Where’s the beef (coming from)?

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by Nicholas Fast

For the public at any grocery store, the most shocking part of choosing any meat package is usually the price. It is no secret that the price of meat, especially beef, has skyrocketed during the pandemic. The sticker shock prevents many from looking beyond the plastic wrapping to really consider where the beef—or chicken or pork—comes from. As with most consumer products, the final cuts of meat we find in grocery stores are the result of a long commodity chain that intersects labour relations, the logic of capital, and deindustrialization politics.

Canadians had a brief glimpse into the world of the meat packing industry during the first spring of the pandemic when nearly half of the 2000 workers at the Cargill plant in High River, Alberta fell ill with COVID-19. This Cargill plant was responsible for nearly forty percent of Canada’s beef commodity chain. This fact was cited by industry experts to justify keeping the plant open for fear of disrupting the supply chain. As a result, three plant floor workers—all of them immigrant workers—died from their exposure to COVID-19 while the mainly white office staff were allowed to work from home. The brief surge in media exposure revealed how concentrated the packinghouse industry is in Canada and the effects that this concentration has on workers who toil in this commodity chain.

Despite the heightened scrutiny of meat processing plants in Canada and across the United States—including a feature on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight that aired in February 2021—few reports from that spring explored the historic circumstances that led to the conditions of the present day. Workers, a significant majority of them immigrant or temporary foreign workers, stand side-by-side in near-freezing temperatures with little room to operate a knife safely, often cutting themselves or their neighbouring workers. Instead of using historical analysis to ask how the industry became structured in this way, far greater concern was paid to the potential economic and supply chain consequences were the plants to be shut down. By ignoring these historical trends, the current conditions in packinghouses appear ahistorical and natural, a part of the cost of doing business in meat processing.

The story of the economic reorganization of Canadian meatpacking is rooted in the deindustrialization of the industry that occurred during the 1980s. The United Packinghouse Workers of America and their use of pattern bargaining where a contract negotiated between the union and one firm is used as a model for the union to other firms like autoworkers had been in Canada since 1947. By the 1970s, technological innovation in the packinghouse industry and the high cost of production forced packinghouse firms to alter their business practices. Packing firms moved away from selling quarters of beef and pork, which is the process of selling sizeable portions of animal to grocery stores and butcher shops where the retailers would have to do the final cutting. They instead transitioned to vacuum sealed loins. “Boxed beef” as it is called allows the packers to sell their products at a higher price because the retailer is getting exactly what they want without any waste. Further, as anyone who has moved will tell you, it is easier to load a truck with boxes designed for transportation rather than non-standardized packaging.

Boxed beef also affected the labour process. Workers who were trained as butchers in the 1940s and 1950s saw their jobs continually deskilled because their tasks were divided into smaller, more repetitive motions. Packing companies used the CanPack system where meat was transported on overhead rails to workstations and workers used air powered knives instead of handheld ones. This was partially due to the implementation of Taylorist time and motion studies, like those described by Harry Braverman in Labor and Monopoly Capital. Foremen would time workers on the production line and find the most efficient way to increase productivity. These changes meant that workers had reduced power over the production process and more power was given to management through the division of labour.

It was not enough to change the production process, however. Packinghouses needed to completely restructure the physical nature of their plants. In the 1920s and 1930s, industrial packinghouses were multi-storied structures attached to rail lines. Animals would be led up a chute to the top floor of the plant and then gravity would do the work as the animals were disassembled. With faster production technologies, firms also reorganized the physical structure of the plants, opting for single-storey facilities in rural areas over the costly multi-storey plants in cities. Since urban centres did not have the room for the sprawling single-story plants required to keep up with desired production output, most of these older plants were closed completely as production was sent to small towns like High River in Southern Alberta. Other plants became distribution centres, devoting their resources to processed foods. In Winnipeg, the only remains left of their Stockyards are the concrete outlines of the plants and the rusted-out water tower looming over an empty industrial lot.

Photo of Winnipeg Stockyards taken by author, 8 July 2022

This shift was accompanied by the biggest blow to packinghouse workers in 1984 when the packing companies rejected the Master Agreement negotiated by the United Packinghouse Workers of America in 1947. The Master Agreement kept wages relatively even across the country and across packing firms. Once the packers were able to overturn that negotiating convention and bargain locally, there was little stopping the firms from “packing up” and moving elsewhere. Packing firms could fragment their production chains because they no longer needed to worry about company-wide walkouts by workers. Production from a plant that was on strike could be diverted to other distribution centres without a significant impact on the bottom line.

As a result, new packing houses moved to areas in Southern Alberta that were not as friendly to organized labour as major urban centres like Winnipeg. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) had a difficult time organizing plant workers because workers were either anti-union or precariously employed and afraid of losing their jobs if they appeared to have union sympathy. Without the strong union presence that accompanied packinghouses immediately after the Second World War, the stories about labour and environmental abuse will continue to surface from these plants that are out of the public eye. Timothy Pachirat calls this  “the politics of sight” in his 2011 book Every Twelve Seconds. While the UFCW did eventually organize packinghouses, since these plants and workers exist at the margins of society and away from the prying eyes of urban centres, the complex social and labour relations are hidden from view.

In all, it was the deindustrialization of the industry during the 1980s that shaped the contours of Canada’s meat commodity chain to the conditions that the public saw during the pandemic. Since then, nothing has changed in the industry as they withdraw back into the wilful ignorance that the packing plants have relied upon. Unfortunately, the conditions described by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) are more common than Canada wants to believe as shoppers scan through their next steak.


Nicholas Fast is a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto’s Department of History. When he is not writing about the history of Canada’s meatpacking commodity chain, he is cycling, taking photos, or going for long-distance runs with his wife, Jessica.

Research for this project was conducted with the financial support of the Christ Kobrak fellowship and travel grants from the Canadian Business History Association, and two Ontario Graduate Scholarships.

This post is part of a series titled The Politics of Deindustrialization in Canada, edited by Lauren Laframboise. The authors in this series are affiliated to the Deindustrialization and the Politics of Our Time (DéPOT) project. DéPOT is hosting its annual conference in June 2023 in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

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