By Doug Nesbitt
On Saturday, April 2, 900 workers went on strike at the massive Metro Distribution Centre in Etobicoke. The facility supplies all of the Metro and Food Basics stores between Windsor and Kingston, including the Greater Toronto Area, Hamilton and Niagara. That’s 10+ million people. It’s the latest fight by union workers to win wage increases that won’t get wiped out by the highest inflation rates in 30 years.
The hundreds of thousands of unionized manufacturing, food processing, and logistics workers in the Windsor-Quebec corridor are heading into a second year of rising tensions and open fights with their private sector bosses.
Most people employed in manufacturing, food processing, and logistics have worked straight through the pandemic. Initially celebrated as heroes by the media, politicians and even employers, these essential workers are fighting to correct a long list of unresolved pandemic grievances.
As inflation climbs rapidly, the stakes of these labour disputes become greater. Paycheques are getting thin as prices go up. Many businesses are looking at inflation as a weapon to lower labour costs.
But a lot of workers aren’t having it. Two years of working through the pandemic and now the fears and restrictions are all but gone for most. As soon as vaccinations started rolling out last year, labour disputes started popping off.
The fight is on again and the Metro warehouse strike is just the tip of the iceberg.
Back in January, grocery giant Sobeys made a stunning concession to its 500 employees at its Whitby Distribution Centre.
The warehouse workers secured 19.5 percent over four years for full-timers. Part-timers won wage parity and $7-$14/hour wage increases over the four-year contract. Bonuses and pensions gains were also made. It was reportedly a no-concessions contract.
By comparison, the striking Metro workers rejected 14 percent over four years. Rightly so, given that Metro’s profits from 2019 to 2021 are up 15 percent!
But even Sobeys has not been able to maintain labour peace. Only a couple weeks after the deal in Whitby, two hundred workers at the heavily-automated Sobeys warehouse in Terrebonne, Quebec walked on February 8. It is the first strike at a Sobeys facility in over a decade, and the corporation has scrambled to reorganize their Quebec distribution network.
After two months, the strike may end soon. There is a tentative agreement between Sobeys and the union, TUAC/UFCW Local 401. The ratification vote is on April 8, although union officials won’t discuss contract details in public.
All through COVID they worked in person, they worked from home, they had to work with PPE, they had new equipment, they had shifts changed, new lunch breaks and on top of that, inflation, with gas and food prices rising. In other words, they are fed up and willing to fight.Sam Caetano, Director, UFCW Local 175
London Food Fights
In 2018, the new Dr. Oetker frozen pizza factory in London, Ontario was unionized by UFCW Local 175. After their first contract expired, 250 workers struck on February 16. The strike mandate was very narrow. There were just 91 of 160 votes in favour of the strike, but no scabbing was reported.
“We’re definitely determined,” said one striker. “The offer wasn’t fair money-wise. Everything is going up, groceries are insane and I have a mortgage and a car. I’m living paycheque to paycheque.”
The strike lasted a week, and a new deal was ratified with only 62 percent as general production and warehouse workers only saw a $0.50/hour increase in the first year on positions that paid $18.52-$19.72.
On Sunday, March 27, another tentative agreement in London, Ontario was rejected by UFCW members. This time, a strike was averted. Cargill was facing a strike by 900 workers at its poultry processing plant (formerly Cuddy Foods). With a 62 percent vote to reject the offer, Cargill was back at the bargaining table on Monday and a deal secured by the end of the day. The contract was ratified on March 30.
Sam Caetano, Director of UFCW 175, explained:
“We are seeing the same thing at all of these industrial food suppliers. All through COVID they worked in person, they worked from home, they had to work with PPE, they had new equipment, they had shifts changed, new lunch breaks and on top of that, inflation, with gas and food prices rising.
“In other words, they are fed up and willing to fight.”
Pouring it on
In Montreal, furious Molson Coors workers with Teamsters Local 1999 went on strike March 26. The 420 brewery workers are on strike against a below-inflation wage offer and an attack on seniority with regards to layoffs.
The strike is a real turnaround from last year’s six-week lockout of Molson Coors brewery workers in Toronto. There, workers had demanded a phase out of a two-tier contract that had been accepted in 2010. The agreement that ended that strike was only narrowly accepted by the membership because many key issues went unresolved.
Molson Coors used their 2020 pandemic losses as an excuse for the Toronto lockout, but in 2021 the multinational bounced back with profits quadrupling those of pre-pandemic 2019. Montreal brewery workers are right to strike for higher wages and against management injustices.
In mid-March, about two thousand aggregate haulers with the Ontario Aggregate Trucking Association went on strike against the multinational giant Lafarge as well as Dufferin and other quarry operators. The strike was waged by both employee drivers and owner-operators facing major losses due to rising gas costs and prices in general.
With pickets at 20 locations through southern Ontario, the strike was putting a pinch on cement-pouring at construction sites. A deal was hammered out after two weeks. The aggregate haulers demanded a 40 percent rate increase but but settled for 20 percent.
Public sector blues
Other strikes of note in recent months include the sixteen-day Oakville Transit strike and the five-month Lennox & Addington Interval House strike which appears to be over, although the board has yet to ratify the contract.
Both strikes, however, highlight the stark differences in wage settlements between the private and public sector. Oakville Transit workers won an expansion of health benefits and converted over two dozen jobs to full-time status. The wage gain, however, was 2 percent per year over three years. A similar wage gain is reported at LAIH.
The anchor on public sector wage increases is in healthcare where tens of thousands of hospital and long-term care workers are having their wages decimated by inflation thanks to Bill 124‘s wage cap of 1 percent per year. The workers also operate under a long-standing anti-strike law.
While there has been a recent round of organizing in the hospitals against Bill 124, there is no sign of a so-called “illegal” strike against Bill 124, despite the immense leverage the workers have in the context of the pandemic. At this point in time, it appears the strategy is entirely electoral: defeat Doug Ford and have Bill 124 lifted.
In the past, differences between public and private sector unions have been disastrous. The Social Contract and Rae Days still loom as an ugly warning. A challenge for principled trade unionists is bridging this divide and trying to redevelop a combined and complementary strategy to combat inflation.
Inflation is a global problem
Demagogues like wannabe Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre blame Trudeau and the Liberals for high inflation. But the problem of inflation was not caused by Trudeau. The problem is global and isn’t contained to Canada.
Inflation is being driven by the massive pandemic disruption of global production and supply chains. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has compounded the issue by disrupting global energy and food distribution. Major corporations are taking advantage of the crisis with price gouging, which is also driving inflation. But price-gouging isn’t the root cause.
Inflation has also been blamed on major government expenditures during the pandemic. There has been some effort made in the press to point the finger at emergency unemployment benefits like CERB/CRB, as well as the federal childcare program.
Emergency pandemic expenditures, however, were never a radical redistribution of wealth to workers or a massive investment in much-needed public and green infrastructure. They were temporary measures and not an effort to repair the social safety net slashed by government after government. Unlike the numerous federal and provincial pandemic business subsidies, CERB/CRB was stingy, short-lived and free of rampant corruption like we see the so-called “wage subsidy” CEWS.
Despite the fact that workers bear no responsibility for the inflation crisis, the Poilievres and Trudeaus will be taking cues from the bankers and corporate powerplayers. They may toss us a few crumbs, but their goal will be making workers pay for the crisis.
Talking labour strategy
With workers already showing signs of fighting for higher wages, there are two dangers that lie ahead.
First, it would be a major defeat if wage fights remain isolated from each other. Not only does labour need to build support campaigns around specific disputes, but these fights need to be brought together. Wherever trade unionists meet, it’s time we discuss a common front on wage demands.
Breaking this isolation also means new organizing efforts up and down supply chains. The great Amazon breakthrough on Staten Island shows this can be done. Union strength in warehousing is a springboard into non-union trucking, retail, delivery, and related sectors. Building power means being organized at the economy’s critical chokepoints.
A second danger is new government austerity programs derailing a wages offensive. Cuts to public services, privatization, wage caps and layoffs will put downward pressure on private sector wage settlements. This is already the case in much of the country. A strategy to divide and conquer public and private sector unions is an old game and labour can’t let itself get caught in this trap.
Tackling the threat of further austerity and union-busting privatization requires labour to demand the rich and corporations pay for the crisis. They’ve enjoyed two years of pandemic profiteering, much of it on the working-class tax dollar. Calling for the rich and corporations to pay substantial tax increases to maintain and expand the “social wage” – critical essential services paid for with our taxes – is the route to pursue. There are also new openings emerging for labour to demand public ownership of key industries.
However, without a wages offensive underpinning it, the strategy of challenging corporate and elite wealth through social policy will backfire. Labour’s strength to dictate terms remains in our collective ability to withdraw labour and control workplaces.
About the author: Doug Nesbitt is editor of Rankandfile.ca, a former union organizer and researcher, and a labour historian. He is currently writing his first book about Mike Harris, the Common Sense Revolution and the Days of Action in Ontario.