“We’re not in this together”
By Ritch Whyman and Lee Gilchrist
The new “automated” warehouse opened by Sobeys in Terrebonne, Quebec is shut down for three months by 190 striking workers. They win an immediate wage increase of up to 28%, and an additional 12% wage increase over three years. The contract is ratified by just 59 percent of members.
In Scarborough, a hugely diverse workforce of over 300 warehouse workers defeat HBC’s push for concessions, and win a 13.3% wage increase and $1500 in retro pay.
A group of unionized skilled workers at a chemical plant in Hamilton approach their employer with job offers from other companies and demand wage increases. Despite being mid-way through a 4-year collective agreement the employer offers significant wage hikes over the next 2 years.
At a law firm in Toronto, non-union support and clerical staff say they won’t help fill vacancies by recruiting friends to work there without the employer creating an RRSP for all staff. The employer announces a few days later they are starting up an RRSP for all staff.
These are but a tiny sampling of the rise in class struggle happening across Canada and Quebec today. As union researcher Doug Allan has reported, strike activity in Ontario has climbed to a 13 year high only halfway through the year. Allan says strike activity is double, even triple the level of previous years going back to at least 2010.
Revival in confidence and the return of strikes
Across Canada and Quebec workers are using this moment of labour shortages and climbing inflation to flex their muscle in union and non-union workplaces. This confidence, where workers in most industries sense that the employer needs them more than they need the employer, is leading to a shift in the nature of class struggle.
Nearly every week another group of workers goes out on strike demanding more than what is offered. Wages increases under the threat of strike are being won in ways not seen even a year ago. This is a dramatic shift from the near collapse of workers fighting back during the first year of the pandemic, and the defensive fights that followed.
It is a very combustible situation after two years of workers being told they were essential while watching corporate profits skyrocket with minimal raises, and now facing 8% inflation, gas prices going through the roof, and housing costs spiraling out of control. Workers are moving to fight to ensure they don’t lose any more ground. Strikes in Quebec and New Brunswick show there are now real signs of the struggle spilling over into the public sector, too.
It is worth looking at what has happened through the COVID-19 Pandemic and how the terrain of struggle has changed rapidly.
The Pandemic Pause
Beside a few notable exceptions like the Dominion grocery strike in Newfoundland, the COVID-19 Pandemic put a pause on workers’ fights. The union leadership and NDP politicians embraced the mantra of “we’re all in this together” sending the signal that there would be no fight. In fact, the leaders of Canada’s three largest private sector unions – Unifor, Steelworkers and UFCW – joined with both the NDP and employers in promoting a wage subsidy program that became nothing more than a naked cash grab by employers.
It wasn’t as though the struggle disappeared totally. Fights over PPE and safety protocols broke out. Non-union workers at the Toyota assemblies in Woodstock and Cambridge walked out when COVID-19 cases mounted. Wildcat work refusals by Hamilton sanitation workers were followed up by Toronto Transit workers demanding the right to wear masks. The Ontario Ministry of Labour rejected the refusals again and again, jeopardizing workers lives.
The combination of fear of COVID-19, worries about job losses coupled with the collaboration of unions, NDP with the Liberals and employers choked off most avenues for workers to fight. Only publicized worker deaths in meatpacking and agriculture were enough to hold up operations for a few days or a couple weeks at most. Pandemic pay cuts in grocery stores were met with words, not action.
By the summer of 2020, employers became emboldened by union leaders and NDP calls for “unity” in the face of the first wave’s deadly onslaught. The employers began demanding concessions from workers going into bargaining, even demanding cuts to paid sick days.
In June 2020, Boilermarkers in Edmonton were locked out by Cessco. They remain locked out today. Cessco has collected federal pandemic wage subsidies before and during the lockout.
In August dockworkers at Canada’s second largest port – in Montreal began strike action after 2 years with no contract and the employer aggressively pushing unpopular scheduling schemes under the guise of COVID-19. After 10 days the union called off the strike under pressure from the right-wing Quebec government and the employers’ promise to negotiate. They would have to go back on strike a year later.
In October 2020, thousands of healthcare workers in Alberta walked off the job, in one of the largest wildcats strikes in recent memory. Members of the Alberta Union of Public Employees who work at hospitals doing custodial, food service, laundry, and other work, stormed off the job after Kenney’s UCP government announced plans to slash thousands of healthcare jobs and privatize more health services.
In Newfoundland, 1,400 Dominion grocery store workers struck for twelve weeks against the loss of full-time jobs and the rollback of pandemic pay increases. The workers beat back the attack on full-time jobs, but on wages it was a stalemate with Loblaws and Unifor officials agreeing not to release the results of the ratification vote that ended the strike.
In November 2020 Owens Corning locked out its workers at its plant in Guelph. Fresh off taking hundreds of thousands in wage subsidies, Owens Corning used the pretext of a lunchtime bargaining rally to lock the gates and try and scab the plant. Workers, members of Workers United Local 1305 had rejected the concessions placed on the table (by an employer who bragged in its quarterly reports about its high profits) and sought to reverse givebacks done in previous rounds of bargaining.
Trudeau’s “wage subsidy”, backed by union leaders and the NDP, has bankrolled numerous union-busting efforts and scabs.
Heading into 2021 it was clear to anyone who wanted to look that confrontations were brewing between workers sick of putting themselves on the line while their bosses sat safely at home. Employers were determined to discard the fluff about “being in it together” and make workers pay using the pandemic to discipline workers into accepting less for their sacrifices in fighting COVID-19.
In workplaces across the country employees took the pandemic seriously and accepted the mantra that we were all in it together. Workplace issues and problems were set to the side as workers shouldered the weight of keeping things moving. The employers’ laudatory words turned out to be empty and words won’t pay the rent or hydro bill.
The first quarter of 2021 saw a small but significant wave of strikes and lockouts in large and medium-sized manufacturing workplaces.
The constant theme through these fights was employers demanding concessions or offering settlements that were below inflation and pushing for cuts to benefits and sick time. On the flip side workers were determined to get the respect for having carried the brunt of sacrifices during the pandemic.
As the year began, Fenner Dunlop workers in Bracebridge, Ontario were locked out in a concessionary drive including repeal of paid sick days. The five- month lockout saw a re-emergence of solidarity pickets and leafleting.
IBEW members at Manitoba Hydro went on rotating strikes against concessions after more than two years of failed negotiations. Molson Coors in Toronto locked out workers after rejecting a concessionary contract. The workers were isolated and only able to beat back some of the concessions. CEGEP teachers and support staff in Quebec launched rotating strikes for wage gains.
Montreal dockworkers went out again on a full strike, only to be legislated back-to-work by Trudeau with no pressure on employers to bargain.
At Rexplas in Toronto, deep concessions were demanded and efforts were made to scab. Workers broke the scab effort by building strong picket lines and finding other jobs for the scabs who were mainly young new immigrants from same community as many strikers. Concessions were beaten back, but wage gains were small.
Arcelor Mittal pushed concessions at mining and pellet plants on the North Shore in Quebec resulting in 2,500 workers going on strike. The concessions were defeated and workers won pension gains, big premium bumps and over 3% per year.
At NRI in Toronto, Steelworkers built illegal secondary pickets at another company with the same owners. Concessions and attacks on sick days were beaten back but no gains were made.
The tide begins to turn
As strikes popped off through Ontario and Quebec against concessionary attacks from employers, 500 food processors struck for two weeks at Exceldor Chicken near Quebec City. The government intervened and a contract was ratified with 19.75% wage increases over 6 years. Despite the gains, a third of the workers rejected the deal.
A month later 1000 workers at the pork giant Olymel in Quebec struck for nearly 4 months and won 25% wage increases over 6 years with 10 percent in first year.
Besides the Alberta hospital wildcat and CEGEP strike in Quebec, the public sector had been the missing ingredient. Some unions ran from talks of strikes and accepted government wage restraint laws, notably in Ontario where Doug Ford’s pre-pandemic Bill 124 capped public sector wage increases at 1 percent per year over three years.
But all this changed in New Brunswick. In a fantastic display of unity across different locals and sectors, 28,000 New Brunswick public sector workers, members of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) went on strike October 29 for 16 days, following a huge 94% strike mandate vote. The government’s efforts to wreck the unity and force below-inflation wage increases were beaten back. Nurses in New Brunswick following that voted 92% in favour of strike action and forced the government back to the table.
This was followed by 11,000 childcare workers striking across Quebec for wage increases. They did not make the breakthrough hoped for but were able to beat the government’s paltry wage offer and make modest gains.
A series of strikes by faculty at universities also broke out late 2021 and into early 2022. After years of below inflation increases and a growth of contract jobs at universities, faculty began to fight. University of Manitoba faculty for five weeks. The Concordia University of Edmonton faculty went on Alberta’s first-ever faculty strike. This was followed in February at the University of Lethbridge. Acadia faculty in Wolfville Nova Scotia also struck in February before agreeing to binding arbitration. Faculty at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa also struck for ten days.
Reopening the economy
Inflation began to creep up late 2021 and early 2022 just as COVID-19 restrictions were being lifted with the big push from employers to fully reopen the economy. It was clear that some sections of the business class believed that with the end of COVID-related unemployment benefits in October 2021 that workers would be forced to return to work and this would limit pent-up wage demands.
However, job positions went unfilled throughout the economy as workers began to feel confident and seek out other jobs. While it was never a “Great Resignation” as pundits claimed, it was more like an awakening and recognition that for the first time in a long while workers had the upper hand.
For the better part of the past 20 years, employers have been telling workers they have to moderate their wage demands to be in line with inflation. This meant wages not really keeping up with growing housing costs and increases in food prices (caused in part by price-fixing by billionaire grocery oligarchs).
Many workers took this to heart and as inflation began to go up it was workers saying that what was good for the employers for 20 years should now be good for workers.
Inflation wage strikes
The signs of change came with a settlement at the Sobeys warehouse in Whitby in January 2022. Unifor secured 19.5% over four years without a strike. A couple weeks later, Sobeys warehouse workers in Terrebonne, Quebec walked, rejecting below-inflation wage increases. Sobeys was also slapped for violating Quebec’s anti-scab laws. Aggregate haulers in southern Ontario struck against Lafarge, Dufferin and other multinationals. With construction feeling the pinch of concrete shortages, the strike was settled with a 20 percent rate increase.
The break in Ontario came when Unifor warehouse workers for the huge Metro chain struck a key warehouse in the west end of Toronto in early April 2022. The employer tried to hold down wages but the strike led to empty shelves across stores in southern Ontario and customers fleeing to competitors. The workers beat the employer and gained wages jumps equal to and above inflation. Other warehouse workers then went on to make even bigger gains. Teamster members at grocery warehouses in Ottawa and eastern Ontario saw wage gains without a strike of upwards to 25 percent.
The Metro strike made the news and workers elsewhere up on the possibility of making similar gains. Members of SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign in Toronto voted overwhelmingly to demand 6.5% wage increases of a $1.00 in the first year with members referencing the Metro strike showing it is possible to make those gains. They forced dozens of janitorial firms to cough up 15% over 3 years.
In May there was a near general strike of construction workers in Ontario with over 40,000 in the trades going out on strike and shutting down industrial, commercial and residential builds. Angry members rejected contracts and rebuffed their union leaders following years of below inflation increases. Wages and other benefits were won that were the highest in decades – upwards of $9.00 over 3 years. In the trades that’s settled for less with no “me too” clauses, union leaders face deep anger amongst the members.
Arcelor Mittal workers in Quebec at mills just outside of Montreal won 26% over 6 years. The new six-year collective agreements covering 2022-2028 offer a wage increase of $9 per hour, which represents a 26-per-cent increase in average wages. This means that by the end of the agreement, the wage at the bottom of the scale will increase from $29.93 to $38.93 per hour. The wage at the top of the scale will rise to $49.92 per hour.
These gains are now a contributing factor in strike votes at both the Nanticoke and Hamilton plants of Stelco. The president of the 1,000 plus strong USW local 8782 at the stelco Lake Erie Works said,
“Other large Canadian industrial companies like Bombardier and ArcelorMittal Long Products are paying their workers 18 to 26 per cent increases over five or six years. Our members see that and they know they deserve to keep pace. Instead, the company is offering to shuffle around our pay and bonuses to disguise the fact that there’s only a small overall increase”.
Challenges and dangers ahead
New public sector battles are brewing again, among teachers and education workers in Ontario, to transit workers in British Columbia, and more public sector workers in Quebec. Federal government workers led mainly by PSAC are also up against Trudeau’s government which is propped up by Singh’s NDP. The Treasury Board offered PSAC an insulting 6.75% over four years.
In British Columbia, 33,000 BCGEU members are up against the NDP government over wages. The union has a 95 percent strike mandate delivered by members in June. The NDP government has offered 6% over three years compared to the union’s 10% over two years. BC’s inflation is above 8 percent.
The confidence of workers are pushing union leaders into taking harder stances against employers in the private and public sectors, but there is no generalized fight by any union or labour central on the wage front. The battles remain piecemeal and are vulnerable to isolation and a concentrated counter-attack if there is an employer that has the wherewithal to make a stand.
Organized labour’s disarray is most clear in Ontario where the wave of wage strikes did not factor into labour’s preferred political strategy of electing the Ontario NDP to oust the Doug Ford government. The construction strikes taking place all through the election were divorced from the ONDP and OFL election strategies even as Ford made inroads with a few union leaders in the trades.
Instead of making gains and driving home on the rising costs for workers and supporting strikes, the ONDP and OFL campaign pursued a platform that was 6 months out of date and saw a drop off of 800,000 mainly working-class votes. Clearly workers felt that the ONDP campaign did not speak to the crisis they were facing being squeezed by inflation and rising interest rates.
Meanwhile, employers and politicians have all embraced the ramping up of interest rates to discipline workers, the majority of whom are in debt and have mortgaged homes. A dual strategy of importing more workers from abroad and triggering unemployment through recession are also aimed at ending the tight labour market that has helped workers fight back and make gains over the past year.
In some situations its clear employers are looking to curb rising wages by turning to scabs and injunctions to maintain production in the event of strike. By hook or by crook the employers are desperate to find a way to contain the push for increased wages.
Sadly the response, or lack of one by the union leaderships at a national and provincial level looks to squander the moment. Despite the wave of strikes and confidence on the shop floor, national and provincial union leaders refuse to launch national campaigns and actions against the rising cost of living and squeeze of increasing interest rates.
Such a call along with calls for mass pickets to support striking workers could revitalize the labour movement and build a fighting alternative to the Trudeau Liberals and the employers. Other unions pledging full support to PSAC federal workers or UFCW grocery workers would be a shot in the arm for those workers.
Not waging such a fight and relying on electoral politics will not only lead to undermining the confidence workers have now, but further deepen an already growing sense inside sections of the working class that the Tories and convoy types are the only real opposition to the banks and bosses.
In the United Kingdom, the spread and huge swell in popularity of unions and workers because of the RMT strike on the rails is an example of what is possible. To get there will mean organizing to put pressure on the leaders to build a united fight.