Ontario beef farmers concerned as Cargill strike enters 2nd month

The strike at the Cargill beef processing plant in Guelph, Ont., has entered its second month and Ontario beef farmers say they are starting to feel the squeeze.

The strike, which began on May 27, was initiated by workers over the rise in the cost of living and the cessation of a $2-per-hour COVID pandemic premium, the regional director of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Jason Hanley said.

Negotiations over a new four-year contract broke down as 82 per cent of workers voted against it, leading to the first-time labour strike at the Guelph plant.

Strikers have been picketing on four six-hour shifts, managing a 24-hour strike presence along Watson Parkway at Dunlop Drive outside the Cargill facility.

One month on, Beef Farmers of Ontario president Richard Horne says a lack of options for processing beef is causing major issues for farmers in Ontario and parts of eastern Canada.

"Finding alternative markets is certainly a challenge," he told CBC News.

Horne said some farmers are finding relief in selling off stock to cattle dealers and some other processing plants, but he said that isn't enough.

"I think the sustainability of the efforts that are being undertaken right now to manage the situation certainly comes into question the longer that this goes," Horne said.

While there are a few options for these beef farmers, Horne said they "cannot replace through one single alternative source the loss of that facility."

'It's extremely concerning'

Horne said the Beef Farmers of Ontario have seen setbacks in the past — through short-term shutdowns and brief COVID-19 closure — but he said those were nothing compared to what's happening at the plant now.

"This type of prolonged labour strike is certainly fairly unprecedented in recent times for the Ontario market," he said. "It's extremely concerning."

Food economist Mike von Massow, who is an associate professor at the University of Guelph’s Food, Agricultural & Resource Economics. said being willing to learn a few more tricks in the kitchen can help Canadians better adapt to rising food prices.
Mike von Massow is a a professor of food and resource economics at the University of Guelph. He said the closure of Cargill’s Guelph facility has created a harvest-ready animal backlog, further increasing feed and veterinary costs on beef farmers. (Submitted by Mike von Massow)

Mike von Massow is a professor of food and resource economics at the University of Guelph and has been closely following the strike.

He said it goes much deeper than a farmer unable to send their cattle to market. Farmers have invested in the calf, the feed and the veterinary bills.

"What you've got is an asset that you have invested a bunch of money in and you don't get return on that," said von Massow.

He said the closure of Cargill's Guelph facility is also creating a harvest-ready animal backlog, which further increases the cost on beef farmers.

"It's not like a car that you can park in the lot and just have it sit there," he said. "It's an animal that you need to continue to feed and continue to keep healthy."

But von Massow said Cargill holds more of the cards in this labour dispute. He said they're a "large integrated company" that "can keep their customers and the consumers happy."

"Those of us going to grocery stores or to fast food outlets or to restaurants aren't feeling the impact of this strike," he said. "So we're not putting pressure on Cargill to solve it."

But the beef producers are feeling the strike, he added.

"It is financially hard, it is mentally hard and the uncertainty is critical, but it gives workers less leverage in the strike," he said.

Chuck Miller, a spokesperson for Cargill, said in an emailed statement to CBC News that talks continue with striking workers.

"Last week, Cargill sent a proposal for an agreement in response to an offer that the union made to Cargill. Cargill also proposed a meeting with the union to discuss possibilities to end this labour disruption, and the parties have agreed to meet next week," Miller said.

The statement said Cargill is optimistic that an agreement will be reached at those meetings or shortly thereafter.

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo also reached out to the union representing the Guelph Cargill workers but they did not respond to requests for comments.