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

Canada could face a summer of strikes and other labour disruptions as workers demand cost-of-living increases and better conditions than those seen throughout the past two years of the pandemic, say union officials 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 others in transport, trades, food retail and other sectors.

With inflation suddenly at 7.7 per cent, unions and labour experts say workers won’t settle for the typical annual pay raise of 1-1.5 per cent they would have accepted one or two years ago.

“We’re in for a summer of labour unrest. There’s no question about it,” said Larry Savage, professor of labour 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 wages have not been able to keep pace. 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, croupiers at the Montreal Casino, and 330 workers at a Toronto e-commerce warehouse owned by a subsidiary of Hudson’s Bay.

On Thursday, those warehouse workers will vote on a tentative deal with HBC Logistics.

Their union, Unifor, is demanding a retroactive pay raise in recognition of workers having kept online orders flowing through the pandemic. They have been without a contract since last May.

“What we’ve seen, particularly last year and this year, is a real rise in worker militancy,” said Lana Payne, Unifor’s national secretary-treasurer.

“A lot of workers coming out of the pandemic did not feel fully respected through that period, even though they gave everything they had to make sure that the economy and our society was able to function … This is a time where workers are saying ‘enough is enough.'”

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

summer of labour unrest expected as inflation soars and contracts run out
© Trevor Lyons/CBC Unions representing health and education workers across the country will be negotiating new collective agreements for members in the months ahead. Here, Manitoba health care support workers who have been without a contract for five years demonstrate at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg on June 3.

Struggling with rising prices

Union leaders who spoke with CBC News said inflationary pay raises will be at the top of their agenda during negotiations, as their members — especially those earning close to the minimum wage — struggle to make ends meet.

“I had a member tell me that it costs them one day’s pay for gas [to] last them three days going to work,” said Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Boards Council of Unions, which represents 55,000 school staff, including education assistants, custodians and early childhood educators.

“Many have moved back in with their parents. Many of them have got roommates in order to try and keep roofs over their heads.”

Members of the B.C. General Employees’ Union — including wildfire fighters, social workers, correctional officers, and liquor and cannabis workers — last week voted in favour of strike action if their cost of living demands aren’t met by the province.

“The public sector got our province through the last two and a half years. They kept the lights on, the wheels turning [and] they are going to be paramount to the regrowth of our economy,” said union president Stephanie Smith.

“I think the pandemic has had people re-evaluate their worth.”

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

summer of labour unrest expected as inflation soars and contracts run out
© Evan Mitsui/CBC A person walks past a sign thanking essential workers in Toronto on Jan. 27, 2021. Front-line workers who continued to show up to their workplaces throughout the pandemic want their new contracts to reflect their contributions, their unions say.

Payne, whose union represents other grocery store workers, said there is growing frustration at company executives and shareholders reaping pandemic profits, while workers had their “hero pay” — which ranged from a couple of dollars extra an hour to gift cards or other benefits — axed after a few months.

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

Timing could help

The timing was fortuitous for more than 15,000 Ontario carpenters who went on strike in May, and eventually secured a 10 per cent pay raise 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 skyrocketed — locked in far lower increases for their members for years to come.

“[Those] members are saying, ‘We settled down too early…. Look at the increases that other workers are achieving,'” said Yorke.

Others seem stuck with meagre increases because of legislation. In Ontario, the pay and benefit hikes of some provincial employees — including teachers, nurses and employees of the transit agency Metrolinx — are capped one per cent per year.

summer of labour unrest expected as inflation soars and contracts run out
© Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press Unionized carpenters picket in Ottawa on May 11. About 15,000 Ontario carpenters went on strike for three weeks before agreeing to a new contract in late May.

Yet Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster got a 13.1 per cent raise last year, taking his salary to $838,961, plus $12,906 in benefits.

“That kind of nonsense … puts the bargaining 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 of Metrolinx’s bus drivers, station attendants, maintenance personnel and other staff.

ATU Canada has asked those workers to ratify strike action — 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” of reaching a resolution, but has contingency plans to minimize disruption if some work stoppage occurs.

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

“The pendulum of power is shifting toward workers … There have been instances of employers coming back early [before new contract negotiations] and saying, ‘Look, the wage increase we negotiated two years ago isn’t high enough, we would like to reopen these negotiations,'” Macdonald said.

During the pandemic, Canada has not seen the same “Great Resignation” that swept the U.S., with millions of workers changing jobs for better pay and conditions. But Macdonald says more workers here could be prepared to make that leap if they don’t get paid sick days, flexible working arrangements and other concessions in their next round of negotiations.

Education and health unions told CBC News some of their members are prepared to consider a career move, if their new contracts fail to 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 going forward,” said Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, which will be bargaining with that province’s government this summer.

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