By James Wilt
30 years ago this month 1,080 meatpacking workers at Edmonton’s Gainers meatpacking plant went on strike.
Peter Pocklington, the infamous owner of the plant who pleaded guilty to perjury in 2010, had attempted to use the economic downturn and alleged price manipulation by the hog marketing board as an excuse to slash wages and eliminate the company’s pension plan.
The six-and-a-half-month strike was triggered by a 96 per cent strike vote and resulted in the arrests of 400 UFCW Local 280-P members and supporters, a nationwide boycott and an assortment of militant actions. The Gainers strike came to represent much more than a fight against rollbacks.
It was arguably the last great hurrah of Alberta’s labour movement before it was divided and conquered by the Klein Revolution.
“In many ways, Gainers marks a bit of an end of an era of expressions of solidarity by the labour movement in the province,” says Jason Foster, labour studies professor at Athabasca University.
The conditions were ripe for direct action.
Construction workers were being slammed with 24-hour lockouts and spin-off company tactics. Strikes were breaking out across the province in sectors including oil and gas, forestry and food products. Meatpacking companies were busting unions and moving to rural areas with megaplants, leaving thousands of urban workers without jobs.
A planned strike in 1984 had been called off by the local due to the availability of scabs due to the high unemployment rates and other recent plant closures.
The subsequent agreement froze wages for two years, cut benefits and introduced a lower wage for new workers. It received divided support from members. The deal broke long-standing pattern bargaining, which worried the national union and resulted in forced concessions in other agreements.
But in 1986, the inverse occurred: the local moved ahead with the strike despite an initial lack of support from higher-ups.
“This wasn’t the strike the national union had wanted,” says Alvin Finkel, professor emeritus of Canadian history at Athabasca University and editor of Working People in Alberta: A History. “It was something the local had more or less imposed on them. They seemed to sacrifice the Gainers workers in the interests of new plants that were going to be opening up.
“I think from their point of view, in the end with a guy like Peter Pocklington running things, the plant would probably shutter and they didn’t want to look like they had forced it to the wall.”
It wasn’t an unfair reading. Finkel notes that Pocklington was a “very unsophisticated kind of capitalist,” with the owner stating from the get-go that he had no intentions of signing a new agreement and would rehire scabs over plant workers.
Pocklington also openly bragged about the massively increased productivity following the 1984 concessions, which predictably led to increased feeling of animosity among workers.
Alain Noël and Keith Gardner argued in their thorough 1990 paper on the subject “The Gainers Strike: Capitalist Offensive, Militancy, and the Politics of Industrial Relations in Canada” that Pocklington “was on a crusade to destroy the union local and gambled that he could set a Canadian precedent for a large urban firm in a unionized industry.”
What he clearly didn’t anticipate was the animosity.
Foster, who was a teenager at the time and lived about 10 blocks away from the plant recalls: “The air was crackling. There was so much tensions, so much anger. You could feel it as you would drive by: you had this sense that this fight’s really for something.”
The windows of buses transporting scabs to the plant were smashed. Plastic wrap that covered Gainers meat sold at local supermarkets was punctured with needles, causing it to dry out; the price sign at a Food for Less for Gainers bacon was constantly covered with “Boycott Gainers” stickers.
On June 12, the same day that thousands gathered at the Alberta Legislature to protest the treatment of Gainers workers, a farm truck attempting to deliver hogs to the plant was attacked by strikers leading to the arrest of 44 people (by that point, a series of injunctions had been issued). Hundreds of police officers were tasked with harassing strikers.
Yet the strike extended far beyond 66th Street. Some 5,000 lawn signs were distributed in the city. Finkel says the boycott resulted in Gainers meat essentially disappearing from the shelves of Edmonton’s supermarkets, with output dropping to 15 per cent of what it had been producing. Church and other community groups were providing people for the picket lines almost every day, Finkel recalls.
In spite of that, Gainers didn’t make an offer to the workers until December.
The situation was looking bad for the provincial government given its quiet maintenance of brutally anti-worker labour laws (it refused, for instance, to prohibit the 24-hour strike tactic being used in the construction industry).
Premier Don Getty entered as mediator. Pocklington was promised tens of millions in loans from the government to modernize the plant (he never used the money for that purpose).
On December 14, an agreement was reached that would freeze wages for two years followed by three per cent increases in 1989 and 1990. Pensions were maintained and workers were hired back. Just shy of two-thirds of workers voted for the deal.
Finkel notes that some members felt they’d been betrayed by their union, feeling they could have held out longer and forced the provincial government to impose something on Pocklington.
But Foster says the deal infuriated Pocklington, “In the context of 1986, you weren’t getting big wage increases,” he says. “It wasn’t going to happen. More importantly, the employer backed down. He wanted way more. Essentially, he wanted to shutter that plant. But he couldn’t.”
The plant eventually was shuttered, albeit a little less directly than Pocklington desired: in 1989, the provincial government took over the plant due to the his failure to repay the aforementioned loans. It was sold to Burns Meats in 1994, absorbed by Maple Leaf in 1996 and shut down after another strike in 1997. Some 850 workers lost their jobs.
Much had changed in the labour movement landscape between the Gainers strike and when the Maple Leaf plant finally closed.
The province’s unionization rates, already the lowest in the country, had continued to plummet. AUPE had been suspended from CUPE and barred from the AFL for raiding.
The 1988 province-wide strike by nurses and the 1995 hospital laundry workers’ strike served as bright spots in an otherwise bleak few decades marked by rampant privatization, wage rollbacks, plant closures and the decertification of unions (the 2005 Lakeside Packers strike featured a similar level of militancy as Gainers).
Finkel notes that Alberta’s governed by the same reactionary labour legislation that it had under previous conservative governments, making it even harder to organize and strike without everyone getting immediately arrested. In 2005, it was revealed the province’s labour relations board had collaborated with government in drafting a bill that amalgamated hundreds of collective agreements into a few dozen and stripped the right to strike from community healthcare workers.
“We are losing ground,” Finkel concludes. “The main lesson from 1986 was that solidarity helps. Although we didn’t win the Gainers strike, obviously, those workers were able to be out on the picket line for that long and have a crack at getting something because of all the support that they had from within the trade union movement. In general, where workers work together, some good may happen.”