In the face of runaway inflation, Britain’s ongoing strikewave offers an important lesson for the labour movement in Canada—militancy pays.
The status quo: Cuts to living standards
In October, the most recent month for which data is available, Canada’s inflation rate stood at 6.9 per cent. When it comes to the cost of living, the situation is worse, with the price of fuel going up 9.2 per cent, and the price of food rising by 10.1 per cent. However, wages on average rose just five per cent from last year, with many falling well below.
In effect, the average Canadian worker has experienced a pay cut this year. It is hardly a mystery, therefore, why the share of Canadian households struggling to afford food, transportation, and other basic necessities has risen from 20.4 per cent last year to 35.3 per cent.
Bosses squeeze workers
Beyond statistics, across the country, Canada’s bosses are very eager to make workers bear the brunt of inflation.
In the private sector, bosses have pushed real cuts onto their workers explicitly.
In May, Ontario’s construction council offered its workers as little as 3.19 per cent in the first year of its three-year contract.
Later CN Rail, one of Canada’s largest monopolies, offered its signal and communications workers just two per cent per year—another massive pay cut.
Elsewhere, in British Columbia, 1,000 tugboat captains and other crew with the Canadian Merchant Service Guild were offered an “embarrassing” two per cent by Seaspan.
In the public sector, things are no better.
In Manitoba, public sector workers have faced across-the-board wage freezes for years.
In Ontario, nurses, bus drivers, firefighters, and the rest of the public sector have also had their annual wage growth capped at just one per cent by legislation. Currently, the Ford government is offering CUPE education workers just 3.5 per cent, after months of scandals and threats. In both cases, these workers would see their living standards reduced.
In Montreal, nurses and nursing assistants at Héma-Québec were also offered paltry wage changes in the face of rising living costs. Nearby, the Public Service Alliance of Canada notes, bosses at the old Port of Montreal “had the audacity to propose a 0% increase for the first year and a meager 1.25% for the second.”
Looking forward, a recent survey by the Bank of Canada finds that a majority of Canadian bosses are planning to squeeze workers further—cutting their wage offers and slowing hiring if they’re allowed to. Elsewhere, Bank of Canada governor Tiff Macklem strongly suggested bosses refuse to provide inflation-level wage adjustments to their workers. “Don’t build that into longer-term contracts. Don’t build that into wage contracts,” Macklem said.
Simply put: If these bosses are not brought to heel, ordinary workers will continue to face cuts.
Lessons from abroad
Fortunately, workers can wrest the power to determine wages and conditions away from the bosses—as the ongoing strike wave across the United Kingdom shows. There, workers across sectors have beaten back their bosses. In the process, many of these workers have won double-digit wage increases instead of cuts.
These victories didn’t come from pleading, lobbying, politeness, or the courts. Instead, the labour movement—from dockworkers to postal workers, rail workers, bus drivers, and more—responded to the bosses’ attacks with mass demonstrations, mass mobilizations and mass shutdowns.
The ongoing strike wave
Throughout the summer, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) led the largest wave of strikes on Britain’s rail network since 1989. In the face of cuts, threats and demonization by the right-wing media, the workers have been mobilized to fight—most recently secured with a 91.7 per cent vote to continue the strike.
So far, National Rail has supposedly reconsidered its position. Instead of offering a paltry four per cent wage increase against 11.1 per cent inflation, the employer told The Guardian it will agree to a two-week period of “intense negotiations.”
In Liverpool and Felixstowe, dockworkers have similarly fought back against an attempt to impose a real cut (or seven per cent pay “increase”) onto them with coordinated strike action.
By shutting down the docks, the workers closed off access to one of the U.K.’s busiest ports, which manages 60 ships and 75,000 TEU of goods every month. By imperilling profits, amid chants of “Fuck The Tories” and “the dockers united will never be defeated,” the workers secured pay increases of up to 14 per cent from their once-recalcitrant employer.
In northwest England, Arriva bus drivers, organized in Unite and GMB, walked out in Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Cheshire, and elsewhere. Facing a paltry eight per cent offer from the company, one worker remarked to Socialist Appeal: “With the way the economy is, we can’t afford not to strike.”
From an initial eight per cent offer, Arriva was pressured by the shutdown to “revise” its offer to 11.1 per cent.
Meanwhile across the U.K, postal workers at Royal Mail fought back against an imposed two per cent pay offer with mass walkouts on Sep. 28. While Royal Mail has changed its offer somewhat since the start of the strike, the union has announced plans to keep fighting until Christmas.
“The CWU want a negotiated settlement with Royal Mail Group and will continue to engage the company to that end,” a spokesperson told Reuters. “But those in charge of Royal Mail need to wake up and realize we won’t allow them to destroy the livelihoods of postal workers.”
These strikes have also been coordinated. On Oct. 1, the unions involved launched a mass shutdown, including rail and postal workers, port workers and university staff in coordination. Supporting the strikes, anti-austerity campaigners with Enough Is Enough called mass demonstrations—involving 5,000 in London, 1,000 in Glasgow, and hundreds more in dozens of cities elsewhere to ensure the workers were heard.
The strike wave may yet escalate further. As of Nov. 14, a total of 214 workplaces represented by the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union—including workers at HM Passport Office, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Department for Education—have also voted to strike against inflation.
The logic of the class struggle
The conditions in the U.K are not appreciably different from the conditions in Canada. In both cases, the class struggle has the same logic.
The working class keeps society running. Workers drive the buses, operate the trains, deliver the mail, prepare the food, and manage the transport networks that the entire capitalist system depends upon. Without these workers, nothing is done and the bosses are powerless.
The capitalists, and their friends in government, produce nothing. They understand very well that every dollar won by workers, in the form of wages and benefits, comes at the expense of profits. For the capitalists, private-sector wages and benefits eat into corporate profits directly while public-sector wages and benefits are always and everywhere, no matter how meager, a “tax burden” on their returns. Left up to the bosses, workers will continue to pay for the ongoing crisis. This is reflected in their demands for real wage and benefit cuts, amid rising inflation.
These bosses, for this reason, can’t be convinced by sound arguments or court challenges to boost wages and benefits. Their power must be taken away.
For months, Canada’s right-wing media and top business analysts have been warning about just this threat—a spectre of “labour unrest”
Recently, the Financial Post warned that amid the current “super-charged inflationary time, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the 1980s,” a fighting mood is emerging among ordinary workers. “The potential for labour Armageddon is in the air.”
BNN Bloomberg has also warned that more and more “labour unrest” may be in store: “After years of stagnating wages, workers want to get paid. They’re tired of seeing their incomes evaporate as inflation surges, especially those in logistics or other front-line industries that kept economies functioning during the pandemic.”
Bank of Canada governor Tiff Macklem, for his part, has also warned about new, greater demands for wage increases—promising to even bring about a recession to quell “unmoored” “inflation expectations.”
The Bank of Montreal reiterated these warnings, albeit with clearer language:
“The combination of firming consumer inflation expectations and an uber-tight job market is filtering into wage demands, and many firms will be forced to pay up…there is a direct correlation between inflation and labour unrest, and we’ve begun to see anecdotes of such in recent months—rail workers, construction trades, aerospace and retail, among others.”
These people are right to be scared. By stopping work, ordinary people have the power to bring whole economies to a halt until the conditions of work and wages improve.
The recent strike wave in the U.K. has made the enormous power in the hands of the working class clear. In these cases, the same bosses who felt fit to bully, threaten and attack their workers were left scrambling to improve their offers to coax them back to work—lest they cause any more damage.
This is a reminder that, if coordinated and suitably organized, the working class can defeat the bosses and bosses’ governments. This example must be followed.