While the past two years have posed challenges for Canadian union members amid soaring inflation, unions in Ontario have secured remarkable wage gains that have largely gone unnoticed.

Union members demonstrate on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, April 19, 2023. (Min Chen / Xinhua via Getty Images)

There’s no denying that the past nearly two years of “post-pandemic” recovery have been tough for Canadian union members. Inflation averaged 6.8 percent nationally in 2022. Meanwhile, average wage increases in major union settlements — contracts covering five hundred or more workers — came in at just 2.5 percent. Month after month, union members, like all workers, endured a compounding cost-of-living crisis.

Somewhat embarrassingly, average hourly wage growth for all workers, nonunion and union combined, regularly outpaced pay raises bargained into collective agreements. While, on average, all Canadian workers experienced real wage losses in 2022, union members’ inflation-adjusted pay cut was deeper. An unfortunate result of the post-COVID recovery will therefore likely be a further narrowing of the union wage advantage. Insofar as the higher pay secured through collective bargaining is a primary selling point of unionization, this is bad news for the prospects of new organizing.

But has a focus on underwhelming averages obscured important union victories? A deeper look at the union wage data suggests it has — especially when it comes to collective bargaining wins in Ontario. Some unions have in fact won big wage gains for their members, yet these have received little to no attention.

If the Ontario labor movement hopes to not only make up for inflation-induced wage losses but win a greater share of income for workers, it should be looking at certain outlier victories and seeking to replicate them in industries across the province. Unfortunately, unions and labor centrals have instead largely focused on highlighting the hardships workers have endured over the past two years.

Centering the struggles of workers has its place, but so too does showcasing the advantages of union membership. If we want to grow the ranks of labor, we should be spotlighting the kinds of union wage gains recently secured in Ontario.

Turning the Tide in Ontario

For some time, there’s been evidence that unions in Ontario were securing marginally better outcomes than the national-level data indicates. Last year, many public-sector union members who had had their wages restrained through the Doug Ford Progressive Conservative government’s Bill 124 were emerging from their three years of “moderation” and looking to make up for past losses. Things could soon improve further. With the Orwellian so-called Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act now declared unconstitutional, unions with “reopener” clauses are headed to arbitration and likely to get slightly above-average wage adjustments.

It’s true that private-sector unions in Ontario did not make historic gains. Nevertheless, they outperformed the national-level union data. The collective agreements ratified by private-sector unions in 2022 secured average wage gains of 4 percent for the over 156,000 members covered by these contracts. In the third quarter of the year, unions in the private sector nudged average wage settlements to 4.7 percent, though inflation still averaged 7.2 percent. Even public-sector unions accustomed to bargaining below average wage increases were pushing for more. By the fourth quarter of last year, these unions managed wage increases of 2.8 percent on average, surpassing private-sector union gains for those three months.

Admittedly, the aerial view by the end of 2022 wasn’t exactly awe-inspiring. But there were important union successes and, importantly, growing signs of union militancy. In March, Teamsters Local 938 secured a nearly 20 percent first-year wage increase and a 7.5 percent yearly average pay raise for workers at Menzies Aviation service providers. In April, two hundred members of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), now under new, reform leadership, won over 20 percent at social care provider Community Living in Chatham-Kent. Then 466 members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 2345 did the same at Community Living Windsor in November, the biggest union win in quarter three.

The growing militancy around wages has clearly carried over into 2023, likely fueled by prominent strikes such as those involving 55,000 CUPE education workers in Ontario and 155,000 federal Public Service Alliance of Canada union members across the country. Many union members in the province are on the march, winning big at the bargaining table and on the picket line.

Learning From Winning

In January of this year, inflation was still running high at 5.9 percent. However, it has since slowed down, and union wage growth has begun to catch up. During the first quarter of 2023, inflation averaged 5.1 percent, before falling to 4.4 and 3.4 percent in April and May, respectively. Meanwhile, average annual union wage increases in Ontario inched up to 3.6 percent in quarter one and 3.8 percent in quarter two, after settling at 2.8 percent for the whole of 2022. In other words, average union wage growth in the province is ahead of inflation for the first time in a long time, certainly since the onset of the pandemic.

This is good news. But what needs to be highlighted is the number of new collective agreements blowing past the average and winning truly impressive wage increases for members.

There were sixty-two new collective agreements ratified in Ontario in the first quarter of 2023. While only six of them managed to win average annual wage increases above inflation (5.1 percent or higher), many more achieved significant wage increases in the first year of ratification. For example, United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1-2010 won an 11.7 percent raise for its 475 members at Resolute FP Canada Inc., a paper manufacturer. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 175 secured an 11.4 percent pay bump in the first year of its contract at Highbury Canco Corporation, covering over four hundred workers. All told, thirteen collective agreements covering 5,513 workers managed first-year wage increases above inflation between January 1 and the end of March.

So far in the second quarter of this year, things look equally promising. To date, union locals in Ontario have ratified twenty-one collective agreements, over half of them (eleven in total) with average annual wage increases above current inflation. But again, first-year wage increases are noteworthy. Local 175 of UFCW won an impressive 12.8 percent pay raise in year one of its contract covering 160 workers at grocer Sobeys, in Orangeville, Ontario. Unifor managed a 6.5 percent first-year wage gain for seven hundred municipal public-sector workers in Waterloo. Over nine hundred contract workers at Carleton University in Ottawa, represented by CUPE 4600, secured 5.5 and 5.6 percent pay increases in years one and two of their new contract.

While some unions have prioritized front-loading big wage increases to make up for past real pay cuts during the inflationary crisis, others have spread above-average raises over the length of their contracts. In the largest agreement secured so far this year, Local 1000 of CUPE pulled in three years of 4.5 percent pay raises for its 5,600 members at Ontario Power Generation, the Crown corporation responsible for roughly half of energy production in the province.

There appears to be a growing willingness to strike for higher pay as well. That’s certainly the message from 3,700 unionized workers at grocer Metro Inc. across the Greater Toronto Area who voted 100 percent for strike action last month. The union representing these workers, Unifor Local 414, last May won an over 23 percent first-year wage increase for 225 warehouse workers at the same employer.

Raising Worker Expectations

You wouldn’t find out about any of these wins by following the media releases or social media campaigns coming from much of the labor movement in Ontario or Canada more broadly. The Ontario Federation of Labour and the Canadian Labour Congress have instead been focused on the cost-of-living crisis brought on by inflation and the Bank of Canada’s monetary tightening. Given their role as the “political arm” of labor, this strategy is understandable — but only to a certain extent. A huge opportunity to showcase the power of union membership is being squandered.

Highlighting union victories doesn’t change what are, unfortunately, still lackluster average wage settlements overall. But doing so is nevertheless important for demonstrating what an energized and militant membership can secure through the exercise of collective power.

What were unions and their members doing at the factories, warehouses, grocers, and social service agencies where they won double-digit wage increases? A labor movement that was committed to spreading similar gains to the organized working class more broadly would be amplifying these victories, learning from them, and strategizing together.

Perhaps more importantly, magnifying union victories can serve as a recruitment tool for new members. There was a time when unions might have been justifiably concerned about flaunting the better pay of their members to the unorganized majority of Canadian workers. Those days are behind us. Growing numbers of workers want to be union members. Unions and labor centrals should be underlining what’s possible to potential members of the presently nonunion working class.

The bragging rights are there. Now is the time to raise expectations.

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