Labor’s Winning Weapon

Labor’s Winning Weapon

Two Canadian unions show why the supermajority strike is the key to worker power.


While tens of thousands of unionized workers in the United States were running phone banks and pounding the pavement in the final push to save democracy in crucial local, state and midterm elections, nearly 60,000 of their counterparts in Ontario, Canada, waged and won significant victories in two historic supermajority strikes (at least 90 percent of the workers participate in the strike). On Monday, November 7, some 2,200 workers walked off the job at GO Transit’s bus division, idling intercity buses across the Greater Toronto Area and disrupting commuters trying to access North America’s third-largest public transit system (after New York and Mexico City). The bus drivers, station attendants, maintenance crews, cleaners, and transit safety workers walked off the job in a strike that lasted four days with 100 percent unity. Not a single worker crossed the picket lines. The timing couldn’t have been better—and it wasn’t an accident. As Alex Jackson, a station attendant for five years, explained, “the climate was just really perfect” for the strike, since the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) “educational workers were going on strike, the grueling pandemic shook people up, and top managers like Phil Verster [CEO of GO Transit’s parent Metrolinx] were getting a huge raises.” The iron was hot, and they had spent months making sure it would be.

Three days earlier, on Friday, November 4, over 55,000 mostly women CUPE education support workers had walked out in a high-stakes illegal strike, shutting down schools throughout the entire province. Ontario’s conservative premier, Doug Ford, had hastily rammed through a draconian anti-strike law, Bill 28, to unilaterally impose a contract on workers and employ a so-called “nuclear option” of legally overriding the constitutional protection of the right for workers to strike and bargain collectively. Undeterred by threatened daily fines of up to $500,000 a day—plus $4,000 per day per striker—when the education workers resumed their walkout on Monday, November 7, the bulk of the Greater Toronto region had no schools and no commuter buses. Labor leaders throughout Ontario and across the country were threatening what they called a general strike if premier Ford didn’t repeal and bury the precedent-setting anti-strike bill.

Faced with the palpable strength of the CUPE strike, the simultaneous GO Transit shutdown, and the looming threat of escalation to other unions now that he’d thrown down the gauntlet, the notoriously stubborn premier reversed course and agreed to repeal the law and return to the table if the education workers agreed to end their walkout. Although both strikes got far less coverage here in the US, it’s vitally important for us to understand what these two separate but linked victories teach us about the collective fight ahead. The education workers had a second strike for yesterday, Monday, November 21—but they reached a tentative agreement by their 5 pm Sunday deadline. That agreement needs to be seen, discussed, debated, and ratified by the members over the coming week, and low enthusiasm from the negotiation team hints that this fight may not yet be over. So watch this space.

There’s plenty the two strikes share that points a path forward for workers everywhere. Unions throughout Canada sensed the existential threat Ford’s constitutional hardball posed to all of them; labor leaders across many different sectors in Ontario were pledging to commit to building to a general strike within a week in order to bury the legislation for good—teaching other premiers a preemptive lesson in the process. Other unions, in addition to the CUPE workers continuing their fight, have an immense amount to learn from how their carefully built capacity to strike allowed them to successfully bury the government’s invocation of Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms—better known as the “notwithstanding clause”­—to override the education union’s right to have any say in their working conditions.

Doing the Spadework

The GO Transit workers of the Amalgamated Transit Workers Union Local 1587, however, had actually done the spadework to be ready. They weren’t threatening to rush to join the effort a week later—they had surveyed the regional labor landscape and were already out on strike that morning, helping to create a larger crisis the provincial government would have to resolve constructively rather than by threats. The leaders of both unions had kept each other informed about the potential for an early November strike. The CUPE workers’ negotiations had been tough going and there were plenty of signs they would have to resort to direct action if the provincial government didn’t meet the basic demands of higher wages and improved staffing and job security for the workers.

Meanwhile the transit workers had also been in negotiations since April of 2022, and had been working with an expired contract since June. Both the CUPE education workers and the ATU transit workers had been doing the hard work of deep organizing for at least a year in preparation for their strikes, underscoring for us that the best strikes, where a supermajority of workers shut down their workplace, are the product of methodical strategic planning and not whipped up in a matter of days by a lone heroic worker rightfully denouncing injustice. Strikes that can defeat massively bad legislation, as the CUPE workers did, and win robust anti-privatization language and job security, as the transit workers did, don’t spontaneously combust. They require an unswerving belief that everyday workers are completely capable of systematically building the power necessary to solve the many problems presented by an era of obscene wealth for the bosses and crumbs and hardship for the masses. How workers prepare one another for strikes is crucial to their strength and success—and with the ATU members having ratified their agreement late last week, peering back into the steps they took to build serious wins provides an example all workers can follow and extend to make these kinds of transformative gains.

Though the pandemic was a huge factor in fueling the work toward the transit strike, the frustration felt by the members of ATU 1587 had its roots in the 2009 merger between their employer, GO Transit, and Metrolinx—a semipublic creation of the Ontario government that pledged the things all privatization schemes promise: “to improve the coordination and integration of all modes of transportation,” where cost-cutting management would ensure that “transit projects are built faster, helping to improve service to customers.” But according to Sarah Bailey, who has worked for GO Transit for 11 years and whose mother-in-law had worked there for 35, “We weren’t able to offer the kinds of customer assistance that we used to because the new management cut staff. It was heartbreaking for us to not provide the assistance we used to offer.” These worsening conditions took an even sharper turn during the pandemic, as transit workers were asked to do even more with less—like all the workers who kept society and the economy functioning as others stayed at home. The crush of pandemic-era work is what sparked Alex Jackson to go from being a passive member to an active participant in solving his and 2,200 other frontline workers’ problems.

Jackson, like Bailey, become one of the workers who volunteered for the ATU Local 1587’s contract action team. In early February, he, along with 52 other worker activists, took part in their union’s training program to learn effective ways to communicate with their coworkers as they developed their plan to win the contract they needed: one that would end contracting out of tasks crucial to driver and passenger safety, resolve some bad contract language that left bus operators sitting for two hours at a time in half-pay status before their next route began, and stop the steady erosion of jobs in the system, one retirement at a time. The training, in Jackson’s words, focused on “how to be effective at talking with our coworkers, how to identify and solve obstacles, how to relate, be compassionate, and try to see where our less-involved members were coming from.”

“This team became the group that came up with the actions to take to win our collective agreement,” Jackson told The Nation. “For me, it was an extension of work as a customer service agent, but in this case, I wanted to help my coworkers to be informed and involved.” Having learned and practiced their skills in February, in early March they launched a negotiations survey to reach out to all workers about their priorities, ensuring that workers took ownership of the demands they were making. This was followed by an April e-mail action to the employer and then the launch of a majority petition (see photo), where the strength of the workers’ organization was being tested and painstakingly assessed: How many were participating in each action? Where were they strong or weak? Where did they need to focus more energy? In late April and May, they began reaching out to the public with flyers explaining to GO Transit riders what was at stake in the workers’ negotiations. They were educating their customers early in the contract campaign in preparation for a hard fight that might eventually result in a strike—not (as happens far too often in less well-planned strikes) playing catch-up once they were already walking picket lines.

A typical customer flyer explained: “The workers are not asking for the world. They want a commitment from Metrolinx that it will not contract out good union jobs to create lower-paying positions. These issues affect everyone, not just transit workers. Across Canada and the world, privatization in transit has consistently resulted in the public paying more in taxes for increasingly worse service.” Bailey explained, “This is public transit, not a private company, yet Metrolinx is bringing private companies to come in and do the work. I don’t think people really understand how much of their tax dollars are being directed away from improving the service to private companies making money off this.” With each action the workers took, they were building their confidence to challenge their management together, one action at a time. It’s this kind of deliberate scaffolding of the organizing process that enables supermajority collective action.

Buttoning Up Support

By June, with their contract expiring—and knowing down to the individual that they were ready to get a majority of coworkers to take action—the workers affixed a new bright red button on their uniforms declaring simply, “Strong Contract Now, ATU 1587.” This action was a game changer in the contract fight—and not only because it helped workers see just how many of their coworkers were willing to take this risk with them: On the first day of the button campaign, a manager at Union Station took a bag of buttons and threw it in the garbage and ordered all workers to take their buttons off, claiming it was a violation of their uniform policy. This was not true; as it is not in the US, either. Workers have a right to wear non-disparaging buttons and stickers on the job.

ATU 1587 immediately kicked into gear with a lawyer’s letter explaining that management had better get the buttons out of the trash can and honor the workers’ right to wear them. To Jackson, this was the moment he and his coworkers realized their power, “That was union busting, and the result kind of had our campaign spread like wildfire—in a sense that our entire membership saw management is trying to stop us from taking action.” Knowing not only that they were within their rights, but that they had the numbers to enforce them, “was a really big moment uniting all the workers,” Jackson continued. That action and management’s intransigence on the core issues of strong job-security language set the stage for the workers to vote to authorize a strike in late July into early August, resulting in majority participation in the strike vote. With 55 percent of all workers participating, they delivered a 93 percent yes vote. In negotiations in September, management accidentally said out loud the part they are normally disciplined enough to keep private: that Metrolinx management saw making “more money,” at the expense of public service quality and workers lives and livelihoods, as its priority. Campaign leaders quickly blasted this out to their coworkers in an e-mail and printed it in flyers, enraging the workers and adding new fuel to their commitment to fight for union jobs and the public services they provide.

As frustration grew in negotiations—with management stating unequivocally they would never agree to strong language against contracting out, or any of the related job-security measures the transit workers were determined to achieve—management made its final offer in late October. The ATU 1587 leadership put that final offer to a vote by the membership, who resoundingly rejected it on November 4. With 68.3 percent turnout and 81 percent voting it down—decisively rejecting management’s final offer—it was clear as day that if the workers stood together behind their demands at the table, they could win. For an employer to admit their “final offer” was a bluff, they need to be convinced that workers’ unity in rejecting it isn’t also a bluff, and a blowout rejection margin like this made that obvious. Because of the careful and smart escalation over the course of a year, the GO Transit workers knew they were ready to walk out proud and united if the employer didn’t agree to resolve their core issues over the weekend.

Management didn’t even bother trying, vastly underestimating the workers, and failing to see the broader movement growing around the education workers’ strike. By midnight on Monday, November 7, the GO Transit strike was on. By sunrise, they were marching in front of Union Station as school closures were hitting for a second defiant day. On the CUPE front, the premier caved, realizing he wasn’t forcing 55,000 mostly women workers in the education system to back down, and conceded in an early morning press conference, saying he’d repeal the anti-worker strike legislation. The mass movement of activists ready to support the education workers quickly pivoted to supporting the transit workers, whose strike was still on. For the next four days, as the education workers went back to negotiations, the GO Transit workers captured the public’s support with high-energy picket lines and solidarity actions by other workers inside the broader transit system—including a strategically crucial tip-off by rank-and-file rail workers about all the ways the GO Transit Metrolinx managers were planning to try to get around the strike. Workers, across unions, were outsmarting the bosses and winning.

By the fourth day of the transit strike, with much media attention still focused on the education workers, the transit workers achieved even stronger anti–contracting-out language than they had initially demanded! They ended the odd shift that kept bus operators at half pay. They won guarantees that no worker would be shifted from their current jobs to any other lesser paying job, plus a guarantee that any rearrangement of workers’ employment would safeguard their full pay and benefits. And they secured a ban on contracting out for the life of the new contract!

Deep Organizing Pays Off

The deep organizing for mass worker participation in setting demands, building a worker structure unit by unit, and planning and exercising strike strategy was fundamental to the power of both strikes—and both wins. For the transit workers, the result was a tremendous contract; for educators, it was defeating the legislation. We cannot know for sure if the CUPE contract was a win without knowing the details of how the workers vote on it. Interestingly, the two unions also share one similar weakness, a reversal of best democratic practice: transparency in the case of the educators, and open negotiations by the transit leaders. The educators had been practicing transparency, and then shifted to a media/public blackout. The local leaders of the transit workers initially planned open negotiations, then reverted to a more typical small committee (this left a bad taste in some members’ mouths).

Still, the fundamental lesson couldn’t be more clear: Supermajority strikes win. At the root of both these strikes was a series of laws that have been capping Canadian public sector pay raises at 0 to 1 percent in education for a decade—and since 2019 across the entire public sector. Even before the current inflation, the house of labor could have united around overturning this legislation in the same way it united around supporting the education workers in overturning the anti-strike law. If unions can demonstrate their capacity to strike, alongside their capacity to think and act collectively across a labor market, the kind of unity Ontario labor produced over the past few weeks could be laser-focused on making real wage gains, ending privatization schemes that keep gobbling up taxpayer money, and bringing pro-worker solutions to the affordability crisis in our communities. Premier Ford is likely to keep asserting anti-worker wage caps and using strong-arm tactics as subsequent unions go into negotiations—this fight is far from over. The deep organizing and cross-union solidarity glimpsed in the past few weeks will be crucial moving forward, and to ensuring the gains these strikes have brought in sight don’t evaporate.

There’s no reason to rely on the increasingly hostile courts—or passively accept draconian wage caps or anti-strike laws. Even pro-labor governments are under constant pressure by business to rig collective negotiations against workers, and once in office many take the initiative on their own. Employers regularly use their power to create crises for entire communities by cutting services, laying off workers, and relocating to places where they can use tax dollars to cut costs. But workers united can beat the boss—even if that boss is the government.

In order to reverse decades of decline, workers need to be able to build the power required to outweigh employer threats. With the US Supreme Court taking up Glacier Northwest v. Teamsters 174—which would gut strikes by making workers liable for employers’ losses—and anti-protest laws passing in the UK, workers in Britain and the US will need to follow and expand on what made these Canadian examples successful. This means scaling up the concentrated power of solidarity—backed by methodically built organization—to the size of the demands we make and the forces lining up against them. Workers everywhere can thank the mostly women workers in Ontario for showing how to overcome lawfare attacks on workers’ rights. Likewise, we can learn from the methodical work by the transit workers how to not just temper but defeat privatization and secure protections for good union jobs for the future.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy