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Analysis

‘It’s Going to Be a Labour Fight’: Canada’s Biggest Union Battles Coming Up in 2024

Here are the biggest collective bargaining negotiations to watch in 2024

2023 was widely regarded as a great year for Canada’s labour movement.

There were some of the largest, highest profile strikes in decades that raised expectations for workers and re-established unions in the public eye as vehicles for tangible improvements to daily life.

But a month into 2024, and workers’ fighting spirits show no sign of slowing: Transit workers shut down Vancouver for two days, a labour leader was arrested this week picketing with 500 civilian military support staff on strike and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is preparing for another possible port strike.

So, what more can we expect this year? Here’s a look at just a few of the biggest upcoming contract battles of 2024.

Federal Contracts

Canada Post

Canada Post’s collective agreement with the urban mail carriers represented by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers expires this week on January 31, 2024.

Rural mail carriers’ collective agreement has already expired December 31, 2023. Bargaining is currently underway and key union demands include increased wages, cost of living adjustments, improved scheduling and rest periods, job security and more.

Many postal workers’ concerns are not new. CUPW went on strike over many of the same issues in 2019. The Liberal government controversially legislated the union back to work, resulting in protests across the country over the right to strike. Six workers were arrested in Halifax and three were arrested in Ottawa for picketing Canada Post locations in protest of the legislation.

But since the pandemic, the cultural and political tide has shifted in favour of worker organizing.

“The labor mobilization that we’re seeing now has huge public support,” Barry Eidlin, a McGill labour professor, told PressProgress.

“Politicians realize that it’s gonna be politically costly for them to actively move against the strikers with something as coercive as back to work legislation. I don’t think they faced that kind of constraint previously in the last few decades.”

“The Postal Service is important just because of its historic role as the Canadian working class fighting, really leading the way in terms of worker militancy in Canada, and the degree to which it holds on to that tradition.”

 

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

The CBC’s contract with 4,600 media workers, represented by the Canadian Media Guild, expires March 31, 2024. Bargaining is underway and key issues put forward by CBC workers include increased wages and policies for the use of Artificial Intelligence in the workplace.

“The CBC contract is going to be important because of the political ramifications particularly with the Conservatives really trying to wage war on the CBC as a sort of government controlled media and, not just the threat, but the reality of government cutbacks at the CBC,” Eidlin said.

“It’s going to be a labour fight tied into a broader political battle on the future of public media, which is going to be something potentially pretty contentious.”

 

VIA Rail

A large Unifor contract with VIA Rail, a Crown corporation, representing 650 workers across the country, expires at the end of the year on December 31. In 2022, nearly 2,000 VIA Rail workers in other Unifor bargaining units narrowly avoided a strike.

The upcoming VIA Rail contract fight will also be significant as Unifor is currently fighting the federal government’s plans to allow private companies to build, finance and maintain a new electric Via Rail line for the busy Quebec City and Windsor corridor. Unifor has launched a campaign called Back on Track calling on the government to expand publicly owned rail transit in Canada.

 

Provincial Public Sector Contracts

Alberta

2024 marks the first time Alberta Premier Danielle Smith will bargain with unions representing hundreds of thousands of public sector workers.

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees is calling it “the largest round of bargaining the province has ever seen.” AUPE contracts for various branches of government services, including Alberta Health Services, expire March 31, 2024. AUPE has proposed bargaining throughout February and March.

Bargaining is expected to be challenging given the UCP government’s prior use of “secret mandates” to impose wage limits on public sector bargaining. The secret wage mandates began under former premier Jason Kenney and are expected to continue under Danielle Smith.

While other right wing premiers have used legislation to cap public sector wages, like in Manitoba and Ontario, the UCP’s legislation is the first time the wage caps have been kept a secret.

Athabasca University labour relations profressor Bob Barnetson says the UCP’s secret mandates were “destructive” for Alberta workers.

“It’s the first time that it’s been legislatively a secret, so employers could never reveal even if they wanted to, and it might, in fact, help bargaining move forward. They weren’t able to reveal their mandate. It’s really quite destructive,” Barnetson told PressProgress.

“They were not making any serious gains for workers. They were essentially rollbacks because of the low cost of living versus inflation, plus some contracts also saw actual rollbacks of language and other benefits.”

The UCP government’s aggressive demands for wage freezes and rollbacks resulted in a massive health care worker wildcat strike in 2020. While AUPE was later fined for the walkout, Barnetson says the government’s punishment could be seen as an incentive for workers who were able to keep their union dues for a month.

While the mandates remain a secret, Barnetson says recent salary increases for Alberta judges could indicate where the government plans to cap wages. Judges received a 9.3% salary increase over 4 years, despite a commission recommending a 17% pay hike.

 

Saskatchewan

The right-wing Saskatchewan Party is already in the middle of a large contract battle with the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation, who walked off the job for two days in January and two days in February. One of the key issues teachers are fighting for is lower class sizes, an issue the government is refusing to address in collective bargaining.

The teachers’ dispute comes amid a “civil war” within the Sask Party driven by far-right factions. The new far-right Saskatchewan United Party has peeled off funders and by-election votes from the Sask Party since it was launched last year.

This right-wing infighting has majorly impacted education workers. Last year, Premier Scott Moe used the “notwithstanding clause” to override the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and implement a student pronoun policy opposed by the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation. Critics say Moe used the policy to appease the more extreme elements of the Sask Party base.

Given Moe’s turn further right, negotiations with other public sector workers may prove especially difficult in 2024.

The Saskatchewan Union of Nurses’ contract representing 10,000 nurses expires on March 31. A key issue impacting Saskatchewan nurses is staffing shortages, contributing to the broader nurse staffing crisis across Canada.

Thousands of Unifor workers will also begin bargaining this year with public utility SaskTel. Unifor’s contract representing 2,500 SaskTel workers expires March 16, 2024. Bargaining is already underway and preventing the loss of unionized jobs through contracting out positions is a key issue.

 

Ontario

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union will be a key union to watch in 2024.

New OPSEU president JP Hornick has pledged to create “a new kind of unionism” that centers worker organizing in preparation for some major contract battles with Doug Ford’s government.

On January 10, OPSEU delivered a notice of bargaining to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. The LCBO contract expires March 31, 2024 and represents over 6,000 workers. One key issue is resisting Doug Ford’s plan to increase private alcohol sales, which would essentially privatize parts of the LCBO and eliminate unionized jobs.

OPSEU is calling the LCBO battle a “new era of bargaining” with mobilizing teams trained in organizing workplaces and increasing member engagement.

The LCBO battle sets the stage for OPSEU’s massive contract representing 26,000 public sector workers which expires at the end of the year on December 31.

 

Post-secondary Education

The last several years have seen a wave of faculty strikes at post-secondary institutions across Canada addressing stagnating wages, faculty retention, precarious jobs, workloads, and more.

These strikes have highlighted the broader crisis of public funding in post-secondary education, which has plummeted dramatically over the last 40 years.

“The conditions that are leading to these strikes are not going away anytime soon, in terms of the broader funding crises and public education,” Eidlin noted.

And so the strike trend may continue as dozens of institutions across the country have faculty contracts up for renewal this year, including: The University of Manitoba, Brandon University, University of Alberta, University of Lethbridge, Bow Valley College, Carleton University, University of Waterloo, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, and Polytechnique Montréal. Newly unionized University of Waterloo Graduate Teaching Assistants and Research Assistants will also fight for their first contract.

Barnetson serves as the president of the Athabasca University Faculty Association, which is another Alberta faculty union entering bargaining this year.

“We’ve seen a 20% loss in the purchasing power of our wages over the last 10 years on average. And workloads have gone up dramatically. It’s just not sustainable,” Barnetson says.
“We did a survey of our members, and every member but one indicated wages was one of their top three issues. And that is overwhelming.”

Faculty unions in Alberta had never gone on strike before 2022. That year saw two major strikes at Concordia University and the University of Lethbridge. Those strikes opened a door for other Alberta faculty unions to walk through.

“That barrier has been broken,” Barnetson says. “Yeah. So strikes are on the table.”

 

Private Sector Contracts

General Motors

Last year was a big year for Unifor which negotiated contracts with massive wage increases for auto workers at Ford, General Motors and Stellantis.

However, General Motors initially refused to match the pattern contract Unifor negotiated with Ford, kicking off a strike that forced GM to buckle.

This context is relevant for Unifor’s upcoming negotiations for General Motors’ CAMI Assembly Plant workers producing electric commercial vans and, eventually, electric vehicle batteries in Ingersoll, Ontario. The CAMI agreement expires on September 17 and currently covers 2,700 workers. The CAMI plant was re-tooled to produce electric vehicles following Unifor’s 2021 negotiations with GM.

 

Bell Canada

A Bell Canada contract with Unifor representing 3,500 Crafts and Services workers expires November 30. Unifor noted the last agreement specifically contained job security protections.

Bell Canada just announced the largest round of layoffs in 30 years, eliminating 4,800 positions throughout the company.

Unifor says it is “outraged at the callous terminations,”, noting 800 of the 4,800 workers are Unifor members, including 100 media workers.

 

The Association of Building Services Contractors

This year will see a seven year collective agreement expire representing 6,000 Montreal building maintenance staff workers.

The maintenance workers, who are employed through multiple contractors, are unionized with SEIU Local 800 and will negotiate with the Association des entrepreneurs de services d’édifices Québec inc. (AESEQ), a non-profit which represents employers in the industry.

Given the length of the last collective agreement, negotiated well before the pandemic, it’s likely these frontline workers will want significant updates to their collective agreement which expires November 1.

 

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Emily Leedham
Reporter
Emily Leedham is PressProgress’ Prairies Reporter. Her reporting has a special focus on workers and communities, big money and corporate influence, and systemic racism.

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