A tight labour market and breakneck inflation have empowered many workers to make new inroads. Metro’s walkout, the B.C. port work stoppage in July and the Public Service Alliance of Canada strike in spring 2023 help paint a picture of a workforce fighting hard to catch up to the cost of living.

“When you look at the wage data, union members are faring much better this year than they have in any year in the past decade. And that is a result of there being slightly more strikes, a tighter labour market, and a just more favourable position for workers overall,” said Adam King, an assistant professor in the labour studies department at the University of Manitoba. “It may not be the year of the strike, but it may be the year of the fear of the strike.”

Strike data doesn’t always tell the whole story, experts say. It can be skewed by a number of things, such as a major public-sector strike or how many — and which — collective agreements expire that year, said King. Still, it helps paint a picture.

According to Employment and Social Development Canada, as of Sept. 30 there had been 147 work stoppages in Canada in 2023, fewer than in 2022, 2021, and most years this past decade.

But the average length of these work stoppages so far is the highest it’s been since 2017, and the number of person-days not worked — which factors in the number of workers involved — is the highest since 2005.

Many of the major strike periods in Canadian history came during or after bouts of high inflation, said Larry Savage, a professor in the labour studies department at Brock University. While 2023’s strike data doesn’t come close to some of those periods, he thinks that unions’ bargaining power has taken a turn after years of decline.

Workers’ increased willingness to go on strike, often called “militancy,” is being driven by a potent combination of factors, he said: the COVID-19 pandemic, low unemployment and the skyrocketing cost of living.

While data on strikes and wage gains show some of this, there are plenty of measurements of union militancy that aren’t captured by data, said Savage, such as strike votes and rejected ratification votes. A strong strike vote, for example, can pressure employers into negotiating a better deal in order to avoid a strike, he said.

This is bringing employers to the table with better offers, said Barry Sawyer, executive assistant to the national president at the United Food and Commercial Workers union. He’s noticed this especially in sectors like grocery and food processing, some of the union’s main coverage areas.

Sawyer said the pandemic has changed not only how customers value those workers — as essential workers and heroes — but also how workers value themselves.

Government data on major wage settlements shows in 2023, wage gains in collective agreements are rising — the average annual percentage adjustment for these settlements so far is 3.7%, up from 2.5% in 2022 and less than 2% for more than a decade before that. The average first-year percentage adjustment for those major settlements is 4.6%.

“It is a departure from what we’ve seen over the past 10, 20, 30 years,” said Stephanie Ross, an associate professor in the school of labour studies at McMaster University.

While the average gains still put many workers behind the pace of inflation, it’s also important to look at outlier wage agreements, said King. “Sometimes … those types of really impressive settlements inspire workers, particularly if they happen to work in the same industry.”

Experts have also noticed stronger public support for striking workers. The Metro strike framed lower-income workers’ struggles against a profitable company amid a widely felt rise in food prices, said Ross, and that resonated with many. But even higher-income workers such as public-sector employees seemed to garner more support than they might have otherwise, she said.

The long-term impacts of what’s happening right now aren’t clear, said Ross, but she is concerned there doesn’t appear to be a noticeable uptick in union organizing. The law in many provinces makes organizing difficult, she said, especially in workforces that would be “ripe” for organization.

Going into 2024, the wind is starting to shift, said Sawyer. Inflation is down — even though many paycheques haven’t caught up to it — and unemployment is slowly rising, hitting 5.8% in November.

But Sawyer said workers are still prepared to negotiate for deals that echo what others have already gained. “We may have fights on our hands, if (employers) say, ‘Well, you know, conditions have changed.’”

Source: Globe and Mail
Source: The Star