In 2023, Canadian unions experienced a banner year marked by successful strikes and legislative victories. These wins should be celebrated alongside ongoing efforts to build an even stronger labor movement.

Members of Unifor, a large union that represents Canadian autoworkers, march in a Labor Day parade. (Colin McConnell/ Toronto Star via Getty Images)

It’s been a big year for unions in Canada. The pandemic ushered in a rise in class consciousness as workers further realized the raw deal they were getting. It also brought about an affordability crisis which labor leveraged to insist on wage increases to keep up with rising costs — despite elite efforts to discourage inflation-driven salary boosts. The deployment of artificial intelligence and automation — and concerns about future uses of the technologies — heightened the anxieties of working people and, consequently, shaped contract demands designed to protect jobs as best as possible in a precarious labor market.

The list of successful labor actions in Canada in 2023 is long — and the outcomes are remarkable. As Rosa Saba details for the Canadian Press, by the end of September there had been nearly 150 work stoppages across the country. While this number means the stoppages were actually fewer than in previous years, the outcomes of the strikes have been more significant, resulting in more extensive and better deals and an increase in the average rate of wage settlement.

Giving Scabs the Boot

This year, strikes and strike threats in Canada have spanned various sectors: seaway workers, grocery workers, autoworkers, airline workers, and education workers, among others, fought for better deals in the last twelve months — and they succeeded. Some deals really stood out. As economist Jim Stanford wrote for Jacobin in November, autoworkers in both Canada and the United States achieved major wins at the same time.

Autoworkers in both Canada and the United States achieved major wins at the same time.

Not every day in 2023 was a cause for labor celebration, of course. Labor minister Seamus O’Regan called the International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s (ILWU) fight against the British Columbia Maritime Employers Association “illegal.” And the ILWU’s negotiations involved behind-the-scenes dealings that never saw the light of day, partly due to the dwindling coverage of labor issues in Canadian publications. Additionally, as Adam King argues for The Maple, the struggle of Canada’s autoworkers fell short compared to their US counterparts, with the UAW adopting a more effective strategy than Unifor in Canada.

Nevertheless, in the main, 2023 was a good year for Canadian labor. It’s likely that union wins encouraged and consolidated labor action throughout the year, even across the border. American workers had, like their Canadian counterparts, a banner year in gains. These successive wins were driven not only by material pressures fostering labor militancy but also by the influence of one union’s success motivating others to take similar actions. As the old saying goes, nothing succeeds like success. Moreover, insofar as the details of deals are made public, workers get a rough sense of the standards they ought to expect for themselves and fight for them accordingly.

Beyond work contracts, labor also secured a no scabs law from the Liberal government. Bill C-58, introduced by O’Regan, prohibits the use of replacement workers in federally regulated sectors and sets penalties at CA$10,000 a day for companies who break the law. It also sets up processes to induce both unions and employers to bargain early in the strike process.

As University of Saskatchewan political science professor Charles Smith told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, unions have been advocating for such a law for five decades. The law will not only give unions more power, but, as Smith notes, could also avert strikes and encourage deals to be struck at the bargaining table.

Union Density

So far, O’Regan has been, in some ways, a labor-friendly minister. No government minister is a perfect friend to workers, but C-58 is a big win for labor. O’Regan also declined to use back-to-work legislation in recent strikes, including the high-profile port worker strike on the west coast, despite Conservative opposition and industry pressure to do so. His refrain was that the best deals are made at the bargaining table.

Despite labor wins that are well worth recognizing and celebrating, there are still major structural concerns for workers in Canada. Growing inequality is one. The wealth gap has widened recently, even as the income gap narrowed. Affordable housing remains out of reach for millions, too. That’s a labor issue. Insofar as workers struggle to afford anything, especially housing, they lose leverage at the bargaining table and are forced into jobs and conditions they wouldn’t accept if they weren’t so vulnerable. Interest rates remain high, and a recession may be on the horizon.

Union density is another concern. As Statistics Canada reports, union rates fell 9 percent between 1981 and 2022, with one-third of that drop coming between 1997 and 2022. The overall drop, the agency notes, is gendered. In the last four decades, it points out, “unionization rates fell by 16 percentage points among men but remained stable among women. As a result, 31 percent of women were unionized in 2022, compared with 26 percent of men.”

Despite labor wins that are well worth recognizing and celebrating, there are still major structural concerns for workers in Canada.

The sector split in union density is also important. The vast majority of men and women in the commercial sector are not unionized. A mere 15 percent of workers are unionized in the commercial sector, compared to 62 percent in the noncommercial sector, which comprises education, social assistance, and health care services, along with public administration. The decline in union density weakens labor power and leaves workers in nonunion jobs vulnerable to the depredations of bosses and owners.

The Ongoing Fight

While port workers and autoworkers won victories in the struggle to protect jobs from the rise of automation and artificial intelligence, in the long run these technologies have the potential to shift power even further away from workers toward owners. This is not a new phenomenon; it dates back to the industrial revolution, as does the ongoing power struggle over who possesses leverage and access to the means of production.

Rapid advancements in these technologies stand to leave numerous workers vulnerable to replacement, which is always concerning but particularly devastating as the country grapples with structural challenges in housing affordability, consumer debt, and wealth distribution. Decades of welfare state retrenchment, partially reversed in recent years by the Liberal government with programs such as the Canada Child Benefit and the modest national dental care plan, further exacerbate the uphill battles of the working class.

We ought to take a moment to celebrate the big labor wins of 2023 — they are truly remarkable and a result of dedicated, intelligent efforts. These successes can serve as inspiration for ongoing union actions and organizing. But we can’t ignore the structural challenges that threaten the labor movement and the working class. In 2024 and beyond, the fight for union density will shape the broader struggle for income and wealth equality. There is no time to rest on our laurels.

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