HIGH INFLATION IS BAD FOR BOSSES. But not for unions. They have a track record. Unions are the ones—the only ones—who have fought this fight before and won it. They are already winning it again.
Because they are courageous enough to fight and savvy enough to bargain smart.
Strike threat is enough
The 2,550 members of SEIU Local 2 in Toronto didn’t even vote to go on strike. They didn’t have to. The eleven cleaning companies they work for offered them a huge wage settlement on April 30—the day the union had set for their strike vote.
What was supposed to be a strike vote turned into a ratification vote as hundreds of cleaners endorsed the new three-year deal with a 16.6 percent wage increase, including 6.4 percent in the first year.
The union reports these are the largest wage increases for cleaners in the union’s history.
Renzo Garcia, a cleaner and member of the union negotiating committee, summed up the lesson of the win: “Never be afraid to raise your voice against injustice and greed.”
Maybe one job will be enough
Renielda Torcende is a single mom. She works 40 hours a week on a night shift that usually starts at 10 p.m. and ends at 6 o’clock in the morning. She cleans buildings at Toronto Metropolitan University. It isn’t enough—not with the rising cost of food and transportation. Renielda took on two more jobs.
“I would love to have one job that pays me more so that I do not have to work a second job,” she told The Globe and Mail. The new contract may make that happen for her.
After a week-long strike of 900 workers at a Metro grocery chain warehouse in Etobicoke, Ont., in early April, Unifor secured a 15.8-per-cent increase for its members over the next four and a half years, starting with an hourly increase of roughly 8 per cent in the first year.
Around 15,000 residential labourers walked off the job in Ontario in early May alongside another 6,000 commercial operating engineers. Another 15,000 commercial, industrial and institutional carpenters went on strike, on May 10, as did around 7,000 residential and commercial drywall workers.
Meanwhile, almost 200 warehouse workers at Sobeys in Terrebonne, Que., who are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union remain on a strike that is now approaching its third month, as they demand better pay and benefits in a climate of high inflation.
According to Kaylie Tiessen, an economist and policy analyst at Unifor,, unions have started seriously rethinking collective agreements they are locked into that do not have clauses that automatically grant wage increases that match inflation.
COLA rides again?
“Before the 2008 recession, it was common for collective agreements to have cost of living adjustment (COLA) clauses. We are certainly paying more attention to all the different ways we can start negotiating COLA back into agreements,” she said.
“Canadian wages appear flash frozen,” says Lana Payne, National Secretary-Treasurer of Unifor, “immovable in the face of a skyrocketing cost of living—driving desperate families to food banks, and into deep stress over paying the bills.”
We’ve suffered through high inflation before, including throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. A key difference, between then and now, is that wages then rose with inflation thanks in large part to COLA clauses in so many union contracts.
In 1977 every single union contract in Canada had a COLA clause.
As inflation started to decline to around 2% annually, so did the need for COLA clauses. By 2014, the number of unionized employees with inflation protection fell to 1%.
“Using the power of collective bargaining to find creative ways — such as COLA clauses — to adjust wages, is the surest way to stabilize industries and build good jobs,” says Payne.
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