A Strike Surge in Manitoba is Challenging Wage Repression

Workers in Manitoba, Canada, the home of the historic Winnipeg General Strike, are striking to fight against wage repression. This resurgence of working-class strength will impact the province’s upcoming election.

Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union (MGEU) members on strike this summer. (MGEU / Facebook)

The last several months have been hailed as a “summer of strikes” in Canada, although the reality may not match the hype. But even if this is an overstatement — at least as far as national-level work stoppages data indicate — there has been a noticeable surge in militancy across the country.

As evidence, look no further than the province of Manitoba. The homeland of one of Canadian labor’s most cherished historical events — the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 — saw relatively few work stoppages in recent bargaining rounds. But after years of government wage repression and a post-pandemic cost-of-living crisis, union members in Manitoba are walking off the job in droves. Workers at provincial Crown Corporations have voted down insulting offers, sustained weeks-long picket lines, and challenged an embattled Progressive Conservative (PC) government now facing reelection after years of tense relations with unions.

At the center of the province’s mini–strike wave is the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union (MGEU). Representing roughly 32,000 members across the public sector, Crown Corporations, and private contractors, MGEU is second only to the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Manitoba in size. Yet throughout the summer, MGEU has punched well above its weight, with over 3,100 of its members participating in strikes. Additionally, another 11,000 members in the civil service are currently voting on whether to strike, with the union recommending a “yes” vote.

The impact of this summer’s labor battles on the Manitoba New Democratic Party’s chances in October’s election is uncertain. For the province’s working class, however, the past months have revealed both strengths and weaknesses. A future New Democratic Party (NDP) government could help the prospects of working people, but deeper organization across public- and private-sector workers — union and nonunion — will be required to turn a summer of discontent into sustained action for change.

No Summer Vacation for the MGEU

The opening salvo to Manitoba’s strike summer was the walkout of 1,400 workers at Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries (MBLL), the Crown Corporation that operates Liquor Marts and gaming facilities across the province. Due to employer intransigence and government interference, these workers had been without a contract since March 2022.

MGEU began rotating strike action on July 19 after contract negotiations with MBLL stalled. Some MGEU members remained on the job while others engaged in strategic strikes in an effort to pressure the employer on key union demands. Still, little progress was made at the bargaining table. In response, the union called an all-out strike on August 8, after the employer informed MGEU in the days prior that it would lock workers out of various locations.

Throughout the strike, Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries seemed more concerned with bargaining in the media than with reaching a settlement. On August 21, news broke that the conciliator brought in to help the two parties reach a deal had apparently “recommended” binding arbitration to end the dispute. Or at least this was the story the employer chose to tell publicly. As union staff would later clarify, the option of arbitration was mentioned only offhandedly and was never formally recommended. Given MBLL’s reluctance to deviate from its initial 2 percent wage offer, it was unlikely that arbitration would have adequately addressed the union’s pay concerns. More importantly, binding arbitration would have prevented union members from voting on the final terms of their contract.

Less than a week later, workers voted to accept a tentative agreement, following over a month of job actions at sixty-three Liquor Mart locations and distribution centers. Although the final settlement fell somewhat short on the union’s wage demands, the strike nevertheless caused the employer and the provincial government to walk back their insulting wage proposals.

MGEU members secured 12 percent compounded wage increases across the four years of the contract, with additional wage bumps for newer, lower-paid workers. Ultimately, the union accepted this settlement because it was paired with expanded pay scale adjustments tied to the provincial minimum wage, which will increase on October 1.

“Just as the five-week long strike for liquor workers ends, another begins,” read the MGEU press release announcing that 1,700 members at Manitoba Public Insurance (MPI) were striking a day after the MBLL deal. As with the earlier strike, the MPI dispute centered on wages. Although members at the public auto insurer earn considerably more than their union colleagues at MBLL, they haven’t seen even a nominal salary increase in four years. The employer, again instructed by the province, has continued to offer annual increases of 2 percent, after years of frozen wages and inflation.

With the union requesting the assistance of a conciliator, there is hope that the pattern set at MBLL can move MPI.

Then, there is the case of workers at Manitoba Land Titles, the organization responsible for the provincial land registry but operated by private contractor Teranet. These MGEU members have been on strike since July 21, and are now headed to binding arbitration after the employer refused to budge on wage increases. Under Manitoba’s labor law, after sixty days on strike, the union or employer can move the dispute to arbitration.

The largest bargaining unit still contemplating strike action, however, is in the provincial public service. If 11,000 MGEU civil service workers deliver a strike mandate on October 6, it would be truly historic. Unionized civil servants have not only never struck in Manitoba, but have never voted to authorize a strike, despite past efforts by union leaders and activists.

Public-Sector Wage Repression: A Conservative Tradition

Though strike activity has barely simmered in Manitoba in recent years, it’s not surprising that things are now boiling over. The PC provincial government has taken a sledgehammer to the collective bargaining process throughout its tenure in office, exacerbating the post-pandemic cost-of-living crisis for union members across Crown Corporations and the public sector.

The summer strikes were shaped by a direct mandate from Premier Heather Stefanson’s office, dictating that employers should not offer unions more than a 2 percent annual wage increase. While the government publicly claimed to be “hands off” in collective bargaining, letters sent to employees at MBLL and MPI setting out the government’s “broad monetary mandate” indicated otherwise.

When it comes to interference in public-sector bargaining, Stefanson has continued the legacy of her predecessor, former Conservative premier Brian Pallister. In 2017, Pallister’s government passed legislation that mandated all new public-sector collective agreements begin with a two-year wage freeze, followed by a 0.75 percent increase in year three and 1 percent in year four.

In what appeared to be an act of pure chicanery, the so-called “Public Services Sustainability Act” was never proclaimed into law, despite its passage through the legislature. Nevertheless, as the unions that challenged the law in court argued, the government was acting as though the law was in force by instructing public-sector and Crown employers to abide by the wage guidelines. The unions were initially successful at the then–Court of Queen’s Bench, but later lost on appeal, owing to the “temporariness” of the law’s restriction of collective bargaining rights. The Supreme Court of Canada declined to hear the unions’ case just before the government ultimately “repealed” the law, even though it was never formally enforced.

During the period when the law was purportedly not in effect, the government’s actions caused several strikes at Manitoba Hydro and the University of Manitoba, all the result of wage repression and interference.

Stefanson’s attempts to impose 2 percent increases on workers contradict her earlier claim to be charting a new course in negotiations with public-sector unions, exasperating union members and the public alike. The union has strategically tied its wage demands to the salary increases received by Stefanson and other members of the provincial legislature. If pay raises in line with inflation are good enough for the premier or her legislators, the union argues, they’re good enough for workers.

As the MGEU pointed out, before going on strike, many MBLL workers earned barely above minimum wage. The base starting salary at Liquor Marts in the final year of the last contract was just $14.91 per hour, while a worker with 2,000 hours worked would see their pay rise to $19.08 per hour. For context, the provincial minimum wage is set to increase to $15.30 in the fall.

The province’s stinginess has nothing to do with MBLL or other Crown Corporations’ ability to pay, and everything to do with the PC government’s long-term goals of public austerity and privatization. Following the strike settlement, the Winnipeg Free Press reported that the MBLL posted record profits of $741 million in 2022–23. The story is similar at MPI.

  The Struggle Ahead

For now, Manitoba’s strike wave may be slowly ending along with the summer. But much hinges on what happens in the weeks and months ahead, particularly when it comes to the provincial election. The latest polls suggest nearly half of likely voters plan to pull the lever for the NDP, which portends victory on October 3.

Civil servants will return their strike-mandate vote just days after the election. Whether the New Democrats assume power or the PCs remain in office will have a huge impact on the outcome of negotiations.

Furthermore, NDP leader Wab Kinew has made some important promises to the province’s labor movement, chief among them consultation and passage of anti-scab legislation. During the MBLL strike, the employer was caught hiring replacement workers at liquor distribution warehouses, demonstrating why anti-scab legislation is vital not just for private-sector union members, but for all workers. Of course, electing an NDP government in Manitoba is not the ultimate goal — it is but one component part in the broader effort to strengthen working-class influence.

The Manitoba labor movement has suffered under the thumb of the PCs for too many years. Now is the time to harness the energy of this summer’s labor surge to make demands for higher wages and better workplace protections for all workers in the province.