The recession’s aura of fear does not appear to have daunted the resolve of aggrieved Canadian workers in the slightest — indeed, strikes were twice as prevalent in the opening three months of 2009 than a year earlier, when times were better.
Labour experts say that’s likely because, while workers do fear for their jobs in a time of high unemployment, that’s overcome by anger at what is seen as employer hypocrisy — asking for concessions while appearing to refuse to make any.
The first quarter of 2009 saw almost twice as many work days lost to labour disputes as the same period in 2008, according to Statistics Canada.
Major strikes currently underway include those by outside workers in the cities of Windsor and Toronto; miners at Vale Inco in Sudbury, Ont., Port Colborne, Ont., and Voisey’s Bay, N.L.; and paramedics in B.C.
The city workers in Ontario were driven to hit the picket lines by “an element of ‘Do as I say, not as I do“’ in negotiations with Toronto and Windsor, says Paul Moist, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
“In Windsor, city councillors who survive four terms, that’s 16 years, get retiree benefits for life. The mayor tried to change that and council said, ‘No, we’re not changing that, but we want that changed for the CUPE workforce.”
Moist said Toronto’s city council also angered workers when it voted to give itself a raise in February, then asked its outside workers — including garbage collectors, day-care employees and water treatment workers — to accept a pay freeze in 2009.
“Many commentators have blistered that council, saying, ‘Wait a minute, how can you take a 2.4% wage increase?’ The recession was occurring in February, and now you say to someone who cleans washrooms or picks up garbage for a living, ‘Have zero,”’ Moist said.
In the private sector, there’s an even deeper sense of distrust, as many see major corporations as primarily responsible for the financial crisis and the global recession that followed.
In the northern Ontario city of Sudbury, employees of international nickel miner Vale Inco hit the picket lines on Monday after failing to ratify a contract that proposed eliminating a bonus tied to the price of nickel. It would also move new employees into a defined-contribution pension plan, instead of allowing them to join the defined-benefit plan that already exists.
The United Steelworkers, which represents more than 3,000 Vale Inco workers in Sudbury, saw Vale’s demands and immediately questioned how they would benefit the company in the short run, said Steelworkers economist Erin Weir.
“Scaling back the bonus plan would only have an effect if things rebound and the bonus plan starts paying again, and similarly, getting rid of defined-benefit pensions for new hires would only save the company money 30 years from now when those workers retire,” Weir said.
“It’s not really about cutting costs right now, it’s more about using the current crisis as a way to try to save money down the road. Employers are pressing whatever advantage they think they have as a result of the crisis and unions are resisting that.”
Alan Hall, director of labour studies at the University of Windsor, said it’s unusual to see workers so willing to embark on major strikes during an economic slowdown.
This willingness likely illustrates a resentment workers feel towards their employers for appearing to want to pass the brunt of the recession onto the backs of their employees while continuing to enjoy raises, benefits — and often huge bonuses — themselves.
“I think part of the reason the workers are willing to stay out in these kinds of conditions is they see the causes of the current recession and crisis as being clearly not of their making, and that there’s a certain level of anger that’s out there that can be mobilized,” Hall said.
Statistics Canada data show that the equivalent of 271,370 eight-hour work days were lost to work stoppages in the first quarter of 2009, the most recent period for which numbers are available. This is almost double the 137,780 work days lost in the first quarter of 2008, before the recession started.
Labour disputes were recently resolved with National Steel Car employees in Hamilton, teaching assistants, contract faculty and graduate assistants at York University in Toronto and transit workers in Ottawa.