Canadians Catch Strike Fever Too

A massive strike wave made serious gains, but it left many workers wanting more.

By Barry Eidlin | May/June 2024

This article is from Dollars & Sense: Real World Economics, available at

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Workers across the United States rediscovered the strike weapon last year. From Hollywood writers and actors to Big Three autoworkers, to healthcare and education workers in several states, to hotel workers in Southern California, and many more, U.S. workers hit the picket lines in a way not seen in almost forty years.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), using a methodology that still misses many strikes, reported that 461,700 workers went on strike in 2023. Aside from 2018, year of the “Red State Revolt” of illegal teachers strikes, you would have to go back to 1986 to top that number. This renewed militancy drew headlines, with analysts speaking of a “Hot Labor Summer” and “strike season” as the year progressed. (Sadly, my proposal to declare a “Fiery Labor Fall” never gained traction).

But unbeknownst to most Americans, their ostensibly quiet and polite neighbor to the north experienced an even more tumultuous 2023 when it came to labor militancy. Just-released data for 2023 show that 555,347 workers went on strike in Canada last year, a country with one-tenth the population of the United States. While strike levels in Canada had not collapsed to the same degree as in the United States, the number of strikers for 2023 was the fourth-largest number ever recorded in Canada, going back to 1901.

Why All the Strikes?

The factors driving the rise in strikes have been similar on both sides of the border. First, decades of stagnating wages, growing inequality, eroding benefits and job security. Second, a global pandemic that drew these long-standing trends into sharper focus, as some groups of workers were at once hailed as “essential” but treated as disposable, asked to put their personal safety at risk for the benefit of others, often without adequate protections. Third, a tightened labor market coming out of the pandemic that gave workers more structural bargaining power. And fourth, as strikes began to proliferate, a contagion effect, as more workers realized that “if they can do it, maybe we can do it too.”

The thread tying these factors together has been an increase in organic worker militancy not seen in decades. In Canada, this expressed itself most notably in the surprising number of contracts that were rejected over the recommendation of union leadership, or which passed with much narrower margins than expected. From west coast longshore workers to Toronto grocery workers, to Windsor Salt workers, to Ford autoworkers, to Quebec teachers, among many others, workers expressed their dissatisfaction about the contracts their union leaders had negotiated.

But what was most interesting about these rejections and narrow ratifications was why they generated such opposition. Unlike recent decades, Canadian workers were not voting “no” to protest attempts to impose concessions. Indeed, by most objective measures, these contracts were usually superior to other contracts negotiated in recent years. The problem was that the contracts were deemed not superior enough. Workers with raised expectations wanted to fight for even more than negotiators settled for—and they let their union leaders know.

To their credit, and again in contrast to recent decades, many union leaders took these rejections in stride, using the votes to send a message to employers to come back to the bargaining table with a better offer. (In many instances in Canada and the United States, union leaders had simply tried to reimpose near-identical settlements after a proposed contract is rejected, in an effort to browbeat workers into “voting until they get it right.”) After Toronto grocery workers at the Metro supermarket chain voted down their contract, Unifor president Lana Payne joined them on the picket line, saying “we brought the tentative agreement to our members because it contained considerable gains, but our members are clear that it simply isn’t enough.”

Reaching Fever Pitch

In 2023, this increased worker combativeness amidst rising expectations often ran headlong into increased employer intransigence. There was a mismatch between what workers were willing to fight for and what employers had grown used to granting at the bargaining table. The first result was protracted rounds of bargaining, as employers refused to address worker proposals. In the federal public sector, workers represented by the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) saw their negotiations with the Treasury Board drag on for over a year with no settlement. The employer continually refused to move away from wage proposals that, when factoring in the rising cost of living, would have amounted to an effective pay cut, and stubbornly sought to assert unilateral control over working conditions, particularly around remote work.

At the West Coast ports, the British Columbia Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA) consistently resisted efforts to negotiate over workers’ concerns regarding job security amidst increasing port automation and subcontracting, trying to sidestep these core issues by sweetening the pay package. After fruitless negotiations over more than a month, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) declared impasse, leading to 60 days of conciliation, followed by a 21-day “cooling-off period,” as negotiations dragged on for five months. In Quebec, public-sector workers spun their wheels in negotiations for over a year, as the Quebec Treasury Board stubbornly refused to budge from its wage proposal of 9% over five years—again, an effective pay cut—for nearly 10 months. A few rounds of conciliation and a mass march and rally of more than 100,000 workers and community supporters through the streets of Montreal in October got government negotiators to sweeten their offer by all of 1.3 percentage points, up to 10.3% over five years. Meanwhile, core issues around burnout, forced overtime, class size, and staffing levels remained unaddressed.

In these and so many other cases across Canada, the only thing that persuaded employers to adapt to new bargaining realities was an effective strike weapon. In some cases, a small taste of a strike was all it took, as with the Big Three automakers in Canada. Workers at Ford and Stellantis were barely out for a few hours before the bargaining teams announced tentative agreements that were the best they had seen in over 30 years. Undoubtedly, the manufacturers were concerned about how they would manage disruptions in their Canadian operations alongside the chaos that the United Autoworkers (UAW) was wreaking on U.S. production with their Stand-Up Strike, which was happening simultaneously. But far more often, employers continued to dig in their heels, even in the face of strikes. This led to a second major result of the mismatch between worker expectations and employer assumptions: longer strikes. We see this clearly in the strike data. Not only was the number of strikers in 2023 the fourth-largest ever recorded, but the number of person-days lost to strikes—a key measure of how long strikes last—soared as well. Whereas that number has hovered around one million over the past two decades, sometimes reaching two million, in 2023 it reached over 6.6 million—a level not seen since 1986.

The PSAC strike of 155,000 workers against the federal Treasury Board lasted for two weeks before reaching a tentative agreement. West Coast longshore workers paralyzed much of Canada’s international trade for two weeks in July, rejecting several agreements before reaching a federal-mediator-recommended settlement. Manitoba liquor store workers stayed out for almost six weeks. Metro grocery workers took more than one month to reach an agreement. St. Lawrence Seaway workers took 11 days. Quebec teachers represented by the Fédération autonome d’enseignement (FAE, or Autonomous Federation of Teachers) were on the picket lines for 22 days, over the holidays, with no strike fund, before reaching an agreement.

Generally speaking, consistent with the slogan heard on many picket lines, when Canadian workers fought, they won. The contracts they ratified after going on strike were for the most part significantly better than what employers were offering pre-strike. Workers were able to rebuff more egregious employer proposals, make gains on key workplace issues, particularly around technology and workload, and force employers to move away from unacceptable wage offers. As a result, real wage growth exceeded inflation for the first time in over a decade, averaging close to 5%, with higher wage growth at the bottom of the wage distribution.

Questions Remain

At the same time, there were few smashing wins. Many of these strikes were hard-fought victories, and in a context of rising expectations and drawn-out strikes, many workers were left unsatisfied. Perhaps the most glaring example of this was the Quebec FAE teachers, who struck separately from the other public-sector workers in the “Common Front” coalition, but ended up with the same wage package and limited gains on core issues like class composition and complexity. After a series of contentious, drawn-out, in-person votes, the tentative agreement passed when the last group of teachers voted to ratify by a razor-thin margin of 50.58%–49.42%.

The big question is what will become of the grassroots energy that characterized the 2023 strike resurgence. While Canada has much stronger unions overall than the United States, there is less organizational infrastructure available for rank-and-file workers. Canada lacks union reform movements like Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) and Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), which played critical roles in 2023 labor mobilizations in the United States. And while independent unions have a long history in Canada, they were not part of the 2023 worker revolt. We did not see big worker-led organizing drives like at Starbucks in the United States. Similarly, Canada lacks an organization like the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), which has provided an opening for thousands of U.S. workers to unionize who might normally be left behind by existing unions, or Labor Notes, which brings together rank-and-file activists and organizers and offers trainings and educational materials for them.

Still, we saw in 2023 that not only are Canadian union members willing to fight, but they are sometimes willing to fight even when it means challenging their union leaders. Rather than view this as a cause for concern about growing divisiveness, we should view it as a positive sign. Unions are fundamentally democratic organizations, which means that they rely on member engagement to survive and thrive. While it can get messy in practice, the fact that more Canadian workers pushed back against their elected union leadership is a sign of greater member engagement. Whether that will translate into longer-term member involvement and changes in union militancy on a broader scale will be something to watch in the coming years.

Canadian workers and their unions face many challenges. But after decades of wage stagnation, eroding job quality, and weakening worker power, 2023 was a welcome turnaround. Canadian workers started fighting back and winning more. We can’t declare a new trend based on a single year, but it could mark the start of a different direction for Canadian labor.

is an associate professor of sociology at McGill University, and the author of Labor and the Class Idea in the United States and Canada.

Collective Bargaining Information, Labour Program, ESDC, as of March 31, 2024.

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