In 2021, labor issues persisted in the meat and poultry industry. While this is not a new concern, processing facilities across the United States found it challenging to retain employees long before the current labor shortages and the COVID-19 pandemic. The difference in 2021 has been the public statements and disputes seen at several meat companies working to keep facilities running at capacity.

The first signs this year of a tide shift began when multiple employers announced pay increases.

In June, the Smithfield Foods pork processing facility in Sioux Falls, SD, which employs more than 3,000 workers, agreed to a new contract with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 304A that increased the base hourly pay rate to $18.75, as well as a $520 bonus. The deal also included 15-minute breaks and gave workers the option to take up to a three-week leave of absence without risking losing their jobs.

In September, in the span of less than a week, several other meat processors made announcements of proposed pay increases.

The Triumph Foods pork plant in St. Joseph, Mo., negotiated with the local union and agreed on a pay raise for all new and current production employees. Both sides agreed to raise the starting rate for new hires to $20 per hour along with a $1 per hour differential for employees working second and third shifts. Additionally, all current production employees received a minimum $2.75 wage increase.

Tyson Foods recently announced that its average base pay plus benefits for its US production workers is more than $24 per hour, which includes medical, vision and dental benefits.

Along with a pay increase, Tyson said that fully vaccinated employees could begin earning up to 20 hours of paid sick leave and new hires will receive one week of vacation after six months of employment starting in 2022.

“These measures are the latest examples of our ongoing efforts to make Tyson the most sought-after place to work, while reinforcing the importance of team members’ health and safety,” said Johanna Söderström, executive vice president and chief human resources officer of Tyson.

At the JBS USA Greeley, Colo.-based beef processing plant, company officials agreed to increase workers’ pay to between $21.75 to $28.25 per hour, depending on their role at JBS. The new contract also had 100 different positions that will see grade increases. This included disability pay from $250 a week to $425 a week, plus, a health insurance PPO plan that lets employees choose health care providers.

“We are pleased to announce the achievement of this new agreement in partnership with (UFCW) Local 7 that will benefit our team members at the Greeley beef production facility,” said Tim Schellpeper, president of JBS USA fed beef division in September. “Our priority is always the health and safety of our workforce, and we believe the new CBA positively contributes to the overall well-being of our team. We look forward to ongoing collaboration with Local 7 and to ensuring that JBS USA is an employer of choice for our current and future team members.”

In October, poultry processor Sanderson Farms cited ongoing labor shortages as the reason for its pay increase. Hourly line workers’ pay now starts at $16.70 per hour, with rate increases occurring with every five years of employment. The company also increased pay for its truck drivers as part of the new compensation plan, which now ranges from $21.25 per hour to $24.99 per hour. Additionally, pay ranges for maintenance workers were increased to between $20.85 per hour to $29.77 per hour.

Labor organization

This past July, 400 workers at the Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. poultry plant in Waco, Texas, voted to join the UFCW Local 540. In November, the union came to an agreement with Pilgrim’s Pride on a three-year contract.

Two unions, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 663 and 9, announced in October that they would merge and now represent more than 17,000 workers.

UFCW Local 9 reported that most of its union members work in meatpacking, including at its largest employers, Hormel Foods and Quality Pork Processors Inc. in Austin, Minn.

On the other side of the union issue, there was also one plant that fought throughout the year to no longer have a union. Employees at the Mountaire Farms in Selbyville, Del., planned to vote to no longer be represented by UFCW Local 27 in late November, according to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

In the summer of 2020, Mountaire said employees asked for the decertification of its UFCW chapter but were denied on a technicality. A mail-in ballot was held but the union filed numerous challenges. Eventually, the NLRB threw out the vote without counting it. Fall 2021 was the next opportunity for employees to ask for an election.

Olymel’s long strike

While several wage increases occurred during 2021, a strike also garnered attention in the pork industry.

Unionized employees at the Olymel LLC pork processing plant in Vallée Jonction, Quebec, went on strike on April 28 and did not resume operations until September.

During the temporary plant closure, pork producers urged both parties to resolve the dispute or risk the culling of market-ready hogs. To avoid culling hogs, Olymel worked with Les Éleveurs de porcs du Québec to sell pigs and piglets in the United States and move market pigs elsewhere in Canada.

CSN union represents 1,050 workers at the plant, which has a slaughter capacity of 35,000 hogs per week.

“Such a long strike is still to be deplored and lessons will have to be learned,” said Paul Beauchamp, first vice president of Olymel, back in September. “The management of Olymel, for its part, will do everything in its power to ensure that plant operations resume in a calm and constructive atmosphere. Furthermore, I would like to highlight the great resilience of the pork producers heavily affected by this conflict.”

In the United States, Foster Farms workers, represented by Teamsters Local 630 in Compton, Calif., prepared to strike after members voted on July 18 to reject a company contract offer. The union’s contract with the poultry processor had expired on June 14, 2020. Employees worked under an extension agreement that can be terminated with seven days’ notice by either party.

The union said members at the facility voted nearly unanimously against a contract proposal they say would shift thousands of dollars of healthcare costs onto the workers.