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Brooks braces for possible strike at Lakeside

More than 2,000 workers at the Lakeside Packers plant in Brooks could be on strike as early as Monday, and many worry that a racially charged atmosphere could turn the labour dispute violent.

About 60 per cent of the employees at the town's biggest employer are immigrants, many from Sudan. Some believe local workers would report for work in the event of a strike, while the new Canadians remain on the picket line.

"I think this strike is going to turn into a big racial war," one woman said as she left the plant this week.

Another said the Sudanese workers are the biggest supporters of the union, "because they don't understand what they're telling them."

The United Food and Commercial Workers' Union estimates that between 1,600 and 1,800 people will maintain a picket line in the event of a strike, while between 400 and 450 employees will cross it.

The UFCW is distributing pamphlets that show a cartoon worker with a bloody knife in his back. The union said the company is showing videos of people bleeding on a picket line.

"Anytime where you have strong-willed people, there's the opportunity for things to escalate," said Doug O'Halloran, local president of the UFCW. "We'll be having classes on how to try and control your temper, how to not get sucked into doing something stupid that would cause a confrontation.

"But the bottom line is, if the company's got buses coming in and if they happen to run over a picketer, that's going to cause some severe problems."

Employees voted to bring in the union last year, and are trying to get a first contract. The UFCW says it wants a deal that gives its workers wages and benefits on par with those working at Cargill and other meat-packing plants.

Some workers say they will walk off the job simply to get some respect from their employers.

"They treat people like the cow[s] they kill here," said Godwin Iwanegpe. "If somebody asks for [the] washroom, they deny them. It happened to me. Even now, some people use diaper[s]."

Don Weisbeck, mayor of the community of 13,000, said he's aware of the tensions at the plant and the potential for violence.

"The quicker it's over with, the better it's going to be for our community, the company and the employees," he said.

The UFCW and Lakeside management will meet Thursday for one day of talks. If the negotiations don't proceed well, O'Halloran said workers could be off the job as early as Monday.

Tyson Foods, which owns the Lakeside plant, says it doesn't want a strike.

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