Labour disputes keep making headlines, from airlines to the oil sands, education to Amazon. Record inflation and wages seem to dominate these conflicts, but there are other pandemic-driven concerns, like remote work, also on the negotiating table. These issues came up during Canada’s largest public sector strike. After nearly two weeks of protests, the historic walkout ended on May 1, when the government reached tentative agreements with the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the union representing the more than 120,000 civil servants striking across the country. As negotiations wrapped up, some noted that something felt different: “I can’t think of a time in the last 20 years when all the major federal political parties were less inclined to have a racket with PSAC and more inclined to find a way to appease them,” wrote Tim Powers for the Hill Times.
We asked Kendra Strauss, director of the labour studies program and the Morgan Centre for Labour Research at Simon Fraser University, what this moment of unrest means.
What do you think of the recent agreement between PSAC and the federal government?
In some important ways, I think it represents a victory for the union, although the outcome is a compromise with a relatively supportive government. It looks to me as if workers made gains around wages but didn’t make the gains that they hoped for around guaranteed remote work language in their contract.
When we think about the rate of inflation over the last several years, and the fact that these workers haven’t had an agreement since 2021, [negotiations were] really about trying to keep wages in line with inflation. We’ve had over 8 percent inflation in the last year. So in that context, it’s really a matter of catch-up for these workers rather than a significant wage increase in real terms.
Could you explain the relationship between inflation and labour strikes?
In the late ’60s and ’70s, economists and policy makers were really concerned about a wage price spiral, where increasing productivity and increasing wage growth could drive unsustainably high levels of inflation across the economy—which would be further reinforced by a strong labour movement that could demand pay increases to keep up with that inflation. That’s not what’s happening now. Jim Stanford, an economist who’s done a lot of work with unions in the past, has done some good analysis to show that, in our current moment, we have high levels of inflation that are driven by corporate profits and by supply chain as well as general economic disruptions. Unlike in previous decades, wages are actually really struggling to keep up with inflation rather than the other way round. So what we see is that workers have been seeing pay increases of 2 percent, 5 percent at the most. And private sector wage increases have actually outstripped public sector pay, because public sector pay is held down by collective agreements.
In that sense, I think that the labour unrest and activism [are] related to this sense of workers falling farther and farther behind. And the very real struggle that particularly workers in the lower income brackets have just to keep up, never mind to get ahead. But at the same time, monetary policy, which raises interest rates to try and keep inflation in check, is also really hurting workers. We have really high levels of personal [or consumer] debt in Canada, and so if you have car loans and credit card debt, and of course mortgages, you’re paying more for your debt as well as paying more to buy groceries. So I think there’s a real cost-of-living crisis for workers.
The Bank of Canada has said that increased wages may actually contribute further to inflation.
We have to be really critical of monetary policy orthodoxy which says that we need to keep inflation down at all costs and workers’ wages are the problem but we’re not going to address corporate profits or other sources of inflation, including real estate. The Bank of Canada and the federal government [don’t] want to talk about that because nobody wants to piss off homeowners. So I think we need to be very critical in the sense of understanding where that policy orthodoxy comes from and who pays the cost for policies that are very strictly focused on holding inflation down through raising interest rates and wage suppression, essentially.
It seems like we’re seeing so many labour struggles in the past few years. Does the research back that up, or are we just paying attention to them more?
The pandemic highlighted and made visible working conditions, particularly in lower-wage, non-unionized sectors, but also in the health care sector, that had had degrees of precarity for a long time but were largely ignored.
We still have historically low levels of both union membership and coverage of collective agreements, particularly in the private sector. I think it’s more that we’re seeing some renewed militancy. In British Columbia, for example, we had a unionizing drive at a Sephora store. There’s also the campaigns at Starbucks locations in both Canada and the US as well as some of the big attempts to organize Amazon warehouses.
The other part of it is higher levels of precarious employment and increasing income and wealth inequality and polarization. I’m part of a project that just released a report in BC, called “But Is It a Good Job?,” based on a survey of over 3,000 local workers before the pandemic. What we found was that just under half of all workers surveyed had what we would think of as a standard, full-time job with benefits with a single employer.
You’re cautious about characterizing this as a new or successful movement?
We’ve seen increasing levels of public sector unionization since the ’90s but declining levels of private sector unionization. And so when we look at labour unrest, and we look at isolated stories of successful organizing drives in the private sector, we just need to be a little bit careful about contextualizing that with the longer-term empirical trends, which are towards declining union coverage.
That said, I think we’re seeing a resurgence of a more grassroots labour movement, which includes migrant-rights organizing and anti-racist organizing. Black Lives Matter, for example, had significant links to Fight for $15 and other movements organizing for racial justice and economic justice. One of the reasons that it feels like a moment of invigorated labour militancy is that we’re seeing non-traditional labour movement actors organizing in a grassroots way. We’re also seeing attempts to unionize in sectors that have historically not been unionized, at least in the last few decades, including service sector work. And a lot of that is driven by young workers.
You mentioned young workers. Why else is this happening in sectors that have traditionally not unionized?
Precarious employment is also racialized and gendered. So Indigenous workers, for example, are more likely to be precarious. But cross-cutting or intersecting with those categories of identity is just the fact that if you’re young, you’re more likely to be in precarious employment. And so young workers are less and less able to access those secure, stable, continuing jobs that were once the hallmark of the transition to adulthood. Interestingly, organizing in the service sector may well be the university-educated or younger people who have relatively high levels of education and are simply not seeing those investments translate into steady, secure, permanent, well-paid jobs.
I think there’s just a sense that there’s a real generational gap in opportunity, as well as in wealth and income, and that’s really driving this, in addition to the fact that younger people face a completely unaffordable housing market and a massive climate crisis.
Is it accurate to say we’re seeing this happen more across Canada and across different types of work?
Even though there may be more isolated cases in the private sector, I would still say that the big strikes that we tend to see are in the public sector just because union density is higher. But we also see these really iconic strikes in particular industries. And the oil sands [are] a really interesting one, because they’re highly paid, resource-industry jobs. But partly because of where they are and a variety of other factors, we haven’t really seen much labour activism in that sector.
What can history tell us about this current labour moment in Canada?
It’s always difficult to translate the lessons of the past directly. I’m always really cautious about making any kind of prognostications. It’s going to be very interesting to see whether this sense of labour activism, and the ability of workers to fight for a fair deal, is able to endure if things start to change with the broader economic situation in Canada and, in particular, if we fall into a recessionary situation. Workers have found it very difficult to make real gains when the economy is in crisis, because the government and employers are very adept at getting working people to bear the costs of economic crises. Historically, that’s a pattern that we have seen. Recessions have been used to discipline workers. That is one of the things that I’ll be watching for—what happens in the next year or two, in particular.