By Lee Gilchrist
On October 25, City of Winnipeg workers in CUPE Local 500 ratified a tentative agreement recommended by their bargaining team. The union negotiating committee’s email to members on October 25 announced that the deal was ratified by 75 percent of members, although how many members voted was not disclosed.
Some members have expressed anger at the contract and the union leadership. Manitoba’s inflation is above 7 percent but the wage offer was 10.2% over 4 years, plus a $900 signing bonus. The contract is retroactive to March 1, 2021 and expires February 28 2025.
The contract was described as “status quo” by several Local 500 members who spoke to Rankandfile.ca. The last contract was ratified by only 60 percent of members. One member explained that the $900 signing bonus “got a lot of people to vote yes.”
CUPE Local 500 members had little opportunity to study the contract let alone organize a “No” campaign. The tentative agreement was announced on October 11, but the wage offer and other “agreement highlights” were not distributed to members until October 24, one day before the vote.
The local held two information meetings on October 24, one in the morning and another in the evening. Several members reported the union leadership using “scare tactics” at the meetings to encourage ratification. This included the scenario of a 60-day strike going to arbitration and resulting in a worse wage settlement. Manitoba labour law says that 60-day strikes are sent to arbitration. Local 500’s negotiating team also said the contract was a better deal than Winnipeg Police Services, Winnipeg Fire Department.
Bargaining with the City had dragged on since March 2021 with a 93% strike mandate secured by the union in July 2022. A strike headquarters was opened up in September. The tentative agreement came four hours before the strike deadline.
The CUPE Local 500 ratification follows closely on the heels of the narrow 53.4% ratification of the BCGEU tentative agreement for 33,000 provincial workers in British Columbia.
With a solid 94.6% strike mandate, BCGEU members struck over the last week of August and first week of September until a tentative agreement was signed on September 7.
The tentative agreement contained wage increases over 3 years of between 10.74 and 12.99 percent. The wage offer is almost identical to the NDP government’s pre-strike offer of 10.99% over three years. BCGEU’s bargaining committee was pushing for 10% over 2 years with a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA). Inflation in BC is running above 8 percent.
Unlike CUPE Local 500 members, BCGEU members had a full month to prepare for the ratification vote. During this period, Rankandfile.ca spoke with several BCGEU members around the province but could not find any organized “No” campaign, despite widespread opposition to the deal. “This doesn’t fly,” said one member before the vote. “It might not go through.”
However, with ratification, the BCGEU wage settlement sets a precedent for tens of thousands of other BC public sector workers, including the Hospital Employees Union now in bargaining. Established by the BC NDP government in 1993, the Public Sector Employers Council now conducts de facto pattern bargaining with over 300,000 public sector workers. Under the BC Liberal regime of 2001-2017, the PSEC became incredibly powerful, expanding beyond its mandate without much challenge. It even becoming a vehicle for union-busting, as in the case of its attacks on the BC Teachers’ Federation in 2012.
As union activist Wael Afifi argued in Rankandfile.ca in 2014, the push for a return to local bargaining has become a “forgotten struggle” among BC Federal of Labour affiliates due to the PSEC’s origins in the labour-backed NDP. Afifi also wrote that the PSEC’s brutal mandates under the Liberals provided union leaders leverage against their own members to vote the NDP back into power. With the BC NDP now enjoying its fifth year in power, the PSEC has not been restructured.
Private sector settlements
Rankandfile.ca has reported several key inflation wage strikes in detail in the private sector. These strikes have been popping off up and down the Windsor-Quebec corridor and beyond.
With inflation hitting hard, workers in logistics, manufacturing, food processing and custodial services have fought back and have begin scoring wage increases unseen in many years.
Since the summer of 2021, we have seen settlements in bargaining and strikes that include 25% over 6 years at the Olymel pork plant in Quebec. Arcellor Mittal workers outside Montreal won 26% over 6 years, or $9/hour.
Sobeys warehouse workers in Terrebonne, Quebec won an immediate 28% wage increase and an additional 12% over 3 years. Their counterparts in Whitby secured 19.5% over 4 years without a strike. Custodians across Toronto secured 15% over 3 years.
Ontario faced a near general strike of the skilled trades this past May. Over 40,000 were out and residential, commercial and industrial builds were shut down. Angry member rejected offers recommended by union leaders. Wage and benefit gains were the highest in decades. Where leaders settled for “me too” clauses, those leaders have felt the heat from members.
With no coordinated movement behind these contract fights, some of which have culminated in strikes, workers have been winning 4-5% per year wage increases. Inflation has, without question, been the decisive element in fuelling militancy.
However, there is very clearly a diverging trend between private and public sector wage settlements. With a recession on the horizon, and elite institutions like the banks and IMF counseling Canadian governments to prepare austerity measures, public sector workers will be coming into the firing line if they aren’t already. Lower public sector wage settlements will have the added effect of encouraging private sector employers to hold a firmer line.
$39,000 is not enough
However, the future is unwritten. Another massive public sector confrontation is shaping up in Ontario. 55,000 education workers are looking at a November 4 strike deadline. The Ontario School Board Council of Unions (CUPE) represents school workers of many kinds, from EAs and ECEs to the trades, custodians, social workers, office staff, library workers and more.
On October 31, Ford’s government tabled pre-emptive strikebreaking law against the education workers with an imposed contract. It remains to be seen if CUPE leaders have any plans for defiance against these authoritarian laws that violate the right to strike. The government has refused to bargain in good faith, and Minister of Education Stephen Lecce has peddled outright lies, such as the recent claim that the union is demanding 50 percent wage increases.
Education workers have been fired up and look solid. In early October, an impressive 45,000 of 55,000 members voted 96.5% in favour of a strike mandate.
The union campaign has centred on wages with the slogan of “$39,000 is not enough”. The figure is the average wage of the 55,000 workers, 60 percent of whom are laid off every summer.
Having accepted the Bill 124 wage cap of 1% per year in its last round of bargaining, OSBCU is fighting for significant wage increases after a long decade of wage-cutting freezes and below-inflation increases.
The dispute is the first real direct labour dispute it has faced since the teacher strikes of early 2020 were abandoned in favour of a quick settlement a month into the pandemic.
There’s a huge reservoir of hatred for the Tory government in Ontario. The problem is that such sentiment has not been organized to confront Doug Ford’s Open For Business austerity agenda. Will OSBCU’s fight become a catalyst for change?
Fighting the Cost of Living Crisis
With a recession looming, there is still little prospect of inflation being tamed. Despite what politicians in Canada say, the inflation crisis is a problem of globalized capitalism. Inflation is happening everywhere around the world and can’t be boiled down to government spending, as federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre would have you believe, or “greedflation” as federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh puts it.
Price gouging is an indisputable factor in the inflation crisis, but the source of inflation remains the shattering of lean and brittle profits-first global supply chains during the first months of the pandemic. The shipping and distribution of raw materials, semi-finished and finished goods has not recovered.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is another factor that is boosting inflation, and the massive increases in arms spending will be another major factor in boosting inflation (just as the 1970s inflation crisis also had roots in America’s brutal war against Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia).
To fight the cost of living crisis, the necessity of coordination and solidarity across unions is becoming absolutely critical.
Despite inflation beginning to pinch in late 2021, no provincial federation of labour has moved to organize a common front against inflation wage cuts and the corporate profiteering involved.
Once again, union activists are pushing a stagnant union bureaucracy to act. This past week, the Hamilton & District Labour Council passed a motion pressing the Ontario Federation of Labour and Canadian Labour Congress to organize a fight against the cost of living crisis by:
- Preparing to organise local forums to discuss how to build a broader fight back against the cost of living crisis
- Organising mass pickets in support of striking workers and mobilise its affiliates to oppose any back to work legislation or attempts to legislate away the right to strike
- Building towards a national day of action on May Day demanding price controls, mass funding for geared-to-income housing, and taxation of the pandemic profiteers
HDLC is taking the lead on their own motion by organising their own forum in December.
Labour militancy has increased in the private sector, but the ramping up of interest rates to discipline workers is going to be a damper on that militancy. As with BCGEU and CUPE Local 500, permanent austerity in the public sector has already had a damaging effect on union power.
Although high interest rates are the harbinger of a recession that will break up the tight labour market and drive up unemployment, there is little hope high interest rates will actually tame inflation. We are facing a dual crisis of high unemployment and high inflation. Employers in the private and public sector will find union-busting opportunities irresistible.
After all the sacrifice during the pandemic, will organized labour fight or crawl against the cost of living crisis?