Production workers at Maple Leaf Foods in Brandon are celebrating after an eleventh-hour collective agreement with their employer passed muster.
The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 832 branch has been in negotiations with the company since June. The previous contract, which covered 1,900 employees at the Brandon meat-processing plant, expired Dec. 31, 2019.
The new five-year contract includes concessions on wages, pension plan payments and time off, as well as “respect and dignity issues in the workplace or the health unit,” UFCW Local 832 president Jeff Traeger said.
Workers under the agreement will see wage increases “almost double the cost of living,” another $500,000 for job reclassifications, improvements to the health and welfare benefit plan and a new system that will allow employees to bank overtime for days off, the union has said.
The ability to bank time will be unique among Maple Leaf Foods facilities in Canada, the union says, while improvements to health and welfare benefits were a priority for members with young families.
The banked time was a “creative” solution when faced with the company’s labour needs, Traeger noted.
Maple Leaf Foods has also committed to another pork-industry first, with a new employment and support program for employees with disabilities.
The agreement also confirms $1.4 million in pension payouts to complete payouts under a plan the union changed in 2010.
“We are pleased to report that a five-year agreement at our Brandon facility was successfully ratified,” a representative from Maple Leaf Foods said. “We believe the agreement will offer our plant and our employees stability going forward.”
The union did not get a promise for guaranteed hours, something Traeger says has been on the bargaining list for several contract terms.
“The employer’s commentary on that is that the best guarantee of work is a successful company to work for, which, luckily for them, they actually have that,” he said.
The union president says the final agreement meshes well with worker priorities.
Long wait over
The agreement signals the end of a tense seven months.
It is the second attempt at a contract after another tentative agreement failed to impress workers in late 2019. The union came to a deal with Maple Leaf Foods Nov. 19. Workers voted 65 per cent against that agreement on Dec. 2, even as the expiry date loomed.
Workers did not like the agreement’s new biweekly pay schedule, Traeger said. Maple Leaf Foods hoped to transition the plant to a biweekly pay period in order to standardize payroll across their operations.
Communication was also a hurdle during that first meeting, according to Traeger.
The Dec. 2 meeting was hosted in a room that was too small and with insufficient communications equipment, he said, adding that those issues were addressed when the membership met again in January.
Tension increased when the union reported that the company had refused their initial efforts to go back to the table, the Brandon Sun reported Dec. 3. Several weeks later, the union and company said they would meet again for negotiations Jan. 10.
The agreement out of that meeting was more acceptable to workers. Members voted 89 per cent in favour of the agreement Jan. 12, and the contract was ratified the following day.
“I think it was getting down to the wire,” Traeger said.
The Manitoba Pork Council also celebrated the news.
The producer’s group, “was pleased that the major processor in Manitoba’s been able to come to an agreement with its employees and there’s no disruption of the processing of pigs in the province,” general manager Andrew Dickson said.
The pork council had been keeping an eye on the situation, he said, noting that a strike at such a large processor in Manitoba would hit hard at the pork industry.
The Brandon kill and cut plant can process up to 90,000 hogs a week at full capacity, according to the company.