News

U.S. Workers Are Organizing Mass Strikes. Why Aren't Canadian Workers?

"It's not like Trudeau is some great friend of the workers, but he's definitely nothing like Trump."
May 13, 2020, 1:47pm
Chris Smalls, a fired Amazon fulfillment centre employee, protests outside an Amazon.com facility in New York City on May 1
Chris Smalls, a fired Amazon fulfillment centre employee, protests outside an Amazon.com facility in New York City on May 1. Photo by Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The United States has been swept by a wave of worker militancy during the pandemic, comprising a myriad of work stoppages including strikes, “sickouts,” and other demonstrations. From walkouts by workers at Amazon, Instacart, and other major employers on May Day, to car caravans by health care workers lapping around hospitals, U.S. labour has been fighting back.

In Canada, the response has been relatively subdued, with no massive actions. Apart from persistent protests at the Cargill meat-packing plant in Alberta, the site of the worst COVID-19 outbreak in North America, there have been isolated actions against a range of employers including the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) and the food delivery service Foodora. But there hasn’t been anything nearly as comprehensive or coordinated as in the U.S.

It makes you wonder, why are Canadian workers not walking out like their U.S. counterparts?

Labour studies experts point to a range of factors to account for the starkly different workforce actions, like the Canadian government’s generous income support and a more effective response to the virus, which have helped maintain public trust in state institutions.

“The current level of crisis (in Canada) is not quite as deep,” said Barry Eidlin, assistant professor in sociology at McGill University. “It's not like Trudeau is some great friend of the workers, but he's definitely nothing like Trump.”

Canada's (relatively) generous pandemic packages

The Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), a measure introduced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in March, gives workers affected by COVID-19 $2,000 a month for up to four months. Although it initially left out a large number of people including students, it’s been improved through successive reforms and now even includes gig workers and freelancers.

In contrast, the U.S. government has been doling out a one-time payment of US$1,200 to individuals who make less than US$75,000 a year (with some states providing additional income supports that vary widely).

“There’s no equivalent in the U.S. (to the CERB). So a lot of lower wage workers whose workplaces have not closed are under much greater pressure to go to work, or be thrown out of their apartments or unable to pay bills,” said David Camfield, an associate professor of labour studies at the University of Manitoba.

The U.S. has been more severely hit by the virus

The economic desperation of U.S. workers is exacerbated by the bungled response to the virus of the Trump administration. Per capita, the U.S. has a significantly higher rate of COVID-19 infections than Canada, where lockdowns across provinces have been more extensive. About 5,000 people have died in Canada from COVID-19, the vast majority in nursing homes, while the virus has been far more indiscriminate in claiming more than 82,000 lives in the U.S.

Given the inherently medical component of the crisis, it’s also hard to overlook the discrepancy in health care coverage between the two countries. Although the pandemic has exposed the weaknesses in the Canadian health care system—namely how it falls apart in long-term care homes—Canadians are not dependent on their employers for insurance.

“If people feel they need to show up to work in order to have health coverage, then they’re going to be more likely to insist that they have safe conditions in the middle of a pandemic,” Camfield said.

More people are unionized in Canada

More people per capita belong to unions in Canada than in the U.S.: 30.2 per cent compared to 11.6 percent. This gives Canadian organized labour lots more leverage, according to Sanders.

“Our labour movement has more of an ability to direct policy in a way that is certainly not true in the United States,” said David Sanders, an organizer for Unifor, one of Canada’s largest general trade unions, who also has a PhD in labour studies.

2019 unionization rates in canada and the u.s.

Canadian unionization rates: Statistics Canada, 2019. U.S. rates: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019

“Because the labour movement is significantly stronger within our country, the unions like Unifor, for instance, have regular contact with and influence over all levels of government,” he said.

The NDP and organized labour were vocal in their demands for a higher wage subsidy for businesses, which the minority Liberal government eventually passed with parliamentary consensus. The benefit pays up to 75 percent of wages to businesses that have lost significant revenue due to COVID-19.

While the U.S. has a “Paycheck Protection Program,” it has been criticized as part of a corporate bailout scheme that does nothing for workers.

Canadians unions have also been influential in the workplace during the pandemic, said Debora De Angelis, Canadian spokesperson for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, which represents over a quarter million workers in Canada and nearly a million in the U.S.

UFCW has taken legal action in an attempt to close down the Cargill plant in Calgary. Three plant workers have died and more than 900, nearly half the workforce, have tested positive for COVID-19.

According to De Angelis, UFCW’s advocacy led to a “hazard pay” increase of $2 per hour for its food retail workers across North America, with a rippling effect at many non-unionized outlets.

The union has also been advocating for more protective equipment like plexiglass shields at cashier counters and better social distancing measures, based on the demands of its members, said De Angelis.

The demand for a union is in fact the driving force for many U.S. workers, who seek better workplace representation in order to improve their employment conditions.

U.S. workers are taking things into their own hands

A more unionized workforce could have also led to a greater fightback from the labour movement in Canada. But the context is very different.

The organizers at the forefront of the recent labour unrest in the U.S. are “non-union, underemployed, and precarious workers who have taken things into their own hands to demand changes and organize their co-workers in the absence of a union,” VICE reported earlier this month.

The U.S. has witnessed a wave of politicization dating back to 2015, stemming in part from social movements like Black Lives Matter and Fight for $15 and Fairness and encompassing the immensely successful teachers strikes, said Camfield.

The movements have fed into and been emboldened by Bernie Sanders campaigns, which articulated the frustrations of a working class ravaged by massive inequality, declining standards of living, and ruthless exploitation.

Last month, when Amazon fired Christian Smalls, a warehouse worker who was organizing his cohorts to demand safer working conditions, Sanders lashed out at the employer. Amazon says Smalls was fired for violating social distancing guidelines and putting the safety of others at risk.

While the U.S. working class found its expressions vocalized in the mainstream through the Sanders campaigns, there is no Canadian equivalent.

“The NDP is certainly not serving as some sort of pole of attraction for a new revitalized left the way the Bernie Sanders campaign did and the way the Democratic Socialists of America does,” Eidlin said.

The spate of activism has naturally been represented at workplaces, with the U.S. recording the highest number of strikes in 2018 since 1981, which stayed high in 2019.

“It’s part of a broader radicalization that for some people has meant trying to do workplace organizing and supporting workers,” Camfield said.

Strikes are contagious, especially when they achieve their goals, said Eidlin. “There’s been all this coverage of strikes, and they’re winning,” he said. “Even if you’re not directly affected by that strike, it’s something that’s on your radar. And it becomes part of the set of viable options you can consider.”

Both Camfield and Eidlin also point to a significant difference in labour laws between the two countries. While American labour law is generally weaker, it protects “concerted activity” for non-unionized workers, who can partake in legal workplace demonstrations.

Canadian workers have no such protection if they don’t belong to a union—which is why we haven’t seen Amazon workers here demonstrate against their employer.

Even unionized workers have limitations based on labour legislation across North America; they can only legally strike in the event of a bargaining impasse. Workplace problems are instead typically resolved through grievance procedures, which constraints workers' greatest asset: their ability to withhold their labour.

The 'business union' approach

Although unions represent workers, they can often function as bureaucracies that effectively bypass their members and restrain their activism. This can often happen in “business unions” that typically have large locals without grassroots organization, which can be alienating for members.

“The presence of very well-established unions that have a real business union approach does tend to stifle workers taking matters into their own hands,” Camfield said. “The workers may get certain kinds of protection, but are maybe less likely to engage in direct action.”

Rechev Browne, a unionized grocery store worker in Toronto, said workers need to be more active in their unions and continue pushing for better working conditions, and build on gains negotiated by their leadership.

“Sometimes we gotta organize the union,” he said. “Sometimes the union might say, ‘We got them $2. We are doing good.’ But is that enough? To put it in perspective, we are actually risking our lives.”

To him, “hazard pay” is akin to “hush pay” from the employer. He said the wage enhancement ensures workers keep the economy afloat without complaining while large corporate chains profit during the crisis.

In essence, the pandemic is magnifying the inequities of Canadian capitalism by preying on the most vulnerable. In that sense, the Canadian political economy is not substantially different than the U.S. system.

“There’s a group of people who have no choice but to work for close to minimum wage,” Sanders said. “They’re risking their lives and dying, providing the services and the goods that the people who are working at home need to be able to work.”

Echoing a common refrain that “we can’t go back to normal,” Sanders said that unions also need to adapt, in part by engaging a broader section of the working class—including the 84 percent of non-unionized private sector workers.

“It’s both an opportunity and a necessity for us to figure out ways to involve as many people as possible in this conversation about what we want in our society look like as we go through to the other side,” he said.

Update: This story has been updated to include a comment from Amazon.

Follow Zaid Noorsumar on Twitter.