It’s a red-hot labour summer across North America: Brock University professor Larry Savage
A recent string of rejected tentative agreements across the country is a sign that workers are expecting more from their employers, and their unions, experts said.
“Pre-pandemic, union members were content with wage increases that more or less kept pace with inflation,” said Larry Savage, a professor in the labour studies department at Brock University. But the pandemic, inflation and low unemployment have combined to create a heightened environment for union militancy, he said.
Last week, workers at 27 Metro grocery stores across the Greater Toronto Area rejected a tentative agreement that had been reached just after a strike deadline.
The workers had gone into bargaining with a 100 per cent strike vote, and chose to walk off the job Saturday to fight for more instead of accepting the deal.
Kim Coughlin and Samantha Henry, two Metro employees and members of the bargaining committee, said the tentative deal they reached was the best the group has ever achieved -- but it wasn’t enough for the 3,700 workers who are dealing with the skyrocketing cost of living, and who still remember working through the COVID-19 pandemic and having their $2-an-hour ‘hero pay’ taken away.
For many members, that hero pay is what they’re trying to get back with this agreement, said Coughlin.
Metro has said it’s “extremely disappointed” that Metro workers decided to strike instead of voting for the agreement, which the company said provided “significant increases,” as well as improved pension and benefits.
Meanwhile on the other side of the country, B.C. port workers also recently rejected a proposed agreement from a federal mediator -- but another tentative agreement was reached shortly after and will be brought to workers for another vote by Friday.
These are perhaps the most high-profile examples, but they’re not the only ones. For example, Unifor workers at Windsor Salt recently rejected a tentative agreement after months of striking.
Savage said while workers rejecting tentative agreements isn’t unheard of, it’s uncommon.
“What it tells me is that workers are very unhappy, that they're fed up, and that they have increased expectations about what their labour is worth, and that they're demanding more from both their unions and their employers,” he said.
Pre-pandemic, the tentative agreement achieved by Metro workers would have been considered great and would have been ratified without a hitch, said Savage.
“But it's very clear now that those Unifor members have much higher expectations in the face of record-breaking profits, and given the cost of living crisis,” he said.
“They're saying it doesn't matter that we have the best contract in the sector. Because if I can't pay my bills, if I can't pay the rent, then it doesn't matter.”
Every round of bargaining is unique, said Unifor national president Lana Payne, and this round for Metro workers has been challenging for those at the bargaining table, with high expectations from workers.
The tentative agreement reached by the committee with Metro was a “milestone agreement,” said Payne, and the committee made the right decision to bring it to members -- who don’t take the decision to strike lightly, she added.
“This is not to be romanticized,” said Payne. “This is a very, very difficult decision made by folks who struggle with it, and with a bargaining committee that is working really hard to meet expectations.”
Unions are democratic organizations, and the bargaining committee’s job is to bring members the best agreement they believe they can get without a strike, said Peggy Nash, chair of the Centre for Labour Management Relations' advisory committee at Toronto Metropolitan University and former union negotiator.
“Obviously, you don't get everything that your members are asking for, but you're trying to get enough that it will meet the test of a ratification meeting.”
Usually, it does, she said, but sometimes exceptional circumstances mean workers are willing to fight for more.
While the situations at Metro, B.C. ports and at Windsor Salt are very different, generally speaking workers right now feel a heightened sense of value, combined with a feeling of falling behind financially, said Payne.
This round of bargaining for Metro workers feels very different than the last, which was in 2019, said Coughlin. She said it feels like Metro employees are fighting not just for themselves, but for all retail workers.
Unifor is gearing up for a two-year string of bargaining rounds for contracts with the big grocers in multiple provinces, and has said it hopes to establish a pattern with the Metro deal.
“All retail workers deserve a large raise for what we put up through, put up with during COVID,” said Coughlin.
Workers have more power in a tighter labour market right now, said Nash, and there’s “huge pent-up demand” to catch up to inflation. She said she has spoken to some of the striking Metro workers and was struck by hearing that some couldn’t afford to shop at the grocery store where they work.
“It is a moment when labour has an opportunity to make progress,” she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published August 2, 2023.