Labor’s Tide Is Rising

North American workers are gearing up for pivotal labor actions. With a tight labor market and the tailwind of significant union wins, the coming months promise a royal rumble between labor and capital.

Striking Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) workers march on April 19, 2023, in Kingston, Canada. (Lars Hagberg /AFP via Getty Images)

This year is set to be a royal rumble between labor and capital in North America. By now, the reasons for the showdown are familiar. We saw a similar phenomenon in recent years, particularly in 2023. The pandemic not only increased the immiseration of workers — it also exposed the plight of working people everywhere. As the rich grew richer, everyone else struggled to feed themselves, fill their prescriptions, and indulge in the rare luxury of a night out.

As the pandemic working conditions laid bare the struggles of workers, the strength of the labor market grew. As wages fell behind inflation, effectively giving workers a pay cut, unions seized the moment — and the attending growth in class consciousness — to agitate for better deals for their members. Capital, naturally, resisted. The reasoning is simple: treating workers as human beings deserving of a fair deal might lead to an expectation of such extravagances as fair wages and job security. What audacity.

Labor Action at Scale

 The United States saw 470 strikes and lockouts affecting nearly 540,000 workers in 2023. That’s more striking workers than in the previous two years combined, which comes in at 364,000. Writing in the New York Times, David Leonhardt and Noam Scheiber note that “labor’s very good year” benefited from momentum and “key milestones,” including a deal between Microsoft and the Communications Workers of America that eased unionization in the sector.

North of the border, there were 133 work stoppages up to October affecting 169,000 workers in Canada. That’s down from 2021 and 2022, but the length of stoppages was way up, averaging seventy-four days in 2023 compared to sixty days in 2022 and twenty-three days in 2021. Labor was willing to put it all on the line to get a fair deal. But the decline in the number of work stoppages in Canada also obscures a more important reality: last year featured significant labor gains in high-profile struggles, including a headline-grabbing strike by British Columbia port workers and one of the biggest public service strikes in Canadian history.

In many cases, workers themselves drove the agenda. As Dave Waddell wrote for the Windsor Star in January, “Workers weren’t afraid to use their bargaining power with businesses to earn double-digit wage and benefit increases or to pressure their own union leadership with sky-high expectations and lukewarm acceptance of contracts that would’ve been ratified easily in years past.” That trend is set to continue, particularly as the federal government in Canada is pursuing anti-scab legislation.

When the Bankers Are Scared, You’re Doing Something Right

A report by Scotiabank recently warned that there is likely to be more Canadian labor action in the coming years. In Ontario alone, 15 percent of the workforce — over one million workers — are facing collective bargaining agreements that expire within two years. The report’s author, Derek Holt, laments recent trends, writing that “fewer and fewer folks want to work as they seek wage gains that are massively above what is justified by tumbling labor productivity through the collective bargaining process that governs about one-third of Canada’s workforce (10 percent in the US).”

Well, isn’t that just too bad. For decades, labor productivity and profit have been decoupled, with owners enjoying more and more returns on the backs of workers. If anything, people are playing a long-overdue game of catch-up. And owners and bosses are going to have to live with it. As Holt himself concludes, “Those strikes and aggressive wage settlements will persist.”

Excellent. Indeed they will, as they should. This is what it looks like when labor rebalances the playing field somewhat against capital. It shows labor, after facing structural marginalization and exploitation while capital’s power and reach has grown, trying to give as good as it gets.

Emily Leedham points out for PressProgress that the coming labor battles in Canada will be, if you’ll permit the indulgence, epic. She details the struggles to come and notes that the contracts up for renewal in the federal public sector include Canada Post, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and Via Rail. Provincial public sector contract negotiations will happen in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario. In the private sector, General Motors and Bell are also set for showdowns. The high-profile negotiations, and potential labor actions, will further draw attention to the cause.

A Bloomberg Law analysis finds that the contracts of 1.1 million workers in the United States will expire in 2024, a decline from last year but one that sets up a chance for labor to leverage and consolidate recent gains. Rebecca Rainey and Ian Kulgren write that while 315,000 postal and rail workers face statutory limits on their capacity to strike, tens of thousands of educators in the country’s largest public school districts don’t — nor do, they note, 30,000 Boeing workers. And, once more, momentum is on labor’s side.

Banks aren’t the only ones taking notice. Last week, Canadian labor minister Seamus O’Regan met with US ambassador to Canada David Cohen and major union leaders, including Unifor and the Teamsters. No doubt they were thinking about what 2024 holds in store for labor struggles — and, perhaps, the future of their governments.

While bankers are concerned about capital, so are politicians, who must also think about political capital. President Joe Biden stares down a tough reelection struggle in November and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberals trail in the polls ahead of an election that is scheduled for the fall of 2025. Both will rely on the support of workers to remain in power. Biden won in 2020 in no small part by casting himself as a union president and trying to avoid the errors of the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign, which paid insufficient attention to, among other things, workers in the Rust Belt.

Seizing the Moment

To recap this sunny forecast: labor is set for a big year thanks to a recent tight labor market, growth in class consciousness brought about by the pandemic and the working conditions it induced or exacerbated, and big union wins in 2023 that have produced momentum unseen for decades. Workers also have to their advantage the precarious positions of incumbents in the White House and on Parliament Hill.

This rare convergence of advantages offers an opportunity not only to negotiate better contracts but also to unionize new shops and industries, with a much-needed focus on gig workers. At the same time, unions will be fighting long-term trends, including the ever-growing power of capital and leaps in automation technologies that threaten jobs and livelihoods across industries. Indeed, concerns about automation featured heavily in recent auto and port worker labor struggles. They will continue to feature heavily indefinitely, as they long have, but the pace and extent of emerging technology is something different than we’ve seen for a long time.

The next two years or so will shape labor fortunes for many more years to come. We ought to keep our attention focused squarely on the struggles that will play out in boardrooms and on streets and in the media. We ought to redouble our support for workers. We ought to prepare to join them in solidarity, to contribute in whatever ways we can. As I’ve argued before, supporting workers is not only good in and of itself — it’s also a means of supporting ourselves, too. Because a win for one worker is a win for every worker.