May Day 2022 marks a year of “corporate recovery” from the COVID-related economic crisis which hammered workers in Canada and around the world. It marks a year in which escalating militarism and aggression erupted into a war in Ukraine which threatens to expand into a greater war in Europe. It also marks a year of renewed organizing and militancy by workers and oppressed people, signalling that an uptick in the class struggle through which working people can turn the tide against austerity, war, neoliberalism and ultimately capitalism.
Capital has used the pandemic and economic crisis to launch a sharp attack on working people’s jobs, wages and living standards. While the government crows that unemployment is now lower than before the pandemic, there are still over one million workers without jobs. Furthermore, the quality of jobs has sharply declined, with an increase in part-time and precarious work, and with wages and incomes failing to keep pace with the cost of living. This is precisely the scenario that corporate leaders and right-wing politicians were hoping for, when they hounded the government to end income support programs for workers, arguing that they were a “disincentive to work.”
This attack on workers includes a rapid expansion of the “gig economy,” which affects virtually all industrial sectors and all job classes, from delivery workers to specialized engineering and design workers. The proportion of workers involved in gig work nearly doubled during the pandemic, with nearly 40 percent of businesses in Canada currently employing gig workers.
The situation for working women, Indigenous people, youth and racialized people is particularly acute, with joblessness and precarious work widespread. Women’s participation in the workforce fell to a 30-year low during the crisis, and their incomes and pensions declined accordingly.
On top of this, working people are struggling with rising prices and interest rates which mean increased debt, a deepening housing crisis and a reduced quality of life, especially after years of poor wage growth. Corporations are using inflation as cover for criminal price gouging on basic necessities like fuel and food, leaving one quarter of households in Canada facing insolvency at the end of any given month.
Alongside these attacks, and as a result of them, there has been a massive accumulation of profits and personal wealth for the ultra-rich. In Canada, profits grew by $103 billion in 2021; an astonishing 37 percent higher than in 2020, and the largest yearly increase since the 1980s. The banks led by hauling in combined profits of $58 billion, a growth of 46 percent over 2020. Most of these profitable corporations paid below the statutory minimum corporate tax, and many used government “wage subsidy” programs like CEWS to pad their bottom line rather than retain workers.
Rather than introduce a budget for working people – one that would include job creation and higher wages, social housing, expanded universal healthcare and real action for a green conversion, the Liberals introduced a war budget in March. The government has committed to $8 billion in increased military spending, on top of $19 billion which they use to purchase F-35 fighter jets. That money could be used to build enough green energy to close over two-thirds of Canada fossil fuel electricity within two years, creating nearly 20,000 jobs and stimulating industry in the process. Or it could be used to build nearly 750,000 social housing units, directly tackling the housing crisis and generating an estimated 1.5 million jobs.
Instead, the government has chosen to funnel public money – money from working people – into war and militarism, with the result that inflation is spiking, purchasing power is reduced and quality of life is further diminished, and working people are left to face another wave of COVID without proper resources and government intervention.
But while government and capital push for greater profits – and while rising inequality and sharpening contradictions fuel the growth of the far right – working people are increasingly organizing and mobilizing to resist the attacks and move onto the offensive, fighting for a people’s recovery.
One of the most dramatic examples was last year’s public sector strike in New Brunswick by 22,000 CUPE members whose unity, solidarity and militancy won significant wage increases from a right-wing government that was determined to break the union but failed. Their struggle is reflected across the country, including in BC where BCGEU is pressing the NDP government for wage improvements for 33,000 workers in healthcare, post-secondary education, social services and public services. It is also echoed in Quebec, where three union federations have announced a Common Front for their public sector negotiations.
Academic workers throughout the country have taken strike action to win better wages and working conditions, as well as to protect and improve the quality of public, post-secondary education. Similarly, 15,000 childcare workers in Quebec launched 2 strikes to win better pay, mandatory overtime and more resources for staff and special needs kids.
Grocery workers across the country are striking for – and winning – higher wages and benefits. Hotel, restaurant and hospitality workers, who were hit extremely hard during the pandemic, are also fighting for wages and working conditions against employers which are determined to extract deep concessions. Workers at the Hilton Vancouver Metrotown have been locked out for more than a year, following mass firings during the pandemic.
In addition to these labour struggles, union organizing has increased and union density is beginning to rise after a long period of decline. Most of this is in the public sector, where union density has shot up to 77 percent. But the private sector has also seen important gains including several organizing victories at Chapters/Indigo, Starbucks, PetSmart and elsewhere in the notoriously difficult to unionize retail sector. In the country’s largest manufacturing union victory in over 30 years, 1200 workers at three Canada Goose manufacturing plants in Manitoba voted to organize with Workers United. This increase in organizing is also seen internationally through the unionization victories at Amazon and Starbucks.
These developments are overwhelmingly driven by the grassroots of the labour movement and the working class. Often, they have to work against right-wing social democratic and liberal labour leaders in the trade union movement, who favour class collaboration between labour, business and governments. This kind of leadership acts as a pacifier of the working class, aiming to limit its activity to narrow collective bargaining and to contracting out its political interests to the NDP or even the Liberal Party.
Too many workers are in this position of fighting their employers as well as business unionism. To move forward and make real gains, the labour movement needs leadership based on class struggle trade unionism which mobilizes workers in independent labour political action, to advance the interests of the working class at the bargaining table, in the workplace, in the community and at the national and international level.
This includes fighting for a single, united house of labour in English-speaking Canada, based on class struggle trade unionism, and close fraternal ties between the CLC and the national union centres in Quebec in common struggle for workers’ rights and interests. It includes ending the splits, divisions and raiding which only aid the bosses. It includes strong international labour unity and solidarity against transnational corporations, supra-national trade and financial bodies like the WTO and World Bank, and capitalist “free trade” agreements like the USMCA.
It includes fighting against the drive to militarism, intervention and war, which are only ever used by the ruling class to extend its power and profit, while sowing national chauvinism and fomenting divisions within the working class. It includes campaigning to withdraw from NATO and NORAD, and for a foreign policy of peace, disarmament and international cooperation. It includes active solidarity with the peoples of Cuba, Venezuela, Palestine and all those struggling against imperialism, for national liberation, for labour and democratic rights, for the right to self-determination and the right to take a socialist path of development.
It includes putting labour’s shoulder to the wheel, to build a people’s coalition of union and democratic movements that can lead a sharp resistance to the neoliberal, corporate agenda and fight for a People’s Recovery, for peace and disarmament, for climate justice – for fundamental change that puts people before profits and builds the movement for socialism.
This is the way to build a united and fighting labour movement that can turn the tide.
Central Executive Committee, Communist Party of Canada