YouTube video

Caught between COVID-19 and the cost-of-living crisis, Canada’s workers have been pushed to the edge—and it’s spurring a revitalization of the labor movement. From Ontario educators’ defiant strike in 2022 to a massive national strike of 155,000 federal employees in 2023, Canadian workers are fighting back. Labor journalist Emily Leedham sits down with TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez from the 30th Constitutional Convention of the Canadian Labour Congress in Montréal to explain what’s driving Canada’s strike wave, and where the labor movement might be headed.

Emily Leedham is the Prairie Reporter for PressProgress and editor of Shift WorkPressProgress‘ weekly national labour newsletter.

Studio Production: Jesse Freeston
Post-Production: Jules Taylor, Cameron Granadino


TRANSCRIPT

The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Emily Leedham:

My name is Emily Leedham. I’m a senior reporter with PressProgress. We’re a progressive news website based in Canada. And I cover the Prairies, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan in the middle of the country. But I also cover labor, and I have a weekly newsletter called Shift Work, which provides a roundup of all the strikes and lockouts across the country. It’s the only place you can find a list like this, as well as a roundup of the labor news from across Canada. So it’s looking at mainstream local sources and independent news sources to see what’s happening across the country. So it really gives you a snapshot of what’s happening in the Canadian labor movement once a week.

Maximillian Alvarez:

Hell yeah. Well, Emily, thank you so much for sitting down and chatting with us at the Real News Network. We are obviously here in Montreal at the Action Network tent in the 30th Constitutional Convention of the Canadian Labor Congress. And the Real News is here to talk to as many folks as we can to learn as much as we can about what working people across Canada are going through, fighting for, what the state of the organized labor movement is in Canada. And you are the one that I normally go to get that pulse read. So first I just wanted to say big fan of your work and everyone watching and listening to this should go check it out. We’ve actually been fortunate enough to have you on the Real News.

And we’ve republished a couple of your great pieces for PressProgress. Yeah. And you were on my colleague Mark Steiner’s show. Yeah, it’s great to finally meet in person. I wanted to just sort of start there. As someone who is doing this important labor reporting week in, week out, I was wondering if you could just set the scene for people watching and listening. What crucial stories have you been focusing on over, say, the past year? Because there’ve been some pretty explosive stories in Canadian labor, but what have you been focusing on?

Emily Leedham:

Yeah, definitely. I mean, the interesting thing is coming out of the pandemic, it was obviously a really, really hard time for labor, a hard time for workers, a lot of stress about what is labor doing, what are workers going to do? And what we’re seeing right now is, it’s been a couple years. And a lot of this organizing has been happening behind the scenes. You haven’t always been seeing it. But workers have been frustrated. They’ve been agitating. And we’re starting to see that coming to the surface. We saw that with the education workers just last year. They went on an illegal one-day strike. They defied legislation that would impose a collective agreement on them and ban their right to strike. And they defied that legislation. And they got it repealed in Ontario, the conservative premier back down. And that was a really big moment. Right now, we also saw the national strike of 155 public sector workers across the country. This is the first big strike like this in 30 years since 1991. It was the last time there was a strike of this magnitude of public-

Maximillian Alvarez:

It’s like 155,000 workers across the country, right?

Emily Leedham:

Yeah. Yeah. So there were 250 picket lines across Canada. So they did strategic picketing. So they weren’t all out at once, but they were kind of doing rotating strikes, strategic strikes. But it was 155,000 workers that were in those bargaining units that were represented in the strike. And it was like bookkeepers, ships, crews, people in lighthouses. I talked to some lighthouse workers. It was so interesting. Just a wide spectrum of workers, but a lot of them were women, women of color. A lot of them making $40,000 to $60,000 a year, and they were on strike over wanting higher wages and remote work policies. And this is not typically thought of as a militant union. So it was a surprise to a lot of people that this strike actually happened because I was watching the strike votes happen. A lot of times unions will take a strike vote as a bargaining chip in itself, right?

Maximillian Alvarez:

Yeah.

Emily Leedham:

We have this in our pocket. But then to actually do the next step and go on strike, that was a really big moment. So for the past two weeks, we covered the strike fairly regularly. And it was very fascinating because a lot of the workers were on strike for the first time. And a lot of them were learning what their union is and what their union does, and it’s very transformational moment. And so they were able to win some wage increases, some improvements to remote work. There’s a bit of debate, could they have got more? Should they have more? The ratification votes are about to happen. But what I’ve heard from a lot of activists is that this is a transformational moment that will impact the union for years to come, because now you have people engaged in their union, debating stuff within their union, wondering how can we get more?

And that’s something to build on, is what they have right now. So that’s really been a really interesting moment. Another thing about that strike is that it was very political because the employers like the federal government. And so you had the three major parties, the liberals, conservatives, and the NDP. They all want to portray themselves as the friends to workers. They don’t want to be coming across as anti-worker, an which labor. So very interesting watching them, how they navigated it. And it was quite an unusual precedent for this kind of moment. So you can really see that workers’ issues are at the forefront of a lot of political leaders, a lot of reporters as well. And so yeah, it’s very interesting time to be watching labor right now.

Maximillian Alvarez:

Yeah, I would say so. Because you mentioned the Ontario educators strike, that was pretty badass. I mean, defying Doug Ford’s draconian attempts to strip. Basically kind of do what Joe Biden did with the railroad workers. Force them back to work, force a deal down their throats. And even for us in the States, watching this massive federal public surfers workers strike. It was like, well, I guess that’s why the US government doesn’t let us do that. So this is why Ronald Reagan was able to fire all the air traffic controllers in the ’80. It was because federal workers in the United States don’t have that legal right. And it’s just incredible to look northward and see the strength that that many workers taking collective action has. And the interesting, like you said, dynamics that it creates within the different parties. And across the labor scene when the employer, the boss is the government.

Emily Leedham:

Yeah. And normally there would be talk about back to work legislation because they are federal workers, and they provide a lot of really essential services. But the fact that that wasn’t nobody overtly called for back to work legislation. And it became very clear early on that the government wouldn’t move in that direction because it would look so negatively on them to be so oppositional to workers. Whereas before, the conversation might have been different because other workers have been legislated back to work, postal workers just a few years ago right before the pandemic happened. So things have really shifted a lot. And I think the fact that we didn’t see the government or any politicians, even the conservative ones who normally do not like unions, they had to watch what they said as well. So I think that really shows that there is a moment to be taken advantage of for workers and unions right now. That politicians want to be seen as appeasing them.

Maximillian Alvarez:

Well, let’s talk about that real quick. Again, is someone who does such great essential reporting week in, week out. You’re talking to, like you said, lighthouse workers, clerks, and so many folks across the labor spectrum. I was wondering what’s, what you’re hearing from these different groups of workers that… What’s your impression of the key issues that workers are struggling with and fighting against in Canada? I mean, because we’re all in the midst of a cost of living crisis. I mean, this is why we’re seeing strikes by workers all over the place in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the States. So I know that that’s a key issue. But I was wondering, yeah, if you could say a bit about what you’re hearing from folks as the really galvanizing issues for workers and how the labor movement such that it is responding to those?

Emily Leedham:

Yeah, definitely. Well, like you just said, cost of living. People are recognizing that, “Oh, my union is a place where I can actually engage and we can bargain. We can do cost of living adjustments, put those into collective agreements”. There’s talk about incorporating that more into negotiations. And I cover strikes and lockouts across Canada. Wages, wages, wages. That’s like the number one issue that people are striking over right now. And I think we’re going to see even more strikes. I was talking to some labor, leaders at a conference as well, and they’re like, “Yeah, this is the tip of the iceberg.” Our members are upset and they’re ready. And another main issue is migrant workers in Canada as well as there’s like… Employers are talking about like, “Oh, there’s a labor crisis, labor shortage.” They don’t want to pay for good jobs. So they’re saying-

Maximillian Alvarez:

Oh, yeah. We get that in the states too.

Emily Leedham:

Nobody wants to work. It’s like, well, yeah, maybe increase your wages, your working conditions. People will want to work. But they are wanting to exploit migrant workers as well. And there’s a lot of that that’s been happening. But right now there’s talk about Irregular program for migrant workers. The federal government has been promising it, and they’ve been talking about putting it together, which would basically grant status, permanent resident status to migrant workers across Canada, hopefully. So there is a movement right now of migrant workers that is organizing to really push this forward and make sure that when they come up with this regularization program, it is expansive and covers all workers across Canada. And that is a really crucial moment because migrant workers are able to have union or have employment rights the same as any other workers. That means they can join a union. That means they can organize. That means they don’t have to be scared, and that they’ll be deported for even going to a know your right session or anything like that.

And so that will really strengthen the labor movement overall if we have all these workers that are able to be here, and fight, and organize. So that’s something that’s on the horizon. And hopefully we’ll get pushed through this year. So that’s something really important to keep an eye on. Definitely.

Maximillian Alvarez:

And just a quick follow up on that, have you seen the organized labor movement, the established unions… Have they been part of that push? Have they been receptive to it driving him?

Emily Leedham:

Yeah, there’s been some definitely who have been supportive of the movement. But there is a bit of a disconnect for sure, because some unions can be very insular and just like, “We want to secure improvements for our members, and they don’t really step back and they take a big picture, look at it. Even working with other unions or non-unionized workers, much less migrant workers. So it definitely is a mixed bag. There is a lot of support for the Migrant Worker Movement. But it is really led by independent organizers outside of the union movement. So any support that institutionalized labor can throw behind that, I think will really benefit everyone in general. You lift the most exploited workers up and it lifts everyone up

Maximillian Alvarez:

Well, and I think it’s also really important for folks watching and listening to this to not just assume that the dynamics that are true in the states automatically translate to what’s going on in Canada. I mean, we can say the same for any country. But I know there’s a tendency to assume that basically Canada is going through the same stuff that we are. So there’s a one-to-one comparison. The reason I say that is because I was wanted to ask quickly if the public has been behind these labor mobilizations. Because I think that’s been an important factor in the states. Unions have not been popular for most of my lifetime. And now suddenly, they are more favorable in the public’s estimation than they’ve been in decades. Are you seeing something similar here in Canada?

Emily Leedham:

Yeah, I think the tide is definitely shifting for sure. There’s been the big Starbucks Union drive in the States, which has been so amazing. We’ve seen a bit of that spillover here. We’ve had some Starbucks locations unionized, which is so great. I mean, even just a few years ago, I was in the Fight for $15 movement. And the talk about unionizing franchises, it was like, “Oh, it’s so hard.” So it’s just like, look, it’s happening. It’s not impossible. So that has been happening here in the PSAC public sector strike. It was really interesting because there’s a dichotomy between public and private sector unions. And the conservatives and the right wing movement, business lobby movement. They kind of tried to divide workers along those lines and say, “These are government workers. They’re making so much money. They’re just bloated. Big government.” And they use that as an excuse to erode the labor rights and to drive down wages. So that was really interesting to see. During the federal strike.

There was a poll done, and there was support for the workers. There was quite a lot of people understood what they were fighting for. And there was, I think, 60% support across the board for the workers. So it was higher than would be expected for federal public sector workers. Especially since you really did have the business lobby going hard to try to demonize these workers and be like, asking for too much, basically. So I think the tide is shifting, for sure.

Maximillian Alvarez:

Oh, yeah. Well, and on that note, I wanted to ask before I let you go about the role that media is playing in that. And kind of what the state of the labor beat is in Canada. I mean, the US it’s not great. I mean, we used to have way more local newspapers. It was a staple of most newspapers to have a designated labor reporter back in the day. And with the kind of gradual and not so gradual collapse of the media industry in the digital age, a lot of those beats were axed. A lot of those papers had been shutters. And it was looking really dismal until quite recently. So we’ve had a bit of a resurgence of the labor beat, mainly driven by freelancers and independent outlets.

So I mean, great folks like Kim Kelly, Sarah Jaffe, Michelle Chen, Luis, Felix, Leon labor notes in these times, us at the Real News like. “We’re doing the best we can, but we’ve got a long way to go.” And so I wanted to ask, what does the labor media landscape look like here in Canada? And what role do you see your work and PressProgress playing in the movement that we’re talking about here?

Emily Leedham:

Yeah, definitely. It’s been kind of the same here where there wasn’t a lot of labor reporting for a while. But because of the pandemic, every story became a labor story. And so a lot of the mainstream reporters were just forced to cover labor, and forced to learn about labor, and talk to workers, talk to unions. So you definitely saw bit of a resurgence there. There’s a reporter at The Globe and Mail, one of the big newspapers. She was a business reporter, and she basically turned her position into a labor reporter because she’s like, “This is a crucial moment. We’re not talking to the right people. We need to be talking to the workers”. So I think that was so great. There’s another lay reporter in BC, a brand new position at the TA And so it is kind of having a resurgence and in progressive media as well, independent media.

But of course, the state of the news industry in general has been very stressful. And that impacts, of course, the kind of work that you can do. So the scope and the quality of the kind of reporting that you can do. So yeah, you have this rise of the labor reporting. But then also just the conditions of the news industry kind of keep getting worse. So for us at PressProgress. One thing that I’ve been trying to do with shift work is really highlight labor journalism. This is what I tell. We do labor internships. We’ve had interns that we bring on in the summer, and we teach them how to do labor reporting. It’s been so exciting.

And what I’ve been saying is you have to be an advocate for the beat as well. You have to learn about the labor movement, do these stories, but you have to learn how to fight for these stories and fight for the beat itself, because that’s going to be how it’s built. It’s why journalists pushing it forward. So I’m really excited about that. And that’s what I’m trying to do at PressProgress with the shift work newsletter, and covering the strikes and lockouts that we do. I’d like to build up labor reporting more at PressProgress.

Maximillian Alvarez:

Oh, yeah. Well, we stand in solidarity with y’all. We would love to keep collaborating and supporting that important work. And in that vein, I just wanted to close by asking, give us some plugs. Where can people find you and follow your work?

Emily Leedham:

Yeah, so pressprogress.ca/shiftwork. That’s where you can go sign up for the newsletter. Pressprogress.ca, that’s where you find all of our reporting. We report on right-wing political movements, business lobbyists, political movements. But then we have all of our labor reporting there as well. And then you can find me on Twitter, just look me up at Emily Leedham on Instagram as well. And yeah, that’s where you can find me.

Maximillian Alvarez:

Oh, yeah.

Emily Leedham:

Thanks so much for having me on as well. It’s always really great to talk to you and be connected to outlets in the States as well. Like you said, a lot of the labor reporting, I’ve learned from people in the States who’ve been pushing it forward as well. That’s been a real inspiration for me in learning how to do it here. So thank you.

Maximillian Alvarez:

Oh, yeah. Right back at you. Thanks so much for sitting down with us, Emily.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Editor-in-Chief
Ten years ago, I was working 12-hour days as a warehouse temp in Southern California while my family, like millions of others, struggled to stay afloat in the wake of the Great Recession. Eventually, we lost everything, including the house I grew up in. It was in the years that followed, when hope seemed irrevocably lost and help from above seemed impossibly absent, that I realized the life-saving importance of everyday workers coming together, sharing our stories, showing our scars, and reminding one another that we are not alone. Since then, from starting the podcast Working People—where I interview workers about their lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles—to working as Associate Editor at the Chronicle Review and now as Editor-in-Chief at The Real News Network, I have dedicated my life to lifting up the voices and honoring the humanity of our fellow workers.
 
Email: max@therealnews.com
 
Follow: @maximillian_alv