A wave of strikes has hit Canada. What does this say about our labour market? 

 "There is a cost of living crisis, there is a cost of housing crisis, there is a cost of food crisis": A Q&A with labour expert Stephanie Ross
Stephanie Bai
A group of workers striking with various signs

Last year, more than 55,000 education workers in Ontario went on strike. Five months later, roughly 155,000 federal public servants walked off the job. And now employees have halted operations at Vancouver ports due to disputes over wages and work contracts. Even tenant groups are adopting similar tactics, protesting rent hikes by withholding payment. According to Stephanie Ross, associate professor of labour studies at McMaster University, the wave of strikes are a product of the times.

“It’s the perfect storm,” she says. Emerging from the precarity of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have found themselves in a different labour climate—one defined by worker shortages, rampant inflation and higher cost of living. “People have learned there is no loyalty at work. The conditions are ripe for a renewed wave of collective action.” Here, Ross explains what’s going on with all the strikes across the country and why they’re likely to keep picking up steam. 

Between the massive public sector strike this past spring and the port workers’ strike in B.C., it seems like these actions have been heating up across the nation. Why are we striking more than usual?

Coming out of the pandemic, there is a convergence of factors that are driving workers and unions to take strike action at a somewhat higher rate. For one thing, a lot of big collective agreements are coming due. We should also remember that in the early days of the pandemic, when there was mass unemployment, many workers and their unions felt quite vulnerable, so the tendency was to renew collective agreements when they came up and try to keep everything stable. It’s not that people didn’t go on strike during the pandemic—it just was much more difficult. 

Now people have emerged from the pandemic’s worst, and those collective agreements are expiring at a time of generations-high inflation and a cost of living crisis across the world. There is also a sense that employers don’t have as many choices to replace workers as they might have had in the past and a changed mindset among workers, like teachers and health care workers, who have sacrificed a lot during the pandemic. They’re not willing to put up with employers’ attitude of, “you get what we decide to give you.” People are saying, “We’ve had enough.”

Especially in the past year or two, workers have had an upper hand over employers when it came to the labour market. How does that factor into unions’ bargaining power when they move to strike?

When unions consider strikes, they always concern themselves with the question of employers’ capacity to replace the workers. A large supply of unemployed people could be used to undercut the power of a strike, so when there’s a labour shortage, unions have a lot more confidence. There’s also a sense that people have sacrificed a lot for work, and emerging from the pandemic, we see that many companies have done extremely well.

For instance, in the private sector, there’s the Port of Vancouver workers’ strike, where shipping companies have amassed significant profits over the last three years. Meanwhile, workers are pressed to keep supply chains and consumer goods moving, but are threatened with automation and contracting out. That strike is fuelled by the pent-up feelings of unequal sacrifice, plus the pressures of inflation and fears of job loss. What I find remarkable is that polls show there is a lot more public support for labour action than what we’re used to seeing. The climate of support for striking workers reflects the sense that there is something fundamentally wrong with the maldistribution of wealth in this country, and here are workers who are fighting against that. 

It’s interesting that you mention public opinion. StatsCan numbers detail a decrease in the number of unionized workers over the past four decades, but public opinion polls show an increase in union support. What do you make of that discrepancy? 

That’s an interesting point. Overall, the number of unionized workers has increased in Canada over time, but the proportion of the workforce in unions has stagnated around 30 per cent. Unionization has declined even more in the private sector—this is due to job losses in highly unionized sectors like manufacturing and forestry, and the rise of non-union sectors like retail, where there are lots of workers but few unionized workplaces. 

But public sector unionization rates remain very healthy around 70 per cent, so almost everybody knows someone in a public sector union. Those workers provide some key services and care to their communities, which the pandemic really highlighted. There is sympathy and fellow-feeling, I think, that is translating into some greater support for union action. 

RELATED: Why this Toronto grocery worker is going on strike

Economists have said we’re heading toward an economic downturn, the scope of which is still relatively unclear. Will that incite more strikes, given the heightened sense of economic precarity? Or will that deter strikes, given the higher risk of unemployment? 

I think it cuts both ways. We’re probably going to see more strikes for a while because there’s a catch-up militancy right now—it happens when people’s wages have clearly fallen behind inflation. There will be a period of time when, even if unemployment is rising, some people with relatively stable jobs will continue to take advantage of the opportunity to strike. But you’re right that unemployment is a form of labour discipline. It’s the reason why employers prefer higher levels of unemployment—because it creates an environment in which workers are more likely to feel insecure and stay in line. 

Do generational attitudes come into play in the labour market? 

That’s another issue that we haven’t really talked about. The baby boomers are retiring, and most of the research on Gen Z shows that they are much less willing, as previous generations were, to live to work. At best, they want to work to live. It’s a generation that’s much less willing to take crap at work, if I can put it that way. In the U.S., even more than in Canada, we see  a wave of unionization in industries where Gen Z is prevalent, like at Amazon and Starbucks. 

There seems to be much more willingness for Gen Z to fight for better working conditions or not put up with bad workplaces. It’s also a generation where more people are likely to be living at home. Although that’s not necessarily what they want, it does give them more exit power in the labour market because it lowers the stakes when they leave an unfulfilling job. 

READ: You’re Wrong About Gen Z

To your point about precarity: AI is now the buzzword in the labour market. Workers are afraid they’ll be replaced with this new technology. Will AI impact workers’ ability to strike? 

I’m not sure how it will affect future strikes. But what we do know from the history of technological development, with respect to work, is that employers always seek to reduce their dependence on expensive scarce labour. So if you’re a worker that has a scarce skill that is hard to replace, it means that you have more bargaining power—you can charge a higher price for that labour. And in every generation, we’ve seen employers try to break down those skills, usually by replacing them with technology. AI enters the scene in the same way, just like the computer. Computerization didn’t replace human labour, but it transformed the kinds of work that workers do and the power relations that they work under.

What’s interesting is that there’s already a strike about AI: the Writers Guild of America. One of the major issues, besides residuals from streaming platforms, is the prospect that writers’ work could be replaced with AI. Now is that a realistic prospect or not? It’s hard to say—I think scripts produced by AI will be quite mediocre. But the WGA knows that if they can’t set some limits on how AI is used in their industry, there will be significant transformations that will undermine their ability to defend themselves in the future.

Renters in Canada have been taking up unionization and striking to combat predatory landlords and rent hikes. What has fuelled this wave of collective action?

Tenants’ unions and associations are not new, but they are becoming more noticed as they take larger-scale actions to fight utterly unaffordable rents in major cities. While these are not “unions” in the same way that labour unions are—they aren’t negotiating working conditions and they don’t have legal standing to negotiate the way workers’ unions do—they are really important forms of collective action on the part of working-class people. 

The amount of money people need to make to afford a modest one- or two-bedroom apartment in major Canadian cities is mind-boggling. I know a couple with two kids, both working professional jobs in Toronto, who were recently renovicted and whose monthly rent increased from $2,300 to $3,400 per month. There is no union powerful enough to get people a wage increase high enough to cover that increased rent, so the price of housing has to be directly targeted. 

READ: Why this Toronto tenant is staging a rent strike

What do you think the wave of strikes says about the state of our country and our anxieties as workers?

Certainly, the focus on wages tells us that people are falling behind. In the absence of any real reinvestment in social programs, social spending and affordable housing, wages are the main way people can imagine keeping up. There is a cost of living crisis, there is a cost of housing crisis, there is a cost of food crisis. People feel the impact of that on their day-to-day lives, and they are trying to keep what they have. 

I’m part of a research project surveying and interviewing Ontario workers about their experience of the pandemic and its aftermath. We’ve been interviewing people on Ontario Disability Support benefits, and many people told us they were considering medically assisted death rather than continuing to struggle in poverty. That is dire. 

You’re also right to point out other demands like staffing levels. The amount of work and the demands on people are just too great right now. I think that tells us something about the long-term effects of austerity in both the public and the private sector, where organizations have been very, very lean. They don’t want to have any extra workers or idle time that leads to slack in the production process because that costs companies money. But someone has to pay for the consequences of that leanness, so it’s not just about the dollars and cents. More and more, it’s about what kind of life we can live. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.