Work stoppages on pace to quadruple in 2009

Jump in broader public sector strikes and lockouts the cause
By Gordon Sova
||Last Updated: 10/30/2009

Two thousand and nine is looking like it might shape up as a record year for industrial disputes. As of September, there have been 11 disputes involving 500 employees or more. Nine of those have been in the broader public sector or in private-sector companies doing work recently privatized with a total of 41,880 employees off the job. Seven have been settled. In the private sector, one major strike at National Steel Car has been settled and another at Vale Inco continues.

In the first six months of the year, the federal Department of Human Resources and Social Development records that 1.7 million person-days have been lost from all work stoppages, large and small. This compares to only 291,600 in the same period last year and 665,952 in 2007. If this trend continues, 2009 will have the second-highest total for the decade, behind the 4.15 million days lost in 2005.

In terms of percentage of working time lost, however, the numbers are not quite so bleak. For 2009, 0.5 per cent of estimated working time has been lost to work stoppages, higher than either 2006 or 2008 but toward the lower end of the historical rate. In 2005, for instance, 0.11 per cent of time was lost and, in 1986, 0.27 per cent.

The broader public sector (including the categories of public administration and education, health and social services) represents 71 per cent of the days lost to work stoppages in 2009. In the years over this decade in which there has been a larger number of days lost to strikes and lockouts (2002, 2004 and 2005 had roughly three million days lost or more, and 2009 is on the track to repeat), broader public sector strikes have made the difference.

In 2002, they represented 53 per cent of days lost, in 2004, 43 per cent, in 2005, 39 per cent, and in 2009, 71 per cent. In an average year, the broader public sector makes up 36 per cent of days lost and, in years with fewer days lost, 25 per cent.

Conversely, manufacturing and resource extraction industries normally make up 32 per cent of days lost but, in the years 2002, 2004, 2005 and 2009, they represent only 22 per cent, 21 per cent, 12 per cent and 13 per cent respectively.

If the current trend continues, 2009 will be see a significant jump in strikes and the public sector, as in the past, will be the source of the increase in time lost.

Several problems are brewing on the strike horizon for the public sector. In Nova Scotia, community college staff are in a strike position, as are hydro and liquor store workers in Manitoba. In Saskatchewan, talks between SAHO and several unions for medical support workers are going nowhere.

In the private sector, the B.C. forestry talks continue, but no action is being threatened. Bell Canada clerical employees in Ontario and Quebec have turned down a tentative agreement. And, finally, collective agreements for Metro supermarkets are expiring in September and October.