Summer of labor unrest expected as inflation soars and contracts run out

Canada could face a summer of strikes and other labor disruptions as workers demand cost-of-living increases and better conditions than seen in the last two years of the pandemic, union officials say and other observers.

Hundreds of thousands of health and education workers are among those whose unions and employers will be at the bargaining table over the coming months, alongside other sectors in transportation, trades, food retail and others.

With inflation surging to 7.7%, unions and labor experts say workers won’t settle for the typical 1-1.5% annual wage increase they would have accepted a year or so ago. two years.

“We are going to live a summer of labor unrest. There’s no doubt about it,” said Larry Savage, professor of labor studies at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.

“Their cost of living is much higher, utilities are higher, rent is higher, food is higher, and their salaries couldn’t keep up. I think there’s a lot of anger and a lot of resentment.”

Many have already taken to the picket lines, including CN Rail signal and communications workers, Montreal Casino croupiers and 330 workers at a Toronto e-commerce warehouse owned by a Hudson’s Bay subsidiary. .

CN Rail signal and communications workers walked off the job across the country earlier this month. Here, workers strike at CN’s MacMillan Yard in Vaughan, Ont., on June 20. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

On Thursday, these warehouse workers will vote on a tentative agreement with HBC Logistics.

Their union, Unifor, is calling for a retroactive pay rise in recognition of workers who kept ordering online during the pandemic. They have been without a contract since last May.

“What we’ve seen, especially last year and this year, is a real increase in worker activism,” said Lana Payne, Unifor National Secretary-Treasurer.

‘Many workers coming out of the pandemic have not felt fully respected during this time, even though they have given their all to make sure the economy and our society can function… This is a time for workers to speak out’ enough’ is enough.'”

Hudson’s Bay did not respond to a request for comment.

Unions representing health and education workers across the country will negotiate new collective agreements for their members in the coming months. Here, Manitoba health care support workers without contracts for five years demonstrate at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg on June 3. (Trevor Lyons/CBC)

Fight against rising prices

Union leaders who spoke to CBC News said inflationary wage increases would be at the top of their agenda during negotiations as their members — especially those earning near minimum wage — struggle to join workers. two ends.

“I had a member tell me it cost them a day’s pay for gas [to] let them go to work for three days,” said Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions, which represents 55,000 school staff, including teacher assistants, custodians and educators. from early childhood.

“Many went back to their parents. Many of them found roommates to try to keep a roof over their heads.”

Members of the BC General Employees’ Union – including firefighters, social workers, corrections officers and alcohol and cannabis workers – voted last week to strike if their cost demands of life are not met by the province.

“The public sector has helped our province through the past two and a half years. They kept the lights on, the wheels turned [and] they will be paramount to the recovery of our economy,” said union president Stephanie Smith.

“I think the pandemic has caused people to reevaluate their worth.”

Collective agreements for thousands of supermarket workers in Ontario, Saskatchewan and Manitoba will also expire this summer. Their union, United Food and Commercial Workers, declined to comment.

A person walks past a sign thanking essential workers in Toronto on January 27, 2021. Frontline workers who have continued to show up to their workplaces throughout the pandemic want their new contracts to reflect their contributions, according to their unions. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Payne, whose union represents other grocery store workers, said there was growing frustration with the company’s executives and shareholders reaping pandemic profits, while workers had their ” hero pay” — which ranged from a few extra bucks per hour to gift cards or other perks — removed after a few months.

“There’s a lack of recognition of how these benefits were earned, which is on the backs of our members…Workers have the opportunity to be able to push back and make real gains right now,” Payne said. .

Timing might help

The timing was fortuitous for more than 15,000 Ontario carpenters who went on strike in May and eventually won a 10% wage increase over three years.

Mike Yorke, president of the Carpenters District Council of Ontario, notes that other unions that negotiated new contracts several months ago — before inflation soared — locked in much lower increases for their members for coming years.

“[Those] members say, ‘We settled in too soon…. Look at the raises other workers are getting,” Yorke said.

Others seem stuck with meager increases because of legislation. In Ontario, pay and benefit increases for some provincial employees — including teachers, nurses and Metrolinx transit agency employees — are capped at 1% per year.

Unionized carpenters picket in Ottawa on May 11. About 15,000 Ontario carpenters went on strike for three weeks before accepting a new contract in late May. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Still, Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster got a 13.1% raise last year, bringing his salary to $838,961, plus $12,906 in benefits.

“This kind of nonsense…puts negotiations in a very difficult position,” said John Di Novo, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Canada, which is negotiating a new contract for more than 2,100 bus drivers, station attendants, Metrolinx maintenance and other personnel. Personal.

ATU Canada has asked these workers to ratify the strike — a move that could disrupt transit operations in the Toronto and Hamilton area over the summer.

“Every option is on the table,” Di Novo said.

In a statement, Metrolinx said it was “eager and hopeful” to reach a resolution, but has contingency plans to minimize disruption in the event of a work stoppage.

ATU Canada has called on its Metrolinx members to ratify the strike — a move that could disrupt transit operations in the Toronto and Hamilton area over the summer. (Evan Buhler/The Canadian Press)

Given the tight labor market, employers may be more open to workers’ demands right now, says David Macdonald, senior economist at the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives.

“The pendulum of power is shifting towards the workers…There have been cases of employers coming back early [before new contract negotiations] and saying, “Look, the pay raise we negotiated two years ago isn’t big enough, we’d like to reopen those negotiations,” Macdonald said.

During the pandemic, Canada has not seen the same “great quit” that has swept the United States, with millions of workers changing jobs for better pay and conditions. But Macdonald says more workers here might be willing to take that leap if they don’t get paid sick days, flex hours and other concessions in their next round of bargaining.

Education and health unions told CBC News that some of their members were willing to consider a career change, if their new contracts did not reflect the higher cost of living and their service during the pandemic.

“You have a lot of people looking at their life decisions and where they would like to work in the future,” said Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, which will negotiate with the government. of this province this summer.

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