The Summer of the Strike

Across Canada, resistance to the employers’ agenda is visible in a growing number of labour-management disputes. Most, but not all, are strikes against concessions demanded by bosses trying to take advantage of the global economic crisis.

An exception was the two-day strike by 340 Via rail engineers that stopped passenger train service across Canada, July 24-26. The dispute is now going to binding arbitration by agreement of the parties. Some 2,000 unionized ticket agents, maintenance and on-train service workers, laid off by Via during the strike, are back at work. About 12,000 people ride the trains daily. The striking engineers, represented by the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, were reportedly close to an agreement on wages, but they want two consecutive days off per week, training in federal rules and changes in equipment technology. For two and half years management dragged its feet at the bargaining table, until the workers decided to pull the plug. If the arbitrator splits the outstanding differences, it will be a union win.

But it was the fight against concessions that spurred about 3,600 employees of Vale Inco, most of them at the company’s flagship Sudbury nickel mines, to walk off the job on July 13. According to United Steelworkers director Wayne Fraser, the union is opposed to several concessions Vale Inco wants, including elimination of bonuses to workers when the price of nickel is high, plus the imposition of an inferior pension plan for newly hired workers (with defined contributions, instead of defined benefits). It is a battle over future profits for the Brazilian iron-ore giant Vale do Rio Doce, which bought Inco in 2006 for $19.4 billion. Nickel soared above $24 (U.S.) a pound in mid-2007, fell to $5 (U.S.) pound in late 2008, but is rising again, reaching $6.68 on July 13. The USWA’s Fraser said that around $7 a pound, the company is “going to make huge money.”

A number of other strikes are battles over concessions too. The biggest one involved 30,000 City of Toronto inside and outside workers, which ended on July 31 as described above.

A similar war raged for 101 days in Windsor, in the south-west corner of Ontario, just across from Detroit, ending on July 24. Windsor city bosses tried to cut real wages and benefits, but CUPE Locals 82 and 543 retained retiree benefits for the 1,800 current employees, won a 6.3 per cent raise over four years, and improved job security, while conceding reduced post-retirement benefits to new hires who reach age 65.

At a Zellers warehouse in Toronto, 325 workers represented by the Canadian Auto Workers’ Union (CAW) rejected a company demand for a wage cut of $8 an hour, along with benefit concessions. The distribution center’s material handlers went on strike July 17. Zellers is owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

CAW Local 567 members at Cision Canada in Ottawa are resisting company demands for major concessions. The 25 workers at the media transcription service went on strike on May 5. Harry Ghadban, CAW Ottawa area director, said the company is demanding the elimination of the cost of living adjustment (COLA) clause, elimination of the bonus clause and rollbacks in severance language, sick leave as well as shift language. Ghadban said the workers are determined to win a fair and equitable agreement.

On June 14, Cadillac Fairview, a cross-country office and shopping center giant, locked out 61 engineers, building operators, skilled trades and maintenance workers in two bargaining units at the Toronto Dominion Center, represented by the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers’ Union (CEP). After more than a year of bargaining, the workers were locked out because they refused to accept massive concessionary demands from Cadillac Fairview. Those include that members reapply for their jobs and accept a new six-month probationary period (putting older, injured and vocally pro-union workers at risk), plus the elimination of skilled trade job classifications. CEP Local 2003 members continue to picket the TD Center, which has hired “a third party service provider” (scabs) to do the work.

Meanwhile, a 93 per cent strike mandate, and a vigorous public campaign, achieved a victory for 7,000 Liquor Control Board of Ontario workers represented by the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union (OPSEU) in mid-July. LCBO management proposed to take away job security (by ‘temporarily’ laying off full-time workers during slow periods) and to continue to ‘casualize’ jobs by creating a two-tier system of part-time workers with no benefits. Not only did the bosses back down in the face of a strong strike mandate and an effective “Our Communities Need Good Jobs” campaign, but promised to create more full-time positions at the 610 LCBO outlets across Ontario, give benefits to part-timers, and provide the same 3 per cent annual wage increase won by Ontario Public Service workers last year.

Lack of struggle often produces the opposite results. Some 450 Globe and Mail newspaper employees, including editorial, circulation and sales staff, members of CEP Local 87-M, ratified a concessionary deal that averted a strike on July 2. The new contract imposes a two-year wage freeze, followed by increases of 2, 2.5 and 2.5 per cent through to June 2014. New employees will have to join a defined contribution retirement plan instead of the existing defined benefit pension plan. The union did stop the lengthening of the work week, restrictions on outside activities, and the weakening of job security language.

So the pattern in the Summer of the Strike is mixed, but it tends to show that it pays to fight back.

Auto workers at GM and Chrysler took it on the chin in 2008 and 2009, and Ford workers are now being asked for more concessions.

Hopefully, Ford workers will take their cue from fighting railway workers, civic workers, miners and others, and tell the auto bosses exactly where they can put their demands.

All workers resisting concessions are struggling for the greater good. They need and deserve every form of solidarity, including support rallies, marches and sympathy strikes. -Barry Weisleder