2015: The Canadian labour movement in review

By Doug Nesbitt and David Bush

2015 was a year of struggle and progress for the Canadian labour movement. The defeat of the Tories federally and in Alberta, and some notable legal victories were tempered by the three interrelated problems: sharp austerity policies applied at the provincial level, the continuing employers’ offensive on workers, and the shaky economy.

The Retail Wars

target ottawa
Ottawa Target workers protest job losses

The year started off with a jobs massacre. On January 15, Target announced they were closing all their stores in Canada after less than two years of operations in Canada. Their firing of 17,500 workers is one of the single largest layoffs in Canadian history (Target also played a role in the mass firing of 25,000 Hudson’s Bay workers when they took over HBC’s properties). The Target jobs massacre was followed by the Future Shop liquidation by Best Buy in March. Sixty-six stores were closed and 65 other stores were taken over by Best Buy with 1,500 workers losing their jobs the day the closure was announced. The heated race-to-the-bottom retail wars also saw Gap, Mexx, Smart Set, Nine West, Black’s Photography, Sears, Guess, and Sony all shut down stores and fire workers this year. In fast food, Tim Horton’s also carried out two waves of layoffs and buyouts, canning at least 350 corporate staff following a merger in December 2014 with Burger King.

Grocery store workers on strike in Ontario's Essex, Lambton and Kent counties this past July.
Grocery store workers on strike in Ontario’s Essex, Lambton and Kent counties this past July.

On the grocery side of the equation Sobeys announced the firing of 1,300 workers and Loblaws announced it was closing 52 stores. UFCW and Unifor, which have unionized stores with Loblaws and Metro, went through a bitter round of negotiations this year, resulting in some strikes in Ontario. We can expect that stress of the grocery wars will put added pressure on labour relations in the future.

While volatility is not new to the retail sector, the most recent shake-up is part of a trend of  even fiercer competition in the midst of a middling economy. With a sluggish resource prices and a depreciating currency, retailers are facing slimmer profit margins. Low union density in the retail sector means workers will continue to pay heavily. It has now been long understood that unionizing this sector must be a key goal for the labour movement in the future, but in many ways we are still operating in the shadow of Wal-Mart’s strategy of store closures. The vicious anti-union bullying in low-wage retail continues and was on full display during this past year’s successful union drives at Tim Hortons in Winnipeg and Sept-Iles. These efforts need to be replicated on a much larger scale.

Fight for $15

Fight for $15 activists in BC
Fight for $15 activists in BC (photo: Tony Sprackett)

The best thing happening for low-wage workers is the 2015 spread of the Fight for $15 (FF15) across Canada. The campaign offers another means for workers in all sectors to battle the rise of part-time, low-wage, precarious work. It also has great potential for laying the foundations for a large-scale workers offensive in low-wage sectors. The Campaign for $15 and Fairness was launched in Ontario this spring, and is looking to increase the minimum wage and reform a whole host of unjust labour standards in the province. The FF15 campaign has also been adopted in British Columbia, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec. These campaigns forced the issue into the 2015 federal election, won a victory in Alberta and show no signs of letting up in 2016. The FF15 has even influenced the federal and Alberta NDP to advance a $15 minimum wage, but in the face of some opposition, these promises have been scaled back (as in Alberta) or taken out of the spotlight as a key policy issue (as with the federal NDP). This is all the more reason to focus on building FF15 campaigns through organizing workers on the ground to keep pressure on politicians of every stripe. The NDP will be most amenable to responding to demands for a $15 minimum wage, but this fact does not mean the NDP can or should substitute itself for the Fight for $15 campaign.

Economic woes

Alberta's Bill 6 will finally bring basic labour rights to the province's farm workers.
Alberta’s Bill 6 will finally bring basic labour rights to the province’s farm workers.

The crash of oil prices put the Canadian economy back into a recession for much of the year and precipitated a major political overhaul in Alberta. The collapse of oil meant thousands of workers were out of jobs in Alberta (and the Maritimes). The ruling Tory dynasty was sent packing by the Rachel Notley’s NDP in Alberta, who proposed to raise the minimum wage, raise royalties,  spend more on healthcare and bring in health and safety regulation for farm workers. The latter was the subject of a boisterous attack by some farm owners and stoked by the right-wing Wildrose Party and press. Meanwhile, foreclosures, repossessions, evictions, and suicides have skyrocketed in the province as layoffs continue and benefits and severances begin to dry up. Nor has the collapse of the resource economy led to a corresponding uptick in manufacturing, which continues its slow decline in Ontario and Quebec. Reinvestment in manufacturing is going to require a real industrial strategy, not the foolish worship of “market forces”.

Pensions

The attack on pensions has been a continued theme over the last number of years as employers seek to convert existing defined benefit plans into defined contribution plans. Some employers like US Steel, Cliffs Natural Resources and Navistar are trying to skirt their pension obligations to their employees. CPP reform was thrust back into the spotlight because of the election, but after the Liberals’ victory they have sent strong signals that no real strengthening of the CPP will take place.

Legal battles

Early in 2015 we witnessed important legal victories for the labour movement. The most notable of these was the Supreme Court of Canada ruling in favour of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour in its battle over the provincial government’s attempt to unilaterally and preemptively carve out emergency service designations. The court challenge was launched in 2007. This was a legal victory for labour and it was one of the factors in causing other provincial governments to back down from implementing similar laws, the most glaring example was the Nova Scotia’s Bill 1.

As important as the SFL decision was (as well as the Mounted Police Association of Ontario decision), they also point to a troubling trend of labour looking to the courts to settle disputes. Legal challenges are costly and can take years to wind through the court system. Without sufficient pressure on the streets and in workplaces legal battles will, in the best case scenario, slow the tide of the right-wing assault. The worst case scenario is that labour increasingly looks to the courts as a short-term work around and in the process pacifies rather than mobilize its members. The lessons, confidence and the public outreach built by organizing a broad membership fight back are worth more than a thousand favourable court decisions for the labour movement.

Migrant Workers

-1Temporary Foreign Workers continued to bear the brunt of an unjust program offering little in the way of pathways to citizenship. On April 1 2015, at least 16,000 and upwards of 70,000 four-year work visas for low-skilled TFWs and Live-In Caregivers expired. Despite working here for four years, these workers were barred from renewing their work visas, resulting in immense disruptions to personal, family and community lives. Fortunately, the tireless efforts of workers and organizers has continued to build relationships with TFWs and the wider labour movement in a united effort to take on exploitative employers and create a shield against racism and xenophobia that serves to divide workers.

Federal politics: Harper defeated

The federal election was probably the most significant event of the year. For the labour movement the defeat of the Harper government is undoubtedly a positive thing. The anti-union bill C-377 looks like it will be repealed, but it is less clear if C-525 will be repealed or the anti-labour aspects of the omnibus Bill C-4. The Tories were beaten by a huge desire for change and it was the Liberals, with promises to tax the rich, reverse a host of Tory laws, and loudly rejected balanced budget promises, who captured the sentiment for change. Attractive promises of infrastructure spending and “middle class” tax cuts were also made by the Liberals, but beneath the surface these policies are about privatized P3 infrastructure spending and handouts to the minority of Canadians making between $45,000 and $90,000 per year (a majority of Canadian workers make less than $45,000/year). Even so, the very fact that Harper’s agenda of racism and attacks on public services was rejected at the polls means the labour movement will have more room to push its agenda.

Postal workers defending our postal system in Sydney, Cape Breton
Postal workers defending our postal system in Sydney, Cape Breton

The removal of Harper also saw the reluctant suspension of the elimination of door-to-door mail delivery by Canada Post’s pro-privatization management. This victory was the product of the the save door-to-door campaign by CUPW and community activists. After laying the foundations through 2014, the campaign grew in strength throughout 2015 as communities fought back against the loss of service by protesting, sitting-in or building gardens on CMB installation sites. Activists continued to push municipalities to oppose the cutbacks, driving an important wedge into the political establishment and forcing the Trudeau Liberals to concede a moratorium on any further conversions.

The election was not all roses for the labour movement however. The Liberals have already backed down on the progressive reform of the CPP, and as mentioned, their tax reform is mostly smoke in mirrors that transfers wealth upwards. Their privatized infrastructure spending commitments are fairly small in the grand scheme of things and open the door for more corporate graft. And despite moving quickly on a number of files, the Liberals only made a formal request for Canada Post’s CEO to step down instead of using their parliamentary power to expel Chopra whose term was only extended by Harper in the middle of the federal election.

Perhaps the most troubling development is the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The trade and investment pact was agreed upon by negotiators in the midst of the campaign. The Liberals support the TPP and this will create real trouble for the auto and manufacturing sector, empower corporate investors and attack public services and environmental, safety and drug regulations.

The Provinces: Austerity on the offensive

10930923_934749089903003_1136195804566926817_nWhile the overt Tory austerity program at the federal was rejected at the ballot box, austerity is running wild in the provinces. The Nova Scotia Liberals continued to cut services and attack labour rights. Bill 148 discards the notion of free and fair collective bargaining by legislating wages for 75,000 public sector employees. The New Brunswick government is looking at across-the-board austerity budgets and is even attempting to monetize public parks. The Liberals swept into power in Newfoundland as the outgoing Tories tried to privatize long-term care. In Ontario, the Wynne government continued its strangulation of healthcare, while also managing the push through the privatization of Hydro One, the largest privatization in the history of the province. The Ontario Liberals have also squeezed public service workers in their negotiations and legislated teachers back to work. In Manitoba, while harsh austerity has been avoided, the NDP government is in crisis and looks headed for defeat in the spring election. Despite ongoing scandals and corruption, the BC Liberals have not been seriously tested by labour or social movements except in the area of natural resources and the environment. In Saskatchewan, Brad Wall is attempting to privatize liquor stores and parts of the healthcare system while continuing his P3 agendas of contracting out and infrastructure building.

The provinces continue to be the laboratories for privatization and austerity, and when one provincial government succeeds in this agenda, the other provinces and federal government often follow. Workers across Canada need to have the same attitude towards learning how best to build opposition and fight for alternatives. That’s why we have to look to Quebec.

A march during the December general strikes against the Quebec government.
A march during the December general strikes against the Quebec government.

Quebec’s Liberal government has pursued harsh austerity against the public sector workers and the public services. But this has been met by continued resistance through the year. The strikes and protests in the spring by both students and workers were surpassed in size and strength in the fall when the province was hit by rolling strikes in the public sector. At the height of the strike wave over 400,000 workers were on strike. This level of mobilization is precisely how the labour movement should respond to attacks.

2016

We are faced with a number of challenges and opportunities. The signing of the TPP will be an immediate issue in the new year, as the Liberals will look to push through the deal with as little debate as possible. The pro-corporate media will provide very little critical coverage. Labour must find a way to expand the debate, mobilizing its own membership and organizing with community and environmental groups to make the TPP an issue.

Low world resource prices and the degradation of the Canada’s manufacturing sector means that the Canadian economy will most likely muddle along with low growth. Employers in the private sector will continue to squeeze workers at every turn and the growth of precarious work shows no signs of abating. The battle between cab drivers and the growth of UberX, which became a country-wide battle in 2015, showcases this trend of precarious workers struggling against an existing set of unjust regulations and local employers, while also contending with a billion dollar foreign multinational company who aim to structurally shift the industry by further undermining regulations and workplace standards. The spread of the Uber model will be a major trend in Canadian labour relations in 2016.

At the COP21 Climate negotiations in Paris this past December Canada made an ambitious promises of keeping the rise of global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius. This pledge by world leaders and the Liberal government is especially lofty since we are not even on pace to fulfill Harper’s very tepid emission reduction targets. The labour movement could play an important role in pushing a robust agenda of public green infrastructure investment in things like rail and green energy. But this means developing an industrial strategy and saving essential industries like steel production which is being wrecked by US Steel with the complicity of the judiciary and government. The gulf between the rhetoric and the reality of the Liberal’s agenda on the issue of climate change means there is ample space for the labour movement in shaping the debate and advancing alternatives. This is the only way to hold the Liberals to account.    

The austerity at the provincial levels seems set to continue and with the shrinking amount of federal healthcare dollars the squeeze on the provinces will only grow more acute. While governments will attempt to ram austerity down the throat of public sector workers and the public right across the country, private sector employers will continue to squeeze workers. The result is likely to be the continued growth of inequality, injustice and the degradation of public services.

However, we can challenge the austerity agenda. This will be done by unions mobilizing their membership, organizing the unorganized, and building broader alliances with community allies in campaigns for a green economy, the Fight for $15, and to stop the TPP.

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