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A month after the announcement of their plant's closure, workers at Olymel's Vallée-Jonction slaughterhouse are still dissatisfied with the company's explanations, which claim a drop in sales. However, Martin Maurice, president of the Olymel workers' union, says he has the figures to prove that the Vallée-Jonction plant is the most profitable. Instead, he points to possible retaliation against the workers' strike in 2021.
Each of the previous collective agreements, in 2007 and 2015, were negotiated under the threat of plant closure. In 2007, using the same arguments as today, management forced a 40% wage cut down the workers' throats. This meant an average of $240 less per week in their paychecks.
In the same year, Olymel offered its executives 2% raises, for the third year in a row. Olymel president Paul Beauchamp complained that his plant's unionized employees were better paid than the industry average, however, he refused to reveal the hourly rates of the company's managers.
In 2021, at the time of their last negotiations, Vallée-Jonction workers were earning an average of $1.13/hour more than in 2007, which represented a significant impoverishment. Considering inflation over this period, this represents an additional real wage cut of 22%.
At the same time, the plant was experiencing significant labor retention difficulties. Since 2015, the operation has experienced significant staff turnover, when 1,800 workers were hired for 1,700 resignations.
It was in this context that workers at the Vallée-Jonction slaughterhouse went on strike in April 2021. While the union proposed better working conditions to attract and retain employees, Olymel simply proposed to reshuffle schedules to offer weeks of four 10-hour days.
The strike lasted from April to September 2021. During the negotiations, Olymel repeatedly used threats such as laying off evening shift employees and declaring a lockout.
In the end, the union obtained a 26.4% wage increase over six years and a higher contribution from the company towards group insurance. This increase enabled employees to make up for the wage shortfall caused by inflation over the past 14 years, but not for the 40% wage cut.
The strike led by the Vallée-Jonction union had positive repercussions for workers at other Olymel plants. In 2022, Princeville employees won a 35% wage increase over 8 years. Saint-Henri employees received a 30% increase over 5 years.
When Olymel announced the closure of its Vallée-Jonction plant in April 2023, citing $40 million in work to be done, employees remained skeptical. This represents 0.89% of the company's 2021 sales figure of 4.5 billion. In the same year, Olymel received a $150 million investment from the Quebec government.
The company also cites a labor problem. However, two years earlier, the government had allowed certain operations, including slaughterhouses, to hire 20% temporary foreign workers instead of 10% to make up for labor shortages. The company seized this opportunity and employed 123 of these workers.