United they fell: The Gainers meatpacking strike 25 years later

EDMONTON - High-profile strikes erupted across Alberta in the summer of 1986 as the oil boom went bust, often pitting workers against police in what many saw as a fight for their lives.

That level of activism and political pressure hasn't been seen since in a province where the workforce unionization rate has dropped to about 22 per cent from 29 per cent a quarter-century ago — at both times, Canada's lowest.

There were picket lines outside Suncor in Fort McMurray, at Zeidler Forest Products operations in Edmonton and Slave Lake, and at Red Deer's Fletcher's Fine Foods facility.

But the dispute that galvanized the country was Edmonton's 6 1/2-month walkout by 1,080 employees at Gainers, the city's last old-style meat packing plant. It was a bitter fight over wage rollbacks and pension protection.

For days, crowds of chanting union supporters blocked the 66th Street gates, hurling rocks and paint bombs, and smashing bus windows to stop convoys of replacement workers owner Peter Pocklington hired to keep his business running.

"I remember an older gentleman taking a two-by-four to one of the scabs back then, knocked him right off his motorcycle," says Louis Tancsics, who had been in export shipping at Gainers for about a year before the strike started.

"Guys had wrenches, guys were throwing sidewalk blocks. Man oh man, they broke the (bus) windshield even with screens welded on front ... (passengers) were screaming for their lives."

The 78-year-old brick slaughterhouse on the north side of Yellowhead Trail was owned by Swift's until Pocklington bought it and transferred operations from the antiquated Gainers plant beside the Mill Creek Ravine in 1981.

They handled thousands of hogs and cattle a day. The animals were herded to the top floor, killed, gutted, boned and turned into processed or fresh meat on the way down to the ground level.

When the collective agreement expired in 1986, Pocklington insisted he couldn't afford to match raises provided at competing firms.

He arguing that with Alberta hog prices set too high by a marketing board, he needed to cut costs.

The company ran ads seeking replacement workers. Feeling Pocklington was actually making a profit, members of United Food and Commercial Workers local 280P walked out June 1.

The battle lines were set.

"Most of us thought we would be out for a couple of months until we worked out an agreement, but then (Pocklington) locked us out and brought in scabs, and we knew our jobs were in jeopardy," says then-shipper Dan Fitzgerald.

"We were hoping to cause enough commotion that they wouldn't want to try to get in. When the first bus came in, (pickets) tried to tip it over."

The Alberta labour movement rallied around what was for them a match made in heaven — $12-an-hour employees in a dirty, dangerous industry against a wealthy, outspoken businessman.

One striker showed up at events dressed as a pig wearing a top hat, tuxedo and a sash labelled "Peter Pocklington" to drive the point home.

Pocklington rejects any insinuation he was the bad guy, calling the dispute a "tragedy" created by provincial rules allowing a marketing board to set hog prices rather than let the market decide.

That charge was repeatedly denied by the board, which has said the cost of Alberta hogs at the time was the lowest in North America.

The former Oilers owner says he hired people to keep the plant running while the union fought on despite his company's financial challenges.

They might as well make me the villain, he says.

"They're afraid to take on the government. They said 'you can pay a hockey player a million dollars, why can't you give us a raise?,' " says Pocklington, now living in California.

"Unfortunately, greed overcame better judgment. I have nothing but good feelings for the workers. They were good people. They were just misled by the union."

Bob Claney was the police superintendent in charge of the tense situation.

He commanded 375 uniformed officers at the height of the action, about one-third of the entire Edmonton force, which at one point was so stretched top brass considered calling in the army for backup.

Claney repeatedly walked through the crowd at the head of a police line, pointing out individuals to arrest.

While several union supporters complained they were hurt when grabbed by police, sometimes blocks from the action, Claney says he was required to enforce court orders allowing replacement workers access to the site.

"People believe what we were doing by following that court order was anti-labour. I certainly was tagged with an anti-labour label, which was far from the truth," Claney says.

"So many of the members that were working with me ... had relatives, mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, cousins that were working in Gainers. We wanted to make sure we did it in the least violent way."

He says he often singled out older people so they would be removed from any danger. He had pickets arrested for breaching civil court orders, rather than criminal charges, to ensure they didn't receive a criminal record.

"People were striking because their union encouraged them to do so. They felt they were doing the right thing. The unlawful acts that took place were minor. It was essentially civil disobedience."

Gainers quickly won injunctions restricting the number and location of protesters around the property, for the most part ending the big confrontations that created national headlines.

But that didn't end the fight.

Union supporters followed delivery trucks so they could pressure retailers to buy from competing firms.

Some people used needles to make holes in the plastic wrap on Gainers meat at grocery stores so the product would dry out and become unusable, Fitzgerald says.

This was part of a boycott, featuring 5,000 blue-and-white lawn signs handed out in Edmonton alone, that made Gainers such an unpopular brand the company switched to the old Swift's logo after the strike ended.

One survey indicated fewer than one-quarter of local residents were buying Gainers meat, down from three-quarters of respondents who used the products before the strike.

"It was the most effective boycott I have ever witnessed. It spread right across the country," says retired Alberta Federation of Labour president Dave Werlin, who helped rally his colleagues to the cause.

"It was one of those things where you don't have to buy a particular manufacturer's meat. You had many choices. My old mother and father in Saskatchewan, they never did buy it again."

At the same time, the strike became part of a larger campaign to make Alberta's labour laws friendlier to unions through such changes as banning replacement workers.

Werlin warned 6,000 demonstrators at the June 12 opening of the legislature session, the largest rally there since the Depression, that "violence and terrorism" would continue in Alberta if new laws were not brought in.

Later that day, 500 protesters marched from that peaceful event to the plant, where 44 people were arrested after the windows, headlights and radiator were smashed on a farm truck trying to deliver a load of hogs.

The strike dragged on, through mediation and an unsuccessful dispute resolution proposal, until a contract was reached after meetings with then-premier Don Getty in December.

The new collective agreement included a two-year wage freeze followed by a small raise. Strikers were hired back ahead of the replacement workers and pension benefits remained intact.

In 1988, the Alberta government announced $61 million in loans and loan guarantees for Gainers, partly to help build a packing plant in Picture Butte that was never constructed.

Getty has always denied Pocklington's claim that he made a deal to provide financial assistance and fair market pricing for hogs to settle this economic black eye.

For his part, Pocklington says he would handle things differently today.

"I would just have shut the plant down. It didn't work. The government knew it, the union had to know," he says.

"Permanently lock the door. Use it for real estate. It just caused a lot of pain and destroyed a lot of wealth."

But Tancsics, now working in distribution at a bakery, is proud of his role in a strike that he's still asked about.

"It just showed how people then, they came together for a cause ... It's a matter of earning your livelihood and standing up to someone who wanted to make money off other people's backs."

Edmonton Journal, Mon Jun 13 2011
Byline: Gordon Kent

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.