Workers raise the bar: 2023 was a year of wage gains marked by high-profile strikes

Workers raise the bar: 2023 was a year of wage gains marked by high-profile strikes

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A month after 3,700 grocery store workers walked off their jobs at Toronto-area Metro stores earlier this year, they returned to work under a new contract that Unifor called “historic.”

Long days of picketing, including demonstrations at warehouses that halted deliveries to Metro stores across the province, led to a deal giving all workers an immediate raise of $1.50 an hour. By January, full-time and senior part-time workers will get another 50 cents, essentially bringing back the pandemic-era “hero pay” that ended in 2020.

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A tight labour market and breakneck inflation have empowered many workers to make new inroads.July’s Metro walkout, the B.C. port work stoppage in July and the Public Service Alliance of Canada strike this spring 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 Economic 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.

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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.

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“For years, unions were on the defensive, and we’re seeing some signs of some life,” said Savage.

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.

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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 per cent, up from 2.5 per cent in 2022 and less than two per cent for more than a decade before that. The average first-year percentage adjustment for those major settlements is 4.6 per cent.

“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.

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“Sometimes … those types of really impressive settlements inspire workers, particularly if they happen to work in the same industry.”

At Unite Here’s Toronto local this November, workers at the Park Hyatt hotel ratified a one-year deal bringing them on average more than 15 per cent in gains.

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Local 75 president and Unite Here’s Canada director Guled Warsame said looking at the gains his union and others have achieved this year gives him hope for 2024, when all of the local’s hotel agreements will expire.

Rejected tentative agreements are, at least anecdotally, also on the rise this year, said Savage. He’s noticed a string of them at Unifor, including rejections by workers at Metro in Greater Toronto, Windsor Salt, the St. Lawrence Seaway and SkyLink.

“That’s a rare occurrence and a clear sign that workers have the confidence to push for more, and to fight for a bigger slice of the pie.”

Unifor’s bargaining this year with the Detroit Three automakers stood out to Savage because of the juxtaposition between the strength of the deals the union achieved and the relatively low support they got in ratification votes.

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“These were some of the best, if not the best contracts auto workers had ever secured in Canada. And yet, they barely made it through ratification, in the case of Ford and Stellantis,” he said.

Sawyer said this year, strike votes at UFCW locals have been coming in with a much higher percentage than previous years of workers who say they’re willing to strike if they can’t get a good deal.

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 per cent 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.”‘

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2023.

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