an organising team", noted Crisall. "We went door knocking in town, signing up the majority of petitions in the last three weeks of July. On August 3, we put in our application for a certification vote to the Labour Relations Board." Unlike previous years, the management at Lakeside seemed to be caught flat-footed by the organising drive. According to Crisall, it wasn't until the union filed on August 3 that the company woke up and launched their usual anti-union campaign. In previous years, they campaigned very early against the union. "In any event," said Crisall, "the company campaign was vicious. They took Alberta labour laws and shredded them." The campaign went beyond veiled threats. "There was a group of employees wearing t-shirts — complete with the company logos — that were for sale in the plant," said Crisall. The shirts read: "No means No — at Lakeside we always think for ourselves". The company denied any connection with these renegade employees or any responsibility for their actions. The union filed numerous unfair labour practice charges. "But we didn't ask for a new vote like we did in 1999", said Crisall. "That is a useless remedy. Unless the Board is given the authority to grant automatic certification or a fine that serves as a real deterrent, employers will continue to violate the law at will. Basically the employer is saying to hell with the law because they know they won't be effectively punished for directly intimidating and coercing employees." In an attempt to put some teeth in the Board's sanctions against violations of the law, the union asked that the Board force the employer to pay the total costs of the union organising campaign. This novel request offered the Board an opportunity to develop a mechanism by which it could actually enforce the laws. The union ran a very different campaign than in its previous efforts at Lakeside. In past years, the union had tried to answer all of the company's allegations and to counter the anti-union smear campaign. This had made the union message scrambled. "This time", said Crisall, "we kept the message simple. We said: `it's time for a change — this time vote yes for a union'". The UFCW national office communications specialists did a ten minute to-the-point video on Lakeside that was distributed to all of the union's supporters two days before the vote to solidify support. Twenty languages To deal with the language barriers inherent in a workforce where more than twenty languages are spoken, the union produced pamphlets in many different languages, including Arabic, French, Spanish, Tagalog, Chinese and Cambodian. "A lot of the workers at Lakeside are very well educated, speaking several languages", said Crisall, "we just had to deal with difficulties in English." In a critical and effective innovation, the union distributed a little postcard to supporters that showed a picture of a sample Board ballot with the union box checked. "We told them: `if you want a union, your ballot should look like this'", said Crisall. The union won the certification vote 95 to 85, a majority of 51.4 percent. But, union observers are sure their support is far stronger and deeper in the plant. "I think the union would have done a hell of a lot better than 51.4% if the company campaigning had stayed within the guidelines of the Alberta Labour Relations Code", said Crisall. Now that UFCW 401 has overcome the first major barrier to unionisation in Alberta, they have to overcome the second — getting a first contract. It won't be easy. The union has filed a whole new group of unfair labour practices against the company for employer actions since the certification vote. In his official statement following the certification, UFCW 401 President Doug O'Halloran promised to address a broad range of workplace issues at the bargaining table. "I am hopeful that the Company will adopt a positive attitude to negotiations and that an agreement consistent with the unionised industry can be negotiated soon", said O'Halloran. Lakeside Packers is owned by Tyson Foods, the world's largest processor and marketer of chicken and red meat products, with annual sales in excess of US$23 billion. There are unionised Tyson plants in the United States.
* * **Jim Selby is an Alberta Federation of Labour staff member. Acknowledgement to People's Voice published by the Communist Party of Canada.