Paul Meinema is putting food on the table. As national president of UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers International Union) Canada, Meinema is responsible for the workplace well-being of more than 250,000 food-related workers from coast to coast. Below, we present the data behind Meinema’s impressive work at the union and how he’s making a meaningful difference.
A 1901 pedigree
UFCW stems from a 1979 merger between the Retail Clerks International Union and the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America—but its Canadian roots go back much deeper. Its heritage traces back to the first Canadian meat cutters’ union, which was founded in 1901 in Stratford, Ontario—not far from where Meinema grew up.
19 years old
After finishing high school, at age 19, Meinema began working on the floor at Fletcher’s meat-processing plant in Red Deer, Alberta. There, he was involved in the local union through such roles as shop steward, bargaining committee member, and chief steward. “There were a variety of issues that I thought were unfair in our workplace, from the way people were treated to employment conditions,” Meinema says.
From 12 to 10,000 workers
UFCW Canada’s local unions, which are part of the national union through membership in the UFCW Canada National Council, vary in size. Some represent just a few dozen workers at a single workplace, while others have tens of thousands of members working at hundreds of workplaces.
UFCW Canada Local 1118
In 1989, Meinema was hired as a local staff representative for UFCW Canada Local 1118. Over the following years, he would serve UFCW Canada in various roles, from national to international representative.
Many people think of UFCW Canada as a food workers’ union, but it actually represents workers in a variety of sectors, including agriculture, processing plants, retail sales, health care, manufacturing, and financial services. Today its membership base is 250,000 strong and is one of Canada’s most youthful unions, with more than 40 percent of its members under the age of 30. “We want to ensure workers have meaningful jobs, with benefits and pensions, and that’s not always common in these industries,” Meinema says.
7 years in Saskatchewan
In 2002, Meinema was elected president of UFCW Canada Local 1400, the largest private-sector local union in Saskatchewan. He stayed there until 2009, when he joined the UFCW Canada national leadership team as executive assistant to the national president. It was the culmination of years of commitment. “I tell people who ask how I got [to] where I am that you have to look at where you’d like to be and stay true to your commitments,” he says.
Just five years later, Meinema was elected national president of UFCW Canada and executive vice president of UFCW International. “I’ve been fortunate to be able to serve such a large, progressive organization that’s active in workers’ rights,” he says. However, he acknowledges that UFCW is challenged every day. “It takes a lot of work to represent industries where the density isn’t always there,” he says. “We deal with huge companies that aren’t union, and we have to negotiate living wages, benefits, and pensions in a time when pensions are being challenged all over North America. We live in a great country, but we can always do things better.”
338,189 foreign workers
In 2012, there were 338,189 temporary foreign workers in Canada, according to the Canadian Council for Refugees, and Meinema is particularly proud of UFCW Canada’s work on their behalf. “We believe that all workers have the same rights and deserve the same representation regardless of whether they’re permanent residents or temporary foreign workers, and we’ve worked closely with employers to help seasonal workers gain immigrant status so that they can stay here as productive citizens,” Meinema says. “It’s our philosophy that if you’re good enough to work in our country, putting food on people’s plates, you’re good enough to live here.”
Meinema’s mission transcends workers’ rights. “Thinking about the treatment of workers at local plants led me to think about human rights in general, about social and economic justice,” says Meinema, whose interests drove him to take on new opportunities as he progressed through the UFCW. Today, in addition to his two roles for the organization, Meinema serves as a trustee of various UFCW Canada benefit and pension plans, and he is the Canadian sector representative on the board of directors of the International Foundation of Benefits.