Spartacist Canada No. 147

Winter 2005/2006


Alberta Meatpackers Strike Shows Power of Immigrant Workers

Years of abuse of immigrant and other workers by the notoriously anti-union Arkansas-based Tyson Foods backfired spectacularly this fall during a three-week strike at its Lakeside plant in Brooks, Alberta. On day two of the strike, October 13, the strikers defended their picket line against an assault by a busload of scabs. Three strikers were sent to the hospital after being hit by the bus and punched and kicked by the scabs. But the union’s mass pickets stopped production for several days thereafter and many more times during the strike. Picket Iyob Meles expressed the strikers’ determination in no uncertain terms: “If they kill us, they can go in” (Globe and Mail, 17 October).

The strike, waged by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), aimed at winning a first contract. If ever a workplace screamed for a union, Lakeside was it. For the grand sum of $12 an hour, its workers toiled under horrible conditions in an industry that is back-breaking and filthy. Many of the African-born strikers compared their job to outright slavery. One told a typical story: “They treat people like the cows they kill here. If somebody asks for the washroom, they deny them. It happened to me. Even now, some people use diapers” (CBC News, 14 July).

Yet this racially integrated workforce showed that by using the power of solid picket lines it could bring the multinational giant Tyson to its knees. Lakeside’s 2,300 workers, a majority of whom are refugees and immigrants from Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria, are at the nexus of Canada’s multi-billion dollar beef industry, processing 40 percent of Canada’s cattle. While Tyson tried every which way to keep work going at the plant, production plummeted by as much as 85 percent during the strike. In the end, Tyson was forced to agree to a first union contract.

Tyson went all out to try and defeat this strike. On October 14, two vehicles occupied by managers and plant security forced UFCW local president Doug O’Halloran’s car into a ditch, causing him injuries to the head, neck and arm. While many picketers sensibly believed this was attempted murder, the RCMP merely hit the managers with “dangerous driving” charges. For helping defend his picket line against the previous day’s scab assault, O’Halloran faces two counts of willful damage and one of possession of a weapon for a dangerous purpose. The company also obtained a court injunction to limit the number of picketers on the line. No surprise in any of this: the capitalists and their state—cops, courts, prisons—always work hand in hand to keep the working class “in its place.” Drop all the charges against Doug O’Halloran and all the other strikers!

Labour: Fight for Full Citizenship Rights for All Immigrants!

The UFCW reports that the violent attacks on the picket lines came complete with racist taunts, while many suspect the company of attempting to inflame racial divisions within the workforce to bust the unionization drive—a typical scheme among employers in this country. Assuming that this was nothing but a disposable, pliant workforce, Tyson lured these immigrants in the first place to work in hellish conditions in the middle of redneck, small-town Alberta. But the unity of the picket line—which also included many white workers, and had a notable proportion of women—enabled the Lakeside workers to overcome some of these divisions, serving as a model for workers throughout the country.

To fully unleash the power of Canada’s multiethnic working class would require a class-struggle leadership that combats anti-immigrant racism and all of the bosses’ “divide and rule” schemes, while fighting illusions in the benevolence of the capitalist class. But such is not the current leadership of the trade unions. Instead, it is imbued with Canadian nationalism and appeals to the bosses to be “fair.” Such illusions in the class enemy, pushed by the misleaders of the UFCW and Alberta Federation of Labour, played against the Lakeside strikers. Instead of building on the militant mass pickets and mobilizing support in other key industries, the union tops appealed for “binding arbitration” and a personal intervention by the right-wing, union-hating premier Ralph Klein! As a result, the union tops agreed to a 51-month contract with Tyson, where only in 2010 will production wages reach a paltry $14.60 an hour.

The felt need of Alberta meatpacking workers for union representation is nothing new. In the 1980s, Lakeside workers were defeated in fighting for a union. In 1986 in Edmonton, the Gainers strike polarized the city for months. What the Lakeside workers demonstrated this time was the impact of the social power of workers in action—their ability to stop the flow of profit for the bosses in practically a whole industry through solid picket lines. Central to this were the immigrant workers of Lakeside. They showed that immigrants are not only key to the workings of the Canadian economy, but are often more willing to fight for the rights of all workers. We need a leadership that will tap into this powerful proletarian army and fight to overthrow the capitalist system that oppresses us all.