Strikes—the cost of doing business

By Andrew Joseph, Editor

Canada has seen its fair share of strikes lately—from auto workers, port workers, and federal workers related to passport renewals and immigration to grocery store workers and liquor and lotteries in Manitoba.

Ignoring any still ongoing strikes—some lasted months, while others went on for weeks, some for days—but each impacted more than just the two sides arguing over an issue.

We’re not here to argue who’s right and who’s wrong. We can, however, examine how a strike can negatively affect Canada.

Since we are an association of retailers, what is going on with all these strikes?

It should be obvious, but 99.9999 percent of the time, it revolves around money or a perceived lack of it.

Are people greedy? Yes, humans can be greedy as a species, with some of us always wanting to be more equal than others.

Without going into specifics about how much money some striking entities earn at an hourly rate and are looking to make, let’s see why strikes are in vogue in the 2020s.

More Money, Please
While the word please may not enter into a Canadian strike discussion as often as it should, a glance at our Canadian economy shows that people don’t have enough money.

  1. They don’t have enough money to keep up with the increased cost of living.
  2. They don’t have enough money for affordable housing.
  3. They don’t have enough money for food.

All three of those points impact or have impacted the agricultural sector in Canada.

Coincidentally, these issues have all arisen following the COVID-19 pandemic. Okay, maybe not coincidentally.

Aside from applying better personal hygiene practices and learning not to mess with Mother Nature, what lessons can we take from the pandemic? Plenty, as it turns out.

Cost-of-living? Sure, the fuel for your vehicles, home heat, electricity during the summer AC months, and food, seed, and fertilizer prices.

Affordable housing—yes, the bubble has burst from the insane housing prices seen through the summer of 2022. However, housing prices are still high, leaving many wondering how they can ever afford a home or rent—especially for those living in a so-called big city.

This writer’s parents bought a house on a large parcel of property in the suburbs of Toronto for $44,000 in 1973. Fifty years later, the going rate is about $1.6 million—down from the $2.2 million seen last summer for a neighbour’s “same” house and property.

Have employee wages or salaries kept up since 1973 to make the 2023 housing values a viable purchase? No. And neither do they make sense for property taxes, where a neighbour with a newer, larger McMansion has a $3 million house (albeit on a smaller lot) but pays $1,000 less in annual property taxes than the writer’s unchanged 1945 construct.

The city is pricing older, more long-term owners out of the housing market with property taxes.

? An October 29, 2023, Canadian Press article headline screamed: “‘Haven’t eaten in days’: Canada’s food banks reporting massive spike in demand.”

The article quotes Cynthia Boulter, the Chief Operating Officer of the Great Vancouver Food Banks: “We see parents who are skipping meals so that their children can eat. We see people who haven’t eaten in days. We see seniors who haven’t had produce in months.”

In March 2023, food bank usage in Canada was 32 percent higher than in 2022 and 78 percent higher when compared with how things were pre-Covid in March 2019.

You may recall that by March 2020, with the pandemic in full swing, there was an economic shutdown that affected food security for everyone, especially those who regularly relied on food banks.

We may not have thought much about those people because, even as the pandemic made its presence more fully felt in March 2020, one in five Canadians worried about having enough food to meet their household needs.

Whether you utilized a “personalized shopper,” a home delivery service, or donned a mask and gloves, the limited supply of foods and related sundry items may have struck you.

Yes, there was a run on toilet paper, hand soap, and sanitizers. In fact, for these items, stores were either price gouging with through-the-roof markups or were doing their best to service all by limiting the number of items that could be purchased—usually worked around by having every family member out to make that maximum purchase.

While some legitimately needed larger quantities—larger families—many sought to profit by selling them via social media at hyper-inflated prices that would have embarrassed WWII black marketeers.

Fortunately, manufacturers and retailers were quick to react, and it appears that few, if any, had to find alternatives to toilet paper.

At the grocery stores, you might not find chicken thighs one day or pork chops the next. Ground beef was never a gimmee either. Sometimes you find the protein cut you want, other times you make do without it. It’s still like that today.

During the pandemic—and at least still in the writer’s grocery store(s)—2L bottles of a particular brand were either in short supply or out of stock. It’s a real thing.

People were buying more cans and frozen bags of vegetables and other foods—just in case. In the pantry, this writer still has a can of chicken—a whole chicken in a can. Two cans, actually. Not toucans.

Free Money
With the economic shutdown, many individuals wholly relied on the federal CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefits) program payments.

These payments provided financial support to employed and self-employed Canadians affected by COVID-19 and the economic shutdown. If you were eligible, you could have received $2,000 for four weeks (the same as $500 a week)—up to four such payments for $8,000.

At the time, the writer was self-employed and took the CERB payments, which, while helpful, were about half of what he was used to receiving when working a full-time job the year before COVID. Yes, he was legally qualified for CERB.

Even with the CERB payments, it made food, cost-of-living, and housing costs quite challenging as family decisions regarding where the closest food bank was now were on the table instead of a hot meal.

There was some concern from political pundits that CERB payments made some people reluctant to get back to work. Why buy the cow if you get the milk for free?

However, quantifying CERB “laziness” is impossible, so we’ll leave it at that.

Stuff happens. What are you going to do about it?

Workers in Demand
One of the more exciting things to arise from the pandemic was worker self-awareness.

While many in the retail industry—no, not you—seemingly took the worker for being a worker, the pandemic taught retailer workers they were a valuable commodity.

From stocking the shelves to working the gas stations to working the drive-thru, and much more, these workers began to feel that they were putting their lives on the line and should earn a wage that better reflected their sacrifice for personal safety.

There’s also medical staff, police and fire personnel, and those working at retirement homes and in funeral services—all essential. All are performing their day-to-day tasks in challenging situations.

With the pandemic on, however, only some were keen to continue to go to work.

Not only did those nearing retirement age decide to retire, but the time off allowed many others to determine that their current job wasn’t really what they wanted.

Also, when the fears of COVID-19 lessened to allow for a loosening of public restrictions, not everyone believed it and refused to go to work.

Right there, we have a worker shortage.

However, fewer workers were required to be physically back at work because of distancing restrictions in place. There was the same available manufacturing space in a factory, but restrictions meant fewer workers could work in any given area.

Despite fewer workers being needed, those working worked harder, trying to catch up to the needy consumer (regardless of the industry).

Those workers who did want to work were now very much in demand, as retailers faced a thinner workforce even as consumers desired to revisit retailers—though we should point out that not everyone has decided to go back and do retail shopping physically.

Order pickers became much in demand as consumers enjoyed—or perhaps took advantage—of the time-consuming physicality of retail shopping and preferred to have their purchases picked and delivered to their homes.

Still, for those in retail, the workers were overworked and overstressed. They are overworked because of the shortage of workers and overstressed because they are doing more work than they are used to and still have to work under the shadow of COVID.

My Supply Chain Broke
For some retailers, an inability to receive a product from a manufacturer who could not build a product because of a parts or materials shortage was an everyday problem in March of 2020 that has only recently more or less resolved itself.

This supply chain issue was a global one.

An inability to mine or process ore to turn it into a needed part. For example, no one was mining the iron ore to smelt it into a steel-belted tire. Tire shortages hit auto suppliers and manufacturers but hurt the trucking industry, which, because of the size of tires required and the lower volume required compared to automobiles, was not being manufactured as often when the parts were there.

The parts were often not there because they were struck in transit—en route via a cargo ship that could not be loaded or off-looffloadedly because of COVID restrictions and again because of reduced worker availability.

There were still cows, pigs, and chickens for meat and poultry. Still, farm operators faced issues in getting animal food, workers to care for the animals, truck availability to take the animals to an abattoir, workers to slaughter and butcher, packaging professionals to prep it for transport, and limited truck availability—primarily because of a lack of drivers and technicians to maintain them—and then in some locations, workers at grocer stores to offloaoffloade, and stock shelves as necessary.

There wasn’t a meat shortage, just a shortage of people to get it from farm to fork.

A Change in Behaviour
Perhaps it was a long time coming. Perhaps it was the observance of our American cousins acting even more than usual, but post-Covid Canadian attitudes have shifted.

Generally speaking, people seem angrier since the reduction in pandemic safety protocols has allowed people to brave the outdoor environment again without too much fear.

It’s not necessarily “hate thy neighbour” or even measurable. But there’s a darker, angrier side exhibited by people tired of being pushed around.

Yes, worker shortages, inflation, and never-ending increases in the cost of living help define it.

Even though the government shut down a business’s ability to remain open during the pandemic, thereby affecting workers’ income, these workers have determined that since there was no loyalty shown to them, there need be no loyalty shown to the employer.

They want respect and to be paid better, and they know there’s an employee shortage.

There certainly are employee shortages in the skilled trades sector, regardless of the industry—across the US and Canada. And it’s a collective feeling among the workers—a collective feeling that leads to collective action.

During the pandemic, union workers and businesses often had collective bargaining agreements come due. But pandemic fears allowed them to resolve the issue and keep everyone going quickly. For the unions, because there was already a lot of unemployment due to the economic shutdown, workers were reluctant to bring up any workplace grievances. They were just happy to keep on working.

But post-pandemic, when those same agreements are due again, there’s a reluctance to maintain the status quo.

With the inflation—we’re nowhere near the hyperinflation of post-WWI Germany, where it was cheaper to burn money than to use it to buy firewood—and the high cost of living, union workers are more willing to go on strike.

They are more aware that their employers cannot easily replace them due to a skilled worker shortage. They also know that some companies did rather well upon emerging from the pandemic, so why shouldn’t the workers be paid for that?

At the Port of Vancouver and the St. Lawrence Seaway, workers are aware that shipping companies did quite all right in the time during the pandemic as the workers kept the ports open and running, ensuring we Canadians got our goods out and our goods in—even if things were a bit snarled with traffic.

Did Canadians have to go without anything in particular during the pandemic? If we exclude outside-the-home personal contact, then not really.

As such, now that agreements between the port and the unionized workers have come due, workers know they have the port over a barrel. A call to strike, and soon enough, the workers got what they wanted.

It’s why we have seen more than our fair share of strike actions in 2022 and 2023 in Canada. It’s also why there isn’t a tremendous roar about strikes from the general populace. Consumers see that there seems to be a more significant divide between the haves and the have-nots.

An Overview of Recent Strike Action
Post-COVID, we had many union contract agreements come due. We also saw an increase in worker resentment around a lack of respect, stressful working conditions, wages unable to keep pace with the cost-of-living increases, plain old inflation, and high housing prices.

We’ve also seen workers wanting more respect and have noticed that they finally hold an advantage over their employees, as no one off the street easily replaces their skills.

However, when workers go on strike, there are delivery delays and rising shipping costs.

There is also the fact that the country’s reputation suffers on the global stage. If an agent purchases grain for a country and Canada cannot supply it because a closed port does not allow it to be shipped and received on time, that agent will look elsewhere to get the time-sensitive cargo.

Canadian farmers not only lose out on a sale, but the country also gains a reputation for not being a reliable trade partner. As well, there’s the financial loss of revenues and contract fines.

Of course, it’s not just agricultural food affected by shipping delays. For tractor manufacturers who rely on steel, shipping delays mean the customer will also have to wait.

A lack of materials could also mean that manufacturing slows or grinds to a halt. Not only does it affect the bottom line, but it also affects the worker.

So, in the case of port workers getting paid, manufacturing employees may have suffered due to layoffs or job cuts.

Shipped fuel is prevented from reaching its destination because of a strike action, which means that everyone who uses fuel will have to pay a higher price, which eats into one’s profits. Increased prices for goods being transported will also increase inflation.

While we cannot begrudge one party wanting to strike for their reasons, even if they are not immediately felt, a strike will play havoc with the Canadian economy on multiple levels, affecting Canadian businesses and consumers.

It’s a vicious circle that only seems to be getting more vicious.

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