After a brief respite, it’s time to take stock of 2023. How did workers and unions fare over the past year, as inflation continued to bite and workers sought a greater share of the pie at bargaining tables and on picket lines across the country?
In general, 2023 saw the continuation of worker disconnect at being forced to shoulder a cost-of-living crisis they didn’t create. Militancy seemed to hang in the air even as the fog of post-pandemic inflation thinned. While the consumer price index trended toward 3 per cent by year’s end, workers — particularly union members — remained eager throughout 2023 to make up for nearly two years of real wage losses.
High-profile strikes caught the attention of the media and the public throughout the year. More than 155,000 federal public servants hit picket lines across the country for two weeks, ultimately settling for 12.6 per cent over four years. More than 7,400 port workers in British Columbia struck over wages and the threat of automation in July, before a highly questionable decision by the Canadian Industrial Relations Board led to the unceremonious end of the conflict.
Not long after, about 3,700 Unifor members walked off the job at Metro grocery stores across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). In a trend common in bargaining rounds this year, members rejected a first tentative agreement recommended by the union’s bargaining team and demanded higher wages. The Unifor Metro GTA contract has set a pattern for grocery sector bargaining across the province.
In Manitoba, union members at liquor stores throughout the province spent over a month on picket lines fighting for decent wages from their employer. Fellow members of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union (MGEU) also struck the province’s public auto insurer and land titles offices. These MGEU strikes represented a reckoning with years of public sector wage austerity under Conservative premiers Brian Pallister and Heather Stefanson.
Then of course there were the bargaining rounds at the “Big Three” automakers, which took place simultaneously in Canada and the United States. Unifor managed to secure impressive new collective agreements with only short disruptions at General Motors and Stellanis, in contrast to the “stand-up strikes” undertaken by the United Auto Workers south of the border.
If these were the highlights, it’s helpful to take a step back and look at the overall trends when it comes to strikes and wage settlements in 2023.
Strikes in 2023
Despite the many high profile strikes in 2023, the total number of work stoppages continued a downward trend from 2021.
As of October, there were 133 work stoppages (the vast majority of them strikes) begun in 2023, down from 156 in 2022 and 181 in 2021. (Note that federal data for November and December are not yet included.)
The total number of workers involved in strikes also trended downward to 169,102, which is only about 0.8 per cent of Canada’s total labour force.
On the other hand, person-days lost to work stoppages continued to grow in 2023, as it did in 2022. This past year saw the largest number of person-days lost to strikes in the past decade, and this is without data for the final two months of the year.
The reason that the number of person-days lost to strikes is up while the number of workers on strike is down is that the average length of work stoppages continues to grow. While the average length of a strike hasn’t reached the height it did in 2014, it is back above the average for the past decade, at nearly 74 days.
As mentioned above, federal data currently tracks strikes to the end of October and so doesn’t capture the impact of the ongoing Common Front strikes in Quebec, which will be substantial. When these figures are included later, the number of workers involved in strikes and the person-days lost to strikes will be much higher, but the total number of work stoppages won’t.
What this all demonstrates is that, where strikes and lockouts have occurred, both unions and employers have dug in and work stoppages have consequently lengthened. In part, this is understandable. Bargaining is riddled with uncertainties right now. Inflation has subsided, but will prices continue to fall and stabilize at relatively ‘normal’ levels? Employers don’t want to lock in elevated wage increases. Unions want to make up for past losses and protect members from future price shocks. It’s class struggle during a period of price instability.
A similar picture emerges through a closer look at Ontario, where collective bargaining data allows us to examine the “route” to new union contracts, (i.e., the number of bargaining rounds that involve mediation, arbitration and strikes), in more detail.
In 2023, the share of collective agreements that involved a strike remained elevated slightly at 6 per cent, though this was down considerably from 23 per cent in 2022.
Arbitration continued to play a large role in newly ratified collective agreements, particularly as unions representing roughly 67,000 nurses (who can’t legally strike) entered new collective agreements in 2023. Nurses’ unions were awarded pay raises of nearly 5 per cent annually and 6.8 per cent in the first year in arbitration. In all, more than 35 per cent of collective agreements in Ontario in 2023 were arrived at through arbitration.
On the whole, 2023 saw fewer but longer strikes and greater resort to mediation and arbitration as union members with raised expectations demanded more in new collective agreements.
Union Wages Are Up, But Falling Behind
How then did union members fare when it comes to wage settlements?
Unions by no means brought employers to their knees in 2023, but they did manage to make some noticeable wage gains for their members. Average annual union wage settlements continued to tick upward, as they did in 2022.
The average annual wage settlement in major collective agreements (covering 500 or more members, or 100 or more in the federal jurisdiction) was 3.8 per cent, up from 2.4 per cent in 2022 and 1.9 per cent in 2021. Many unions also front-loaded their wage increases. The average first year wage increase in new contracts in 2023 was 4.8 per cent.
In other words, while union wage gains didn’t necessarily make up for past inflationary losses, on average, they did meet and then marginally exceed price increases. This is a victory, though a small one. In the aftermath of decades of attacks on labour, it took considerable organization and resolve for union members to win these wage increases.
In Ontario specifically, the story was much the same. Unions managed to push average annual wages up appreciably, though not enough to make up for inflationary losses in most cases. Wage settlements in private sector agreements continued to outpace those in the public sector, though as more unions emerged from the Ford Government’s unconstitutional Bill 124, the gap narrowed.
Average union wages grew by 4 per cent in 2023, up from 2.8 per cent the year prior. Again, these wage gains result from a combination of factors. Workers fighting for more certainly ranks among the top explanations, but so too does favourable arbitration awards, labour shortages in particular sectors and a still relatively tight labour market where more perceptive employers realize that coming to the table with insulting wage offers simply won’t cut it.
Upward union wage pressure has some mainstream economists predictably worried. Locking in above-average wage increases, they claim, will make it harder for the Bank of Canada to return the economy to its 2 per cent inflation target.
Economists at TD Bank “anticipate wage growth to cool in the coming months as employment slows, unemployment tracks higher, and job vacancies decline.” These developments are of course positive from their perspective. Yet caution is in order: “However, a key uncertainty around the wage outlook relates to the extent to which unionized industries successfully negotiate higher wages, thus delaying the expected moderation.” In other words, if unions manage to protect their members’ wages, the “expected moderation” of prices could prove elusive.
This is essentially the same wage-price spiral explanation of inflation that we’ve seen throughout the pandemic and recovery. That many mainstream economists continue to fret over workers’ wages is no surprise. That they persist in ignoring the primary drivers of post-pandemic inflation, however, is astonishing.
How unions will navigate bargaining in 2024 remains to be seen, but there will likely continue to be no shortage of pent-up frustration coming from workers.
Legislative Wins and Losses
On the legislative front, 2023 was relatively quiet for labour. This is not so surprising when you consider that most provinces are governed by Conservatives. Under such circumstances, no news is often good news for the labour movement — though Alberta and New Brunswick are in the midst of attacking union members.
In British Columbia, the New Democrats passed a much-awaited, though preliminary, bill extending employment rights to “online platform workers.”
While many had hoped that the B.C NDP would chart a path distinct from other jurisdictions that have passed gig economy legislation, unfortunately the ostensibly most progressive provincial government in Canada largely chose to fall in line and legislate inferiority for gig workers. Bill 48 simultaneously brings platform workers into the Employment Standards Act as employees, while creating a path to exempt them from most of the protections employment status confers, such as paid sick days, overtime and vacation pay, and statutory holidays.
In Ontario, the Ford government continued to posture as pro-worker, passing a new “working for workers” bill that largely enforces things that were already unlawful but nevertheless widespread.
Politically, the major fight ahead will involve stemming the growth in popularity of faux populist leader of the federal Conservative Party, Pierre Poilievre, who looks poised to become the next prime minister. If things continue as they are, labour had better use 2024 to prepare for what is likely to be an enormous fight following the next election.
What’s Ahead In 2024?
Unions will continue to have their work cut out for them in 2024. In Ontario alone, 1,852 collective agreements covering more than 343,000 workers will expire this year, more than 68 per cent of which are in the public sector where many workers have suffered under legislated wage restraint and austerity.
The Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 113 at the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) will have an expired contract at the end of March. This will be the first contract negotiation covering the more than 11,000 workers at the TTC since a court determined that the removal of their right to strike was unconstitutional.
The Ontario Public Service Employees Union will bargain on behalf of nearly 8,700 college faculty, as well as 6,100 LCBO workers. The contract of roughly 3,000 workers at the CBC will expire, following announcements of mass lay-offs at the public broadcaster. Several large university sector contracts are also up, including at York and Queen’s universities. As well, many large municipalities will enter bargaining with their unionized staff, including in Toronto.
In the private sector, Unifor has important manufacturing contracts expiring in 2024. More than 2,000 members at Bombardier will be without a contract as of June 30. The United Food and Commercial Workers will bargain for 13,000 members at Loblaws as well as separate contracts covering 8,500 workers at Real Canadian Superstore and 4,000 workers at Great Canadian Food Stores, hopefully building on what Unifor managed to secure at Metro in 2023.
Across the country, 2024 is sure to present a series of challenges for union members at the bargaining table. Many unions will enter bargaining as the labour market shows signs of softening. A less robust labour market could encourage employers to drive a harder bargain.
Let’s hope unions and workers build on the successes of the past two years. There’s plenty more to fight for and against in 2024.
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