Few signs of union resurgence, despite rising prices and labor shortages

With inflation reducing the purchasing power of workers and businesses complaining of staff shortages, you might think the time has come for a dramatic resurgence of the type of work activity that Canada does not have. known since the 1970s.

But, so far, people who study the labor movement in Canada say that is not happening.

examples of union activism in the United States — especially among warehouse workers at Amazon and the Starbucks coffee chain — have had only faint echoes in Canada.

Try to keep up with inflation

Instead, the data seems to show that the workers who follow inflation so far are those who take individual – rather than collective – action to fight for better wages and working conditions: they change jobs.

After the seven per cent rise in prices in the United States last week, Canadians get an official tally on Wednesday.

Although Statistics Canada calculates its consumer price index (CPI) differently here than in the United States, economists expect our prices to rise a little faster than the month’s 4.7% increase. last.

A study titled Talent Trends, published Friday by the Conference Board of Canada, shows that costly labor shortages reported by business groups may create an opportunity for those wishing to change jobs in search of better pay and conditions.

Union members are shown on strike in Denver last week, part of a growing wave of industrial action in the United States that experts say is not happening in Canada. Instead, they say, Canadians are quitting and looking for better jobs. (Kevin Mohatt/Reuters)

What the study shows is that “voluntary turnover” – not being fired or laid off – is trending upward, reaching a seven-year high of 9.1% in 2020-21.

One of the report’s authors, Lauren Florko, noted that turnover is particularly concentrated in three areas: high-tech jobs, healthcare and manufacturing. It’s not yet clear what drives people to leave manufacturing jobs, she said, but for the other two sectors, the reasons are quite distinct.

“Why we’re seeing it primarily for science and technology career fields is primarily because those are jobs that can work from home, and we see there’s a lot of potential poaching,” said Floriko.

And the demand for tech workers is high not only in Canada, she said, but also for Canadians employed remotely by global companies.


In healthcare, it’s more about workers driven out by burnout during the intense demands of the pandemic, Florko said. Some change careers, others seek more education.

While wages continue to lag inflation, higher turnover contributes to better wages, simply because new jobs tend to pay more than the ones people leave.

In the case of relatively low-paid workers, the Conference Board study shows that extended wage rates in new job postings in 2020 increased by 5.7%, well above the rate of inflation.

People who didn’t change jobs didn’t get the same kind of raises, Florko said.

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Stephanie Ross, co-author of the book Rethinking Labor Policy in Canada, was surprised that after a long period of stagnation in areas such as strike rates and the creation of new locals, there has not been more union resurgence to improve wages and conditions.

“There are always groups of workers trying to unionize, but those attempts haven’t really moved the needle,” said Ross, who was recently named director of the School of Labor Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton.

According to the Canadian Labor Congress, the largest labor demonstration in Canadian history took place in 1976, when more than a million workers have stopped working as part of a protest against wage and price controls imposed by a federal government trying to tackle soaring inflation.

The lagging workers

Since that time, workers have earned a diminishing share of productivity gains.

A study by US firm Pew Research showed that labor’s share of income had not budged in 40 years, while returns to capital soared. The Canadian figures are similar.

Some analysts blame the change on lower levels of unionization. Others attribute the decline, at least in part, to the ability of manufacturers to ship jobs overseas as part of globalization.

“I think there’s a lot of dissatisfaction with what’s going on in people’s workplaces and that usually leads to industrial action,” Ross said.

But that doesn’t seem to be happening in Canada, she said, especially compared to the United States and other parts of the world.

Why discontent — and a seemingly strong bargaining position for in-demand workers — doesn’t translate into collective labor action isn’t well understood, Ross said. This may be because unions have failed to meet these demands in the face of government-imposed limits on wage increases.

Or maybe, Ross said, it’s because, as a group, workers feel compelled to stay on the job during a crisis when they’re so badly needed.

Despite the anger of workers at a Cargill meat processing plant in High River, Alta., a strike was averted last month. The facility had been the site of one of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in Canada. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Instead, individual workers demonstrate their bargaining power by quitting and taking another job, she said.

“This ability to quit reflects greater leverage, but it’s a very individual strategy.”

Economists suggest that the process of people leaving and finding better jobs is good for the economy because it tends to move labor to where workers’ skills are most needed, thus increasing the productivity of the economy.

Waiting for the “great attrition”

What is happening in health care is unclear, at least not yet.

But examples of past protests show they don’t always immediately follow periods of public discontent, said Lesley Wood, an associate professor at York University in Toronto.

“There may be a lag,” said Wood, who is studying something called “conflict cycles“, the sometimes mysterious process where peasant revolts are preceded by long periods of calm or wars after a long period of peace.

If inflation remains elevated and workers continue to lag behind, there is a possibility of another round of collective action, even if there are few signs at this time.

But whether workers decide to act — whether through unions or individual action — Florko said his research shows the bargaining power that currently gives them the confidence to quit isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. .

Despite increased turnover and Canada’s current shortage of skilled workers, what Florko’s report calls “great attrition” is only going to get worse. She said older workers with valuable skills who delayed their retirement during the pandemic are expected to exit the workforce in greater numbers over the next decade.

“Typically, we’re seeing retirements closer to 2 or 3% year over year — and last year we only saw 1.4,” Florko said.

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