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Skyrocketing inflation, stagnant real wages and an exhausted work force have revived a dormant labour movement, putting unions back at the forefront of economic discourse. Will this last?

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Unifor National President Lana Payne addresses a crowd of Ontario Unifor members at the Sheraton Centre Hotel in Toronto on Dec. 2. She implored union locals to push harder and more creatively at the bargaining table.Galit Rodan

At a gathering of thousands of Unifor members in early December in Toronto, Lana Payne, president of Canada’s largest private-sector union, was noticeably riled up.

Working people, she declared, have been “thrown to the wolves” by a coterie of company executives, corporate barons and central bankers. The latter, she said, are deliberately waging a class war, wielding interest rates as a “sledgehammer” to send the country into recession, because they insist on fighting inflation with stringent monetary policy.

As Ms. Payne implored union locals to push harder and more creatively at the bargaining table, her language had a whiff of militancy to it. “The Bank of Canada needs to understand that it is not acceptable to throw people out of work to meet some arbitrary inflation target,” she said. Her throw-down was met with a raucous applause and a chorus of “shame” from the audience.

Across the country, and around much of the world, there is a palpable sense among unions that they are inhabiting a rare moment in labour history. Many of their members – nurses, teachers, factory workers and more – have been pushed to the brink. Their labour was deemed indispensable during the COVID-19 pandemic, albeit fleetingly, and now they want to be adequately rewarded for it.

For most Canadian workers, wages have barely kept up with inflation, which marched upward for a year before peaking in July. Attrition – workers retiring out of the labour force early and burned-out young employees, especially in the gruelling food and hospitality sectors, leaving their jobs in droves to seek better working conditions – has dramatically tightened the labour market, leaving employers with far less leverage than they once had.

Catalyzed by these economic conditions, unions and their members have become more emboldened over the past year, demanding wages that match inflation even if it means double-digit increases, pushing back against offers they would have likely accepted in the past and voting to strike at any semblance of the status quo. Especially in the public sector, in which 70 per cent of workers are unionized, negotiators are putting up a stronger fight at the bargaining table than they have in decades, galvanized by the frustration of their own members.

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“This feeling of empowerment within the labour movement has been absent on a big scale for a very long time. And it is rooted in the average worker knowing that they have been getting a raw deal for so long, and it’s time to play catch up,” said Peggy Nash, a long-time trade unionist and former NDP MP. The raw deal Ms. Nash speaks of isn’t just class war rhetoric: Between March, 2020, when the pandemic hit, and this past spring, two-thirds of Canadians saw their real wages (adjusted for inflation) decline.

This renewed strength of Canadian unions was no more apparent than on Nov. 7, when more than 24 unions – including many that had been at odds over the years – held a joint news conference to denounce legislation put forward by Ontario’s Doug Ford government that, in effect, quashed the ability of a group of public-sector education workers to go on strike. To unions, the bill was an existential threat. Striking is a key tenet of the collective bargaining process, union leaders argued, and any government that aimed to legislatively remove it would be intentionally crippling unions at a time when workers need them the most.

But while it may seem like unions have regained some of the clout they once had, the story of what is happening in the Canadian labour movement writ large is more nuanced. Union membership has declined dramatically over the past 40 years, and it remained relatively static during the pandemic, said Charles Smith, a political science professor at the University of Saskatchewan. “The situation we’re in right now is unique if you compare it to 20 years ago. But unions are still nowhere close to as powerful as they were in the 1970s.”

Then there’s the question of how long this moment can even last, and whether unions will be able to capitalize on it to build support among the majority of Canadian workers who are not unionized. “A recession is looming,” Ms. Payne said in an interview with The Globe and Mail this month. “This means, we could very well have a small window to achieve real change.”

Open this photo in gallery:CUPE members picket at Queen’s Park in Toronto when education support workers across Ontario walked off the job on Friday. Many schools in Ontario are closed as union members including education assistants, librarians and custodians, took the job action  after the Ford government imposed a contract on 55,000 members.

CUPE members picket at Queen’s Park in Toronto as education support workers across Ontario walked off the job on Friday Nov. 4, 2022.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

There is some data showing significant union victories on wages in 2022. Among private-sector unionized workers in Ontario, the average annual wage increase negotiated by unions in 2022 so far has been 3.9 per cent, according to publicly available government data. That is higher than average increases over the past decade, which tended to hover between 1 per cent and 2.5 per cent.

In 2022, according to federal data, the average increase in employer-union settlements involving bargaining units of more than 500 workers was 2.5 per cent, the highest level since 2013. Public-sector workers, in particular, got bumps well above what their unions secured for them in the past. The average had not surpassed 1.9 per cent since 2013.

It is worth noting that data on wage increases for unionized workers tends to fluctuate because it depends on how many bargaining units are in negotiations in any given year, and the size of those units.

In Ontario, for example, significant private-sector wage increases for unionized workers were driven in part by large wins by construction unions this past spring. Workers in the province represented by the International Brotherhood for Electrical Workers earned an 8.6-per-cent raise over three years, and the Ironworkers union secured a 9-per-cent raise over three years for its Toronto members.

“Every negotiation is different and depends on the size of the bargaining unit,” said Mark Hancock, national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). It represents more than 700,000 public-sector workers and is the country’s largest union. “But what I can tell you is that members are going to bargaining wanting more, and there’s pressure on our unions to deliver.”

That pressure is unsurprising. Since April, 2021, the inflation rate has risen steadily, peaking at 8.1 per cent in July, and still at 6.9 per cent in November. Food inflation has been particularly acute, still hovering at just over 10 per cent as of last month.

Wages of all workers – bearing in mind that non-unionized workers make up roughly 70 per cent of the Canadian labour force – seem to be responding. Statistics Canada data show that the average hourly wage of workers climbed by more than 5 per cent, year over year, for a sixth consecutive month in November. Wages were up by 5.6 per cent to $32.11 an hour.

Unionized workers, on average, still earn more per hour than non-unionized workers, but in the past five years, the wage gains of non-unionized workers have far outpaced those of union members. From November, 2017, to last month, nominal wages for unionized workers increased by 16 per cent, compared with almost 24 per cent for non-unionized workers. Cumulative inflation in that time period was roughly 18 per cent.

In 2021, the average annual wage increase negotiated by unions across Canada (representing bargaining units of more than 500 people), was 1.9 per cent, while the average inflation rate that year was 3.4 per cent.

“Any kind of wage settlement reached right now has to address the cost of living. If unions are settling for contracts that give workers 1 to 2 per cent of a wage hike in a period where inflation is 7 to 8 per cent, members are going to start getting angry and question why they are even unionized,” Prof. Smith said. “This is the reality that every labour leader is facing when they start bargaining.”

Canadian unions are also determined to keep up with their counterparts in other industrialized countries. Frustrated by prolonged austerity measures and soaring food, heating and electricity costs, unions in Britain are winning their highest settlements since the early 1990s. As many as 100,000 nurses at the National Health Service are planning a strike this month – the first one of this scale in more than 100 years.

And south of the border, unions have won massive wage increases of a scope not seen in collective bargaining in at least 15 years. Although President Joe Biden and Congress recently forced a settlement to avert a national rail strike, it still gave workers a 24-per-cent raise over five years from 2020 to 2024.

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Newly elected Unifor National President Lana Payne poses for a photograph at the Unifor National convention in Toronto, on Wednesday, August 10, 2022.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Ms. Payne, who was elected leader of Unifor in August – after the previous leader, Jerry Dias, resigned in the spring amid allegations of corruption – said the urgency and frustration union locals and their members are feeling at the bargaining table has translated into a surge in the number of strikes this year. (Unifor has more than 315,000 members in multiple sectors, including many employees at The Globe.)

At least 30 Unifor bargaining units have gone on strike in 2022, compared with 21 last year. Ms. Payne expects that number to increase before the end of the year, and persist into 2023, when a number of key collective agreements involving Metro grocery store workers expire.

“We have said to our staff: You got to push harder, our members are ready. Employers can’t have people on the street right now, especially when they are struggling to hire. So this is our chance to build legacy collective agreements,” she said.

A group of cleaners at Durham College campuses in Oshawa, Ont., and neighbouring Whitby represented by Unifor won a small but significant victory in September that emerged directly from a 17-day strike. The 70 workers received a total wage increase of 33 per cent over three years, with an immediate hourly raise of $2, or 12.5 per cent. These cleaners earn between $16 and $18 an hour.

Ms. Nash, who is now a visiting professor at Toronto Metropolitan University, said it is particularly difficult for low-wage workers to vote for a strike, because strike pay likely does not cover their cost of living. “There is never any guarantee of the outcome of a strike. The fact that we’re seeing these workers willing to stop working is significant, and speaks to the moment we are in.”

So far, however, the data doesn’t show a widespread resurgence of the union movement in Canada. There is no noteworthy increase in the number of strikes across the country, according to federal data. In 2022, there were 134 work stoppages (defined as strikes of at least 10 days), but that is not much different from the annual number of strikes from 2013 to 2019. Strike activity unsurprisingly dipped during the pandemic.

It is incredibly difficult for unions to move the needle on the strike rate, because it depends on the size of bargaining units, according to Stephanie Ross, a professor of labour studies at McMaster University. Prof. Ross believes that if the 55,000 Ontario education workers who were in heated negotiations with the province had gone on strike for a long time, that would have impacted the strike rate.

But critically, Canada’s unionization rates, the proportion of workers covered by collective bargaining agreements, has remained roughly the same over the past three years, despite the pandemic. In 2019, 28.6 per cent of workers were unionized, compared with 28.7 per cent in 2022. Over the past four decades, unionization rates plunged, tumbling nine percentage points from 37.6 per cent in 1981. Quebec remains the only province where the proportion of unionized workers has not declined dramatically.

In a way, labour leaders argue, the union movement in Canada, like much of the industrialized world, has spent much of the past few decades holding on to scraps – fighting against the loss of full-time unionized jobs under free trade, and legislative changes by governments that have made it more difficult for workers to unionize. Successive federal governments – Conservative and Liberal – also welcomed a large pool of cheap labour through programs for temporary foreign workers, suppressing wages in the process.

“It feels like we have been struggling to hang on for decades, against the hollowing out of the unionized sector,” said Ms. Payne, who began her career as a trade unionist with the Fish, Food & Allied Workers union in 1991. “When you’re forced to hang on to the very things you care about – unemployment insurance, permanent full-time jobs – it is harder to move forward and make progress.”

The labour movement today, according to Prof. Smith, is not nearly as strong as the 1970s and 1980s, when there were many more private-sector union jobs. “There were tense moments of class struggle back then, but I don’t think we’re close to seeing that kind of intensity this year.”

While there are fewer unionized jobs in the private sector, public-sector unionization rates have remained roughly the same. Governments have played a heavy role in curbing the power of unions, Prof. Smith said.

Ottawa has used back-to-work legislation more than 30 times since 1950, and much of that has been concentrated over the past 20 years. Most recently, the Ontario government went a step further, invoking the notwithstanding clause of Canada’s Constitution in back-to-work legislation aimed at CUPE education workers, which effectively prevented the union from using the courts to appeal the legislation.

Provincial labour laws have also changed over the decades to make it much more difficult for workers to unionize, said Bea Bruske, president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). Most provinces – except for Quebec, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island and now British Columbia – have a double-step certification process for new members: Workers who want to unionize must first get a majority of their colleagues to sign a union card, then all of them get to vote, yea or nay.

Cost-of-living adjustment clauses (COLA) which were included in collective agreements for decades, which guaranteed workers annual wage increases adjusted to inflation rates, are now a rarity. Ms. Payne believes the moment is ripe to reintroduce COLA clauses at the negotiating table.

There is a debate playing out within the labour movement and the political left about whether unions are doing enough to capitalize on this moment in time. On one hand, unions appear to be increasingly mobilized and vocal. Unifor’s Ms. Payne and Ms. Bruske of the CLC have forcefully criticized the Bank of Canada’s rapid succession of rate increases. On the other hand, there are activists who believe union leaders are spouting the right rhetoric, but still capitulating too easily to the demands of employers.

This dichotomy was most recently evident in the negotiations between CUPE education workers and the Ontario government.

Workers defied the law and went on strike for two days after the Ford government invoked the notwithstanding clause so it could legally strip them of their ability to strike. Major Canadian unions also banded together and threatened a general strike across the province, which helped force the government to repeal its legislation.

But the Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU), the CUPE local representing education workers, was still unhappy with the second version of an agreement presented by the government. It gave workers an annual wage increase of 3.6 per cent, but did not guarantee workers more hours or provide more money for services in schools. At the time, OSBCU president Laura Walton told members she did not like the deal, and she did not encourage members to vote to accept it.

CUPE’s national president, Mr. Hancock, issued a statement that same day telling members they should accept the deal, saying the wage increases were significant, and noting that no deal “contains all we seek.” A majority of members voted in favour of the deal.

One OSBCU staff member, granted anonymity by The Globe because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, said the local was not entirely pleased that CUPE had encouraged its members to accept the deal. The staff member said the local believed it could have secured a better deal if members had voted against the agreement and resumed striking.

“I question how aggressive union leaders are willing to get, how much they are willing to put themselves on the line for their members,” said Prof. Smith, comparing current union leadership to that of Jean-Claude Parrot, the then-president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers who served a three-month prison term in 1980 for defying federal back-to-work legislation.

Ms. Payne is quick to dismiss what she calls “armchair critics” of the labour movement, and said anyone who questions how much fight union leaders have in them should attend Unifor negotiations. But she admits that unions need to act quickly and complete as many negotiations as possible before a recession sets in, which will reduce the leverage they currently have at the bargaining table. “That’s what I’m most concerned about, right now.”

Tiff Macklem, the Bank of Canada Governor, has warned Canadians the unemployment rate will go up, as a result of rate hikes that are designed to tame inflation and slow down economic activity. If and when that starts to happen, the calculus could shift dramatically for unions.

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Demonstrators chant as they march through Toronto during the Labour Day Parade on Sept. 5.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

“Building cohesiveness in the labour movement takes time, and we arguably do not have a lot of time,” said Prof. Ross, of McMaster University.

But beyond wage wins, there are a number of recent legislative victories that suggest the tides may be shifting in favour of workers, she added. An Ontario court recently struck down Bill 124, wage-suppression legislation introduced by the Ford government in 2019 that capped annual wage increases for most public-sector employees at 1 per cent.

The government is appealing the court ruling, but the use of the bill was a crucial negotiating point for OSBCU education workers, who demanded catch-up wages. It is expected to factor heavily in coming negotiations of Ontario teachers and health care workers.

In B.C., the provincial NDP government recently repealed the double-step certification process for forming a union, and there is early anecdotal evidence of a rise in union certification rates in the private sector.

In September, a Sephora store in Kamloops became the first one in the global retail chain to successfully unionize in Canada. Ms. Bruske believes that win was aided by the unionization rule change. “We don’t vote twice at the ballot box, we shouldn’t have to vote twice as to whether we want a union.”

Ms. Bruske remains optimistic about the future of unions in Canada and their ability to take advantage of this moment in time. She believes the pandemic fundamentally altered the psyche of most workers, who started to recognize the true value of their labour.

The critical step for unions, she says, is expanding membership, especially among the young generation who perhaps have a different ethos toward employment, and appear to prioritize a better work-life balance. After all, 70 per cent of Canadian workers are still not unionized.

“I think union leaders need to move beyond the bargaining table. We need to be able to articulate very clearly what we, as a society, lose when we don’t have good public services, when we don’t have a properly-funded education and health care system, when we have too many workers with part-time jobs,” Ms. Bruske said.

“That is how we are going to sustain this momentum.”

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