A wave of strikes has hit Canada. What does this say about our labor market? -macleans.ca

A group of workers on strike with various signs.


Last year, more than 55,000 education workers in Ontario went on strike. Five months later, approximately 155,000 federal public servants withdrew from work. And now employees have halted operations at the Vancouver ports due to disputes over wages and employment contracts. Even tenant groups are adopting similar tactics, protesting rent increases by withholding payment. According to Stephanie Ross, an associate professor of labor studies at McMaster University, the wave of strikes is a product of the times.

“It’s the perfect storm,” she says. Coming out of the precariousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have found themselves in a different work climate, defined by a shortage of workers, runaway inflation, and the higher cost of living. “People have learned that there is no loyalty at work. The conditions are ripe for a renewed wave of collective action.” Here, Ross explains what’s going on with all the strikes across the country and why they’re likely to continue to gather strength.

Between last spring’s massive public sector strike and the BC dockworkers’ strike, it seems these actions have been intensifying across the country. Why do we go on more strikes than usual?

Coming out of the pandemic, there is a convergence of factors that is driving workers and unions to take strike action at a somewhat higher rate. On the one hand, many important collective agreements expire. We also have to remember that in the early days of the pandemic, when there was a mass strike, many workers and their unions felt quite vulnerable, so the tendency was to renew collective agreements when they came up and try to keep everything stable. It’s not that people haven’t gone on strike during the pandemic, it was just much more difficult.

Now people are out of the worst of the pandemic, and those collective agreements are expiring at a time of generational high inflation and a cost-of-living crisis around the world. There is also a sense that employers do not have as many options to replace workers as they might have in the past and a change in mindset among workers such as teachers and health care workers who have sacrificed so much during the pandemic. They are not willing to tolerate the “you get what we decide to give you” attitude from employers. People say, “We’ve had enough.”

Especially in the last year or two, workers have had an advantage over employers when it comes to the job market. How does that influence the bargaining power of unions when they go on strike?

When unions consider strikes, they are always concerned with the question of employers’ ability to replace workers. A large supply of jobless could be used to undermine the power of a strike, so when there are labor shortages, unions are much more confident. There is also a sense that people have sacrificed a lot for work, and coming out of the pandemic, we see that many companies have done extremely well.

For example, in the private sector, there is the strike by workers at the port of Vancouver, where shipping companies have racked up significant profits in the last three years. Meanwhile, workers are being pressured to keep supply chains and consumer goods moving, but threatened with automation and outsourcing. That strike is fueled by pent-up feelings of unequal sacrifice, plus inflation pressures and job fears. What I find remarkable is that the polls show that there is much more public support for labor action than we are used to seeing. The climate of support for striking workers reflects a sense that there is something fundamentally wrong with the maldistribution of wealth in this country, and there are workers here fighting against it.

It is interesting that you mention public opinion. StatsCan figures detail a decline in the number of unionized workers over the past four decades, but public opinion polls show a rise in union support. What do you think of that discrepancy?

That is an interesting point. In general, the number of unionized workers has increased in Canada over time, but the proportion of unionized workers has stagnated around 30 percent. Unionization has declined further in the private sector; This is due to job losses in highly unionized sectors like manufacturing and forestry, and the rise in non-union sectors like retail, where there are many workers but few unionized workplaces.

But public sector unionization rates are still very healthy, around 70 percent, so almost everyone knows someone in a public sector union. Those workers provide some key services and care to their communities, which the pandemic has really highlighted. There is sympathy and a feeling of camaraderie, I think, which is translating into greater support for union action.

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Economists have said that we are heading towards an economic recession, the extent of which is still unclear. Will that incite more strikes, given the heightened sense of economic precariousness? Or will that deter strikes, given the increased risk of unemployment?

I think it cuts both ways. We are probably going to see more strikes for a while because there is a recovery militancy at the moment; it happens when people’s wages have clearly fallen below inflation. There will be a period of time where, even if unemployment is rising, some people with relatively stable jobs will still take the opportunity to strike. But you are right that unemployment is a form of labor discipline. It’s the reason employers prefer higher levels of unemployment, because it creates an environment where workers are more likely to feel insecure and stay in line.

Do generational attitudes come into play in the job market?

That’s another topic we haven’t really talked about. Baby boomers are retiring, and most research on Gen Z shows that they are far less willing, as previous generations were, to live to work. At best, they want to work to live. It’s a generation that is much less willing to take bullshit at work, if I may put it that way. In the US, even more than in Canada, we are seeing a wave of unionization in industries where Gen Z is prevalent, such as Amazon and Starbucks.

It seems that Generation Z is much more willing to fight for better working conditions or not tolerate bad workplaces. It’s also a generation where more people are likely to be living at home. While that’s not necessarily what they want, it gives them more exit power in the job market because it lowers the stakes when they leave a subpar job.

READ: You are wrong about Gen Z

To your point about precariousness: AI is now the buzzword in the job market. Workers fear being replaced by this new technology. Will AI affect workers’ ability to strike?

I’m not sure how it will affect future strikes. But what we do know from the history of technological development, with respect to work, is that employers are always looking to reduce their reliance on expensive and scarce labor. So if you’re a worker who has a scarce skill that’s hard to replace, it means you have more bargaining power: you can charge a higher price for that job. And in every generation, we’ve seen employers try to break down those skills, often replacing them with technology. The AI ​​enters the scene in the same way, just like the computer. Computerization did not replace human labor, but it did transform the types of work workers do and the power relations under which they work.

The interesting thing is that there is already a strike on AI: the Writers Guild of America. One of the main problems, in addition to the waste from streaming platforms, is the possibility that the work of the writers could be replaced by AI. Now, is that a realistic prospect or not? It’s hard to say, I think AI-produced scripts will be pretty mediocre. But the WGA knows that if they can’t put some limits on how AI is used in their industry, there will be significant transformations that will undermine their ability to defend themselves in the future.

Tenants in Canada have been organizing unions and striking to combat predatory landlords and rent increases. What has fueled this wave of collective action?

Tenant unions and associations are not new, but they are becoming more notorious as they take action on a larger scale to fight totally unaffordable rents in major cities. While these are not “unions” in the same way that labor unions are—they are not negotiating working conditions and do not have the legal capacity to bargain like labor unions are—they are really important forms of collective action by the working class.

The amount of money people need to earn to afford a modest one or two-bedroom apartment in major Canadian cities is mind-boggling. I know a couple with two children, both working professional jobs in Toronto, which were recently renewed and whose monthly rent increased from $2,300 to $3,400 per month. There isn’t a union powerful enough to get people a big enough pay raise to cover that rent increase, so house prices have to be a direct target.

READ: Why is this Toronto tenant organizing a rent strike?

What do you think the wave of strikes says about the state of our country and our anxieties as workers?

Certainly the focus on wages tells us that people are being left behind. In the absence of real reinvestment in social programs, social spending, and affordable housing, wages are the number one way people can imagine keeping up. There’s a cost of living crisis, there’s a housing cost crisis, there’s a food cost crisis. People feel the impact of that in their daily lives and are trying to keep what they have.

I am part of a research project surveying and interviewing Ontario workers about their experience with the pandemic and its consequences. We have been interviewing people about the benefits of Ontario Disability Support, and many people told us that they were considering medically assisted dying rather than continue to struggle in poverty. That’s terrible.

You are also right to point to other demands such as staffing levels. The amount of work and the demands on people are just too great right now. I think that tells us something about the long-term effects of austerity in both the public and private sectors, where organizations have been very, very lean. They don’t want to have extra workers or downtime that causes slack in the production process because that costs companies money. But someone has to pay the price for that thinness, so it’s not just about dollars and cents. Increasingly, it is about what kind of life we ​​can live.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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