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The Hudson’s Bay department store in downtown Toronto on April 12.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Hundreds of workers at a Toronto warehouse belonging to The Bay, a subsidiary of Hudson’s Bay Co., have gone on strike, demanding a retroactive pay increase for working in gruelling conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the midst of inflation that is now soaring.

The warehouse strike is the latest work stoppage to hit the country, as tensions rise between labour groups and employers over wages in an inflationary environment not seen since the 1980s. Unions are getting more aggressive and large contracts are up for renewal in several key sectors, including retail.

“I think what we will see in Canada in the coming year is more militancy in collective bargaining,” said Stephanie Ross, director of the labour studies program at McMaster University. “Given tight labour market conditions, it is employers that have to decide whether or not they are willing to agree to unprecedented wage increases to avoid strikes.”

The disputes are already getting heated. On Saturday, 750 CN rail workers walked off the job in a clash with the transportation giant over pay increases and benefits.

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At The Bay, negotiations between HBC Logistics, (a division of the employer) and Unifor, the union that represents more than 330 warehouse workers, broke down on Tuesday after the two parties could not agree on past wages. The Bay, an online-only marketplace, operates as a separate entity from Hudson’s Bay Co. and was spun off by the company last year.

“E-commerce boomed in the pandemic and we were so busy processing orders. But the last pay raise that we got was in 2019,” said Margaret Henry, a long-time employee at the warehouse, who gets paid less than $20 an hour.

Abdul Patel, a maintenance unit worker at the warehouse, said there was a lot of pressure on workers to pick up overtime hours, especially during the holiday season last year. And even though The Bay employees get paid overtime, many of them were already feeling overworked from the sheer volume of online orders the retailer received during the pandemic. The union estimates that roughly two dozen workers have contracted COVID-19 at the facility, resulting in one death.

Negotiations began this month and The Bay agreed to increase wages for workers in future by an amount that would match the current inflation rate.

But the union is arguing that workers deserve pay increases to cover the period between May, 2021, and now, because they worked without a collective agreement and they would have received higher pay had a new agreement been reached last year.

Unifor representative Barry Lines, who has been on the picket line with workers this week, told The Globe and Mail the wage increases workers receive would effectively be less than the rate of inflation if The Bay does not agree to the retroactive pay bump.

Hudson’s Bay defended its offer to workers.

“We have made fair, reasonable and competitive offers which included meaningful wage increases for associates. While we are disappointed the union has taken this action, we are hopeful that a resolution can be reached quickly,” Tiffany Bourré, a divisional vice-president at Hudson’s Bay, told The Globe in a statement.

She said the company does not expect any disruption to customers.

HBC, which own’s Hudson’s Bay, Saks Fifth Avenue and Saks Off 5th, went private in 2020, so its executive compensation figures have not been public since 2019. But that year, Helena Foulkes, who stepped down as chief executive of HBC in March, 2020, received a $29.4-million compensation package, becoming one of the highest-paid executives at a Canadian company.

Len Poirier, assistant to Unifor’s national president, said workers at The Bay’s warehouse felt “disrespected,” because they continued to be on the front lines during the pandemic without seeing any kind of bonus or increase in compensation. “We’ll be maintaining the work disruption until the employer comes back to the bargaining table,” he added.

The Bay said that workers had received a “wage premium for a time” during the pandemic, but did not disclose what percentage of an increase workers received.

The inflation that has swept over much of the Western world is bound to raise the level of strike activity in Canada, labour analysts and academics say. Federal government data show that a number of large bargaining units in retailing have collective agreements that expire over the next several months.

At the No Frills grocery chain, 10,000 workers represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union will see their collective agreement expire at the end of June. And 5,000 Fortinos workers, also represented by UFCW, are expected to begin negotiations on a new collective agreement in early July.

Larry Savage, professor of labour studies at Brock University, is sure there will be a higher level of labour disputes in the near term. If strikes are successful, he says, it might encourage non-union workers to think about unionizing. “They will see unionization as a way of catching up to inflation.”

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