Workers at a poultry slaughtering facility in New Brunswick have reached an agreement with the company that could be their future employers.
Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1288 signed a collective agreement on Sept. 18 with poultry processors Olymel and Westco.
The two companies formed a partnership to build a poultry slaughterhouse in Claire, in northern New Brunswick. The new facility could result in the closure of the existing Nadeau poultry slaughter house in the region. Nadeau is owned by Maple Lodge Farms, an Ontario-based company with a slaughter contract with Westco.
While the agreement between the union and Olymel and Westco goes into effect as soon as the new plant opens, its signing is a show of support by the workers, who have been protesting the new facility.
Last week, employees blocked trucks carrying chickens out of the province for processing. The two day protest stopped chickens from a local Westco producer from leaving the facility. Workers were protesting the layoff of 175 of the plant's 275 workers.
"By signing this agreement, our union has laid the foundation of a future collaboration," says Jean Guimond, the union local president. "Our union will do everything possible to ensure that men and women with relevant experience in the New Brunswick poultry industry are hired."
The birds were bound for an Olymel slaughterhouse in Berthierville, Que., as part of a 2008 partnership between Olymel and Westco.
Under that agreement, Westco and poultry giant Olymel, based in Montreal, plan to consolidate their production, slaughtering, cutting and deboning operations. Westco says they will be able to better serve the Maritimes market.
From the get-go, the two companies tried to buy the Nadeau facility, which is contracted to process Westco poultry. It’s owned by Maple Lodge Farms of Brampton, Ont., a family-owned firm that employs 2,200 people and processes a half-million chickens a day for export to more than 30 countries.
When that failed, Westco and Olymel announced plans to jointly build a $30-million slaughterhouse in New Brunswick by the end of 2010.
Yet the region's poultry industry isn't large enough to support two slaughterhouses.
Westco owns hatcheries, breeding farms and shipping companies in N.B. and Manitoba. It announced it would transfer most of its slaughtering volume to Olymel's Quebec plant until the new plant opened, unless they could reach a deal with Maple Lodge Farms to buy the Nadeau facility.
Westco's birds represent roughly 80 per cent of the poultry slaughtered at the Nadeau facility. The New Brunswick facility has a 12,000 bird-an-hour slaughter capacity.
This summer, the federal competition bureau gave Westco the green light to sell its birds to the buyer of its choosing. Later, the N.B. Court of Appeal ruled the chickens could be sent outside the province -- decisions that paved the way for last week’s standoff.
Officials with Maple Lodge Farms did not return calls for an interview.
However, officials for both Olymel and Westco say they are continuing with plans to build the new slaughterhouse, although they would still prefer to reach an agreement with Maple Lodge Farms.
"We've made them many offers," says Olymel spokesperson Richard Vigneault.
"They include offers to buy the Nadeau facility, the creation of a limited partnership for the operation of the facility, and/or an agreement to pay market value for slaughtering during construction of the new slaughterhouse, a move that would have avoided the need to transfer chickens out of the province."
Westco president Thomas Soucy says this isn't what his company wants.
"(Maple Lodge Farms) has categorically rejected all of our offers, and unfortunately, the workers are now paying the price. Our first choice has always been to process our chickens in New Brunswick."