Labour Day 2022 marks an escalating struggle by workers in the public and private sectors to recover wages slashed during two years of pandemic and economic crisis, and to resist public sector pay restraints, huge hikes in interest rates, and runaway price increases on food, fuel and rents.
In BC, public employee job actions started August 15, and 400,000 workers could eventually strike, demanding that the NDP government negotiate real wage increases with cost of living provisions (COLA) to protect against runaway inflation.
In Ontario, teachers and education workers are in bargaining now, warning of strikes ahead if the Tory government in Queen’s Park doesn’t move off austerity and its agenda to expand healthcare privatization into education. Bill 124 has imposed 3 years wage restraints limiting increases to 1%.
Earlier this spring, 30,000 building trades workers set the stage for the battles ahead with strikes that resulted in wage settlements of 15.1% over three years. In the forestry industry, Unifor locals won increases of 20–24% over 4.5 year agreements. Unifor has many more agreements expiring this year in various sectors.
PSAC will be in negotiations representing 120,000 federal employees this year. CUPE will be negotiating agreements for 350,000 workers. Nurses (who don’t have the right to strike, but are impacted daily by the healthcare crisis), are demanding an end to wage restraints, privatization and under-funding; many are “striking” with unprecedented numbers of retirements and resignations.
What’s at stake? Medicare, public services, social programs that the public expects and supports, and the good jobs, wages and working conditions that workers in the public and private sectors have a right to get.
By reducing real wages across the board, governments aim to increase corporate profits, and download the deficit onto the backs of workers. That deficit will grow as a result of a vast increase in military spending, while spending declines for healthcare, education, housing, jobs and the environment.
But now, workers are in a fighting mood, determined to catch up. The labour ‘peace’ imposed by government, Big Business, and some in the labour movement itself since 2020 is clearly over. While workers struggled to survive massive layoffs, corporations racked up some of the highest profits ever recorded. Corporations used the pandemic and the economic crisis to siphon off huge amounts of public funds through programs like CEWS and LEEFF, that are unlikely to ever be repaid. That’s the real result of tri-partism and class ‘peace’.
More than 7 million workers applied for CERB, but many now face claw-backs. The federal government has made social program spending cuts a key part of its budgets over the next 5 years. Continued under-funding is the main cause of the healthcare crisis and the gateway to widespread healthcare privatization.
While the government crows that a 5% jobless rate is full employment, the Labour Force Survey (Statistics Canada) states that 1.426 million people were unemployed and wanted to work in July. The number of women in the labour force aged 24 to 55 declined by 31,000, most of them in healthcare, education, and services. Part-time hiring continue to replace full-time employment, forcing workers into low-waged, part-time jobs.
Workers in the public sector are facing wage restraint legislation in Ontario and elsewhere, while all workers are facing deep cuts to real wages as a result of rising prices on food, fuel and rents. The Consumer Price Index rose 8.1% in June (largest annual change in 40 years), while the price of food jumped an average of 10% on essentials such as milk and bread, and even more on meat, fruit and vegetables.
The Bank of Canada has added to the misery by raising interest rates four times in 7 months, with another increase expected in September. Higher mortgage payments and credit card debt will push the country into another deep recession, as working people again see their savings, jobs, and living standards evaporate.
Instead of advocating the Big Business lie that wage demands are the cause of run-away inflation, the federal government should enact price control legislation and roll back prices on food, fuel, rents and housing. Parliament should oppose the Bank of Canada’s interest rate increases which will drive many people with big mortgages and high credit card debt over the edge. High interest rates are a gift to the banks and insurance companies – the most profitable corporations in Canada.
Instead, federal and provincial governments continue to protect the oil, gas and mining industries from making real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and the Liberals – with the unanimous support of Parliament – are spending billions on fighter jets and warships, on NATO and NORAD, and on expanding the war in Europe. Parliament should oppose the drive to war, slash military spending, and nationalize the oil and gas industry. The funds recouped should be used to transition to a publicly owned and democratically controlled renewable energy industry, and rapid reduction of greenhouse gas and carbon emissions.
Meanwhile the far right continues to grow in Canada, with links to both the Conservative Party and the mis-named People’s Party, as demonstrated by their support for the ‘Freedom’ Convoy occupying Ottawa last winter. In the US, the danger of fascism continues to grow.
What’s urgently needed is a People’s Coalition led by labour, that can pressure the Liberal minority and Parliament to implement an agenda for people, not profits.
An injury to one is an injury to all!
The CLC and unions such as the CSN in Quebec, have many strong, progressive policies – developed, debated, and passed by delegated Conventions over decades. Taken off the shelves where they’ve been filed, these policies for full employment, increased wages and pensions, a shorter work week with no loss in take-home pay, nationalization under democratic control, and for price control legislation, could make working people’s lives better immediately.
Unions could work together on campaigns to expand Medicare to include long-term care, pharmacare, dental, vision and mental health care, to expand public services, to make post secondary education free and accessible to all, to build affordable social housing, for EI reform that benefits workers and the unemployed, for equality rights including pay and employment equity, to expand labour and democratic rights , for an independent Canadian foreign policy of peace and disarmament.
Workers also need real action on climate change, that also protects the jobs and wages of workers caught in the transition to a publicly owned renewable energy sector, and a Canadian economy built on value added secondary industry and manufacturing.
These are policies that have the support of workers – organized and unorganized, employed and unemployed – across the country. These policies also have the support of workers and unions in and outside the CLC. A campaign for these policies could help to heal the rift in the labour movement, and also form the basis for a people’s coalition of labour and its social, political and community allies.
This year has shown a rising tide of organizing and struggles against right-wing governments and corporations. Workers in both the public and private sector have taken strong stands for their rights and for the services they provide, and for the wages, pensions, benefits and working conditions which have been static or declined over 30 years. Young workers are organizing new sectors such the warehouses at Amazon, Starbucks, the gaming industry, and Uber workers in food delivery and transportation.
This renewed interest in unionization is a result of the gig economy, the pandemic and the economic crisis, and the vulnerability of workers identified as “independent contractors” or in low-paid, non-union workplaces. Unionization provided better wages and protections during the two years of the crisis, recent surveys show. Organizing drives are reaching new sectors of the workforce, but this new energy and determination is so far mostly coming from the base of the trade union movement, not the top.
The election of Lana Payne as the new President of UNIFOR, Canada’s largest private sector union, has raised hopes that UNIFOR might re-affiliate to the CLC, ending the divisive split that has weakened the whole labour movement. CLC President Bea Bruske is also in her first term, and hopefully more open to finding a solution than her predecessors.
At the end of the day, the organized strength of the left and centre forces in the trade union movement, organizing and mobilizing in the workplace, pressing for independent political action around labour’s policies, and fighting for a united, class-oriented trade union movement – these will move labour from the defensive to the offensive against the employers and their governments.
This is the challenge in the year ahead.
Labour Day statement by the Central Executive Committee, Communist Party of Canada