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Striking back

Locked-out NRI workers with Scabby the Rat
Ritch Whyman

August 14, 2021
With Labour Day and a federal election around the corner it is worth looking at the state of the Union movement and how the working class is responding after a year and half of COVID restrictions.
Since the start of the COVID outbreak in February/March 2020 politicians, bankers, bosses and sadly some union leaders have been bleating on that “we’re all in this together”. Businesses praised workers in ads and on social media for “keeping things going”. 
Despite the kind words, said from the comfort and safety of the boss’s home, cottage or vacation resort, employers across the country have been gearing up to utilize the crisis caused by COVID to roll back workers’ rights and gains. Employers have shown they are keen to test workers and unions willingness to fight back after an exhausting 18 months of the hardships of COVID. 
Early on in the pandemic signs of this were clear. Business groups and employers derided any programs designed to support workers such as CERB as being too generous, despite their inadequacies. They clamoured instead (supported by the CLC and some union leaders) for the largest ever corporate cash handout of $83.5 billion incorrectly labeled as a “wage subsidy”. Profitable firms jostled and shoved to gorge at the public trough laid out by the Trudeau Liberals (and supported by the NDP). Air Canada used these subsidies to nearly dollar for dollar dole out executive bonuses to fats cats who rode out COVID in their mansions.
At this stage the confidence to fight employers was limited by the fear and unknowns regarding COVID.  Few groups of workers had the confidence to fight, and union leaders were unwilling at best or outright hostile to fighting back in this moment of “national unity”.  Strikes dipped to near historic lows. But such quiet is often just a sign of storm slowly brewing. 
As COVID dragged on, profits for bosses grew, hazard pay was cut and the burden on workers grew. Eventually something had to give.
The equilibrium faces its first series of organized workers resistance

Dockworkers in Montreal walked out for 10 days in August 2020 after a nearly unanimous strike vote. CUPE 375, without a collective agreement for several years, walked out on strike over shift schedules and hours that created hardships for them and their families – some workers had to work 19 days straight before getting a day off.

The strike was called off after the Maritime Employers Association, who oversee the $100 billion worth of goods going through the Port of Montreal, agreed to return to the table. Both Doug Ford, Tory premier of Ontario and Patrick Legault, Premier of Quebec, called for the Trudeau Liberals to intervene and legislate the dockers back to work. In words she would forget within a year, the Trudeau government's Minister of Labour Filomena Tassi said, “Our government has faith in the collective bargaining process, as we know the best deals are made at the table." But huge pressure was put on the union to accept a return to the table. In May 2021 the employer’s refusal to bargain was called out, the Liberals had a different tune about their “faith”.

In October 2020, thousands of healthcare workers in Alberta walked off the job, in one of the largest wildcats strikes in recent memory. Members of the Alberta Union of Public Employees who work at hospitals doing custodial, food service, laundry, and other work, stormed off the job after the Kenney government privatized and moved to contract out their jobs. The fight is far from over, and while the workers did not push Kenney back fully, partly because other healthcare unions did not join the wildcat, the fight continues as Alberta Nurses are now talking about taking strike action.

In November 2020 Owens Corning locked out its workers at its plant in Guelph. Fresh off taking hundreds of thousands in wage subsidies, Owens Corning used the pretext of a lunchtime bargaining rally to lock the gates and try and scab the plant. Workers, members of Workers United Local 1305 had rejected the concessions placed on the table (by an employer who bragged in its quarterly reports about its high profits) and sought to reverse givebacks done in previous rounds of bargaining.

In essence, the employer was using Trudeau’s “wage subsidy” to bankroll its attempt to break the union through scabs.

In Toronto, workers at Tropicana Social Services, an agency geared to serving the black community in Toronto, forced workers who recently had organized with SEIU Local 2, out on strike by refusing to bargain a first contract. The employer clearly hoped COVID would limit the ability to build solidarity. The workers pushed back and made some important gains.

Across Vancouver and Victoria janitors had to continue to battle for union rights and hotel workers had to fight employers to extend their right to be recalled to jobs they’d worked for decades. In both situations, employers were intransigent. Despite flowery words about workers being essential, when it came down to workers rights, employers bloated on government hand-outs keep on trying to keep workers down. In both cases, workers continued to stand up and fight back. For the janitors it has meant hundreds of workers have won union recognition and gains at the table, altering the landscape in that industry. Hotel workers are still locked in a battle.

These fights were scattered and not widespread enough for broader layers to hear about and generalize from.

Heading into 2021 it was clear to anyone who wanted to look that confrontations were brewing between workers sick of putting themselves on the line while their bosses safely sat at home, and employers determined to discard the fluff about, “being in it together” and make workers pay and use the pandemic to discipline workers into accepting less for their sacrifices in fighting COVID.

2021 – Manufacturing mini-strike wave:
The first quarter of 2021 saw a small but significant wave of strikes and lockouts in large and medium sized manufacturing workplaces.
The constant theme through these fights was employers demanding concessions or offering settlements that were below inflation and pushing for cuts to benefits and sick time. On the flip side workers were determined to get the respect for having carried the brunt of sacrifices during CoVID. In workplaces across the country employees took the pandemic seriously and accepted the mantra that we were all in it together. Workplace issues and problems were set to the side as workers shouldered the weight of keeping things moving. The employers’ laudatory words turned out to be empty. But words won’t pay the rent or hydro bill.
Workers at Fenner-Dunlop in Bracebridge struck in February against concessions being demanded including rollbacks to short term disability. After nearly 5 months on the strike the workers were able to beat back some of the concessions.  This happened only after Steelworker locals across Canada and the US mobilized rallies and pickets Dunlop dealerships broadening the impact of the picket line beyond the plant in Bracebridge.
They were followed by electrical workers at Manitoba Hydro from IBEW 2034 who struck in late March and remained on the lines until May 18th, when the members felt the employers, latest offer was enough to call of the strike.
Workers at the huge Molson Coors plant near Pearson Airport in Toronto were locked out by the multinational beer giant after rejecting concessions and demanding a reduction in the gap between newer hires and more senior workers. That strike was sadly left isolated by the broader labour movement and the worker parent Union NUPGE seemed to have no answer to how to fight such a huge multinational. After several weeks on the line workers accepted a deal that addressed only a minority of their concerns.
The strike that exposed the lies of the Liberals and the union leaders supporting them was when the Montreal Dock workers shutdown the Port of Montreal at the end of April. Despite pledges by the Employers Association to bargain after the strike of 2020, they made no effort to bargain and frustrated the Unions attempts to reach an agreement. 
The employers had the confidence to force things to a confrontation knowing that despite Filomena Tassi (Trudeau’s minister of “forced” Labour) words about respecting collective bargaining, Trudeau would put the interests of Bay Street and bosses ahead of worker. Sure enough after 5 days on the picket line, Trudeau broke the strike with back to work legislation supported by their twin boss party the Tories. This act exposed the lie by Trudeau that he was on the side of essential and front-line workers.
After that a flurry of strikes broke out, primarily at workplaces in the Steelworkers Union. Rexplas in north Toronto went out in late May and its Local 8300 immediately mobilized support and drew connections between the mainly South Asian work force and the mass farmer strike in India. This encouraged workers to hold fast, and they beat back the concessions and modest gains after a two month strike.
Around the same time in early May 2,500 Steelworkers at Arcelor Mittal, the huge multination steel maker went on strike at 5 location ins Quebec. Again the frustration of having worked through CoVID in dangerous conditions while the price of steel increased meant worker was not willing to accept the status quo while the bosses reaped in bonuses.
In South-Western Ontario 840 members of UNIFOR local 1999 at 14 Reliance Home Heating locations were locked out after rejecting the employers offer that maintain wage and benefit gaps between new hires and older workers. Members maintained picket lines at all locations for over 6 weeks and created havoc with Reliance’s’ customer service. The picket lines forced the employer to make some concessions to reducing some of the gaps.
In Quebec, 550 UFCW members at Exceldor chicken slaughterhouse in Saint-Anselme went on strike for a over a month in May against poor working conditions and wages. The workers were able after forcing a crisis in the chicken farming industry to win wage increases of 19.75% over 5 years along with other gains. As a sign of growing confidence, a third of the workers rejected that offer.
2,500 members of USWA 6500 went out on Strike against Vale (Inco) in Sudbury. Workers were demanding that retirement and new hire benefits be maintained. After 2 months on the picket and voting down several offers form the company workers were able to beat back many of the concessions and make some modest gains.
While not an outright victory, it was far from a defeat like the 2009-2010 strike, which lead to many of the problems facing Vale workers going into this strike. Workers beat back the worst of concessions, gained small wage increases and their cost-of-living allowance, surpassing what many other union leaders have cajoled their members to accept. 
In early June a break in the pattern of strike being primarily the preserve of industrial workers, workers at Wine Rack stores (owned by the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan) went on strike at over 20 retail locations against the employer’s refusal to bargain a fair contract. 
Workers maintained picket lines for over two weeks and were able to knock some of the employers’ worst concessions off the table. The employer was clearly aiming to break the union by using managers and scabs to run stores. Despite that worker, the vast majority who are part time or casual knocked this huge company back a peg, despite the refusal of the teachers unions leaders to actively intervene against a case of union busting.
Going into the summer the upswing in strikes has continued.
50 workers at National Rubber Technologies in west Toronto were locked out in early July after rejecting the employers demand for massive concessions, despite having worked through the pandemic. Steelworkers in Toronto and Hamilton have mobilized solidarity pickets for the workers. Importantly steelworkers picketed a secondary location owned by the same company in Ancaster, just outside Hamilton. While it seems only sensible to picket other sources for revenue of the employer, for decades now union leaders have cow-towed to the court injunctions preventing “secondary pickets”. That workers and the Steelworkers Union did not follow that path is another small example of the effect that CoVID has had changing the terrain of class struggle.
900 workers at the Rio Tinto aluminum smelting plant in Kitimat voted overwhelmingly to go on strike at the end of July. As of writing UNIFOR local 2301 and Rio Tinto have returned to negotiations, but workers continue to main picket lines.
They were followed quickly by nearly 2,300 UNIFOR local 673 and 112 members at the Bombardier and de Havilland aerospace complex in Downsview Toronto walking off the job. Workers are fighting to defend pensions, ending contracting out and demanding job security. Their employers have received billions in bailouts by the Federal and Provincial governments, including one recently to keep Dash 8 production in Toronto. 
Bombardier workers have unfortunately accepted an offer by their employer that removed concessions and ended their strike, leaving employees at De Havilland, owned by the billionaire Thompson family are still fighting against an employer determined to try and move production to a lower cost facility in Calgary. This strike is as clear example of the growing fight between the pandemic profiteers of the Thompson clan and workers who have been on the frontlines. 
On top of the increase in pickets at manufacturing plants has been a series of strike votes by workers at other locations. In almost any location where the Union pushes for a strike vote, union members vote overwhelmingly to strike. This has had the effect in many locations of thwarting employers trying to sow divisions between new and older workers and pushed back demands for concessions.
There can be no doubt that there is an anger inside the working class about employers demanding workers pay for CoVID. Anger at pandemic profiteers is growing amongst working people.
The missing link
While the mood to resist a growing employers offensive against workers rights and wages is clear in the manufacturing sector. This is despite the low density and lack of immediate leverage many of these workers face. It has also in most cases pushed back demands for concessions, despite a lack of a strategy by union leaders. There are exceptions, but the strikes at Molson Coors and the dispute at De Havilland speak to the difficulties of challenging multinationals who have revenue streams at multiple sites. These multinationals may also actually gain from production drops at one location to create a spike in prices for their goods, like at Vale. 
Despite these obstacles, workers are showing a willingness to resist employers and a confidence to do so, that hasn’t been seen in some time.
But all is not up and onward.
The largest layers of unionized workers with the most leverage is not moving into action. In fact in most places public sector workers are being told by their leadership to sit tight and rely on lawyers or PR campaigns.
In Ontario just prior to COVID there was a mass struggle by teachers against the Ford governments attacks on public education. Since then, teachers’ unions have spurned mobilizing members, students, and families in favour of periodic press conferences. The disaster facing teachers and students with the unplanned re-opening of schools across the country in September there appears to be no plan to mobilise members and fight. 
Nurses’ union leaders, with the notable exception of Alberta, who after facing huge cuts and wage reductions are threatening strike action, have been loathe to organize any actions against pay freezes, horrible hours, and lack of PPE.
In Ontario the provincial employees union OPSEU has initiated campaigns not designed to challenge the Ford government, but to cajole members into accepting the 1% compensation cap and wait to see if a court challenge works. 
At the provincial Liqour Stores, which remained open throughout COVID and were busier than ever, OPSEU pushed acceptance of a 1% deal that did little to erase the gaps between the tiers and the long journey to become a full-time employee. Despite being handed a golden goose to activate and mobilise members to win public support, the Union leaders instead folded like a cheap suitcase and put up no fight at all, nor engaged in any campaign to build confidence amongst the members to fight.
The picture is sadly not very different across the country. But that could change if nurses strike in Alberta, it may give a boost to rank and file members in other provinces to ask why their leaders are refusing to fight.
There are signs of fights amongst sections of healthcare workers building up to push back. In Ontario SEIU and CUPE members are holding rallies outside healthcare and nursing home facilities, but it will take an active layer of workers to push the leadership to fight to break the rotten 1% cap on the streets rather than depending on the courts.
In New Brunswick 22,000 CUPE public sector employees are gearing up for a fight with the Tory government over cuts and concessions. If they strike ever Union in the province and country needs to back them. Any victory by a large public sector group has the potential to spark other fights.
If broader layers of public sectors workers join the fight being waged by those in the private sector, that would undoubtedly spur confidence in other layers to fight and bolster those that already are fighting. Consciously or not workers gain confidence from seeing other fight back and win or at least not get totally defeated.
Over the next several months thousands of UFCW members in retail grocery workers in Ontario and BC will go into negotiations. The moment couldn’t be better to begin to re-coup the concessions forced on grocery workers over the past 30 years. How can Galen Weston defend his billions in pandemic profits and not grant significant improvements in wages and conditions. A fight against the likes of Galen would give confidence to other sectors to push. 
As we slowly emerge from COVID, it is becoming clearer to more and more workers that we aren’t in it together. It is becoming clearer that bosses are looking to profit from the pandemic and make up pay. Whether it is through cuts to healthcare or demands to gut sick days and introduce lower wages for new hires employers are testing the waters to drive down workers conditions. 
Despite the obvious desire of workers to fight, union leaders, federations of labour and the CLC continue to act as though there is no rise in struggle. Despite the importance of the stakes, that concessions not fought today will become further concessions tomorrow. Despite all of that Union leaders are putting more effort is put into telling workers in Ontario and elsewhere that in x amount of days we can vote Ford, Kenny, Legault out than building mass pickets, smashing injunctions and defeating scabs. Strikes are still largely left to stand on their own, with few exceptions. 
The growing anger at rising house prices, the rental crisis, crisis in senior care, public transit seems lost on union leaders and their allies in the NDP. The calls from business and the rich to roll back CERB, attack the homeless, curtail workers wages etc.. makes it clear as does the list of strikes that bay street and their parties, the Liberals and Tories are looking to make workers pay for COVID.
If provincial Labour Federations or the Canadian Labour Congress, which despite a new leadership has done little to rally support for strikes, had called for mass pickets at every port, the back to work orders of Scabby Trudeau could have been smashed. Sadly that was squandered and like many of the strikes noted above they were left to fight it out by themselves.
Over the next month the efforts of the union leaders will be to push the notion that the Federal election is the most important thing. The election is important, but the best way to shape the outcome or debates of that election is by flexing the muscle that has the most impact for the working class, that is the muscle of workplace and mass action. But that will take organizing and fighting wherever one is to build solidarity and demand out leaders utilize this moment to push against the employer’s offensive.
It is a moment when workers are moving, it is up to everyone on left to join in support and demand our leader ditch their conservative cap in hand pleading and put their efforts into mobilizing and striking against the profiteers.
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