An economy rigged against workers could mean a ‘Winter of Discontent.’

January 26, 2023

By Bea Bruske, President of the Canadian Labour Congress, as published in the The Globe and Mail.

Lockdowns, Russia’s attack on Ukraine, convoy occupations and worker walkouts – last year wasn’t easy.

We all hope 2023 brings less hardship. Certainly, the last thing Canadians want right now is labour unrest across the country, but the strikes we’re seeing across the Atlantic could be a harbinger for Canada.

In Europe, soaring inflation and years of stagnating wages have rightfully galvanized workers to demand higher pay and better working conditions. Virtually every sector of Britain’s economy has been affected in recent weeks. As negotiations have broken down, a record number of British workers have gone on strike. Transportation workers, postal workers, teachers and even nurses – who haven’t walked a picket line in over 100 years – have been forced to take industrial action.

Like in Britain, workers in Canada are also seeing their paycheques lag behind inflation while corporate profits soar. Some even face the double whammy of Conservative provincial governments passing wage restraint laws. No one wants to follow Britain’s path to economic chaos, but how can we avoid our own winter of discontent?

Well, we can start by making sure the system isn’t rigged against workers.

Currently, the balance of power in our economy is skewed. Last year saw blockbuster corporate profits while most workers experienced a real pay cut because of soaring food and shelter costs. If corporate Canada wants to avoid the kind of work stoppages seen in Britain, they should welcome greater balance in our economy. That means a strengthened labour movement.

For a century we have seen unions’ collective bargaining power pave a path to the middle class for generations of workers. But in recent years the rate of unionization has waned, which is bad news for everyone. Unions not only negotiate wage rates for organized workers. Statistics Canada’s November 2022 Labour Force Survey revealed that unionized workers are twice as likely to have access to a workplace pension and have better access to parental and sick leave. Unions also raise the standards for all workers – unionized or not.

Yet, for too long, we have heard some politicians talk about supporting workers while simultaneously undermining unions and making it harder for workers to organize. Politicians such as Pierre Poilievre, or Donald Trump in the United States, try to harness workers’ frustrations to achieve power – while pushing right-wing policies that weaken unions and make things harder for working families.

We can achieve labour peace through a strong labour movement, where workers have the power to stand up for their well-being and businesses and governments embrace a fairer economy. Without this, we see greater exploitation, growing frustration and, ultimately, rising unrest.

Governments are responsible for our labour laws and must act to make sure workers have power, through their unions, to fight for fair working conditions. Governments can pass laws to make it easier to organize and join a union, like we have seen in British Columbia with the new “card-check” law or federally with the move to ban replacement workers. At a minimum, governments must stop passing wage suppression laws that stack the deck against workers.

We stand at a crossroads. But I believe Canadians want to live in a country where workers have the power to demand fair treatment. The best way for us to achieve this today is the same as it was 100 years ago – through the collective power of a strong labour movement combined with businesses and governments alike embracing a more balanced approach.


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