It was Samantha Henry’s first time on strike and it made headlines across the country.
“Some thought the strike would only last a week, a few days. And it lasted almost five weeks,” said Henry, one of about 3,700 Metro employees in the Toronto area who walked off the job this summer.
In previous rounds of negotiations that did not result in strikes, Henry says public reactions to workers’ demands were often negative.
“It was like… ‘What do you expect? She works in retail.
This summer was different. People, including many regular Metro customers, joined workers on picket lines, vowed to boycott Metro-owned stores, honked their horns as they drove past, and brought gift cards, coffee and treats. snacks.
“I think I’ve eaten more donuts and Timbits than I ever have in my life,” Henry joked.
She believes the pandemic has helped make people aware of how essential retail workers are, noting that many regular customers were furious when grocery stores took away workers’ “hero pay.” But that’s not the whole story. Inflation and rising interest rates have eaten into everyone’s bottom line, and Henry believes this makes customers more in tune with the plight of lower-paid workers.
“I think the sympathy for the strikers is driven by an affordability crisis that has hit all workers, regardless of their union status,” said Larry Savage, a professor in the University’s social studies department. Brock.
Approval of unions in the United States is at its highest level in more than 50 years, according to the a**lyst firm Gallup.
Support for unions is harder to measure in Canada because it is not regularly tracked, but people on the front lines of strikes and those who study the labor movement agree that public sympathy for strikes is also stronger than usual here.
A recent Angus Reid Institute poll suggests that support for unions in Canada is relatively high, although it is difficult to contextualize the results without a previous record to compare with, said Adam King, an a*sistant professor in the department of social studies from the University of Manitoba. .
But support for the high-profile Metro strike demonstrated that the union message resonates with many Canadians: “The profits of the grocery sector have been publicly highlighted and the fact that food price inflation continues to exceed overall inflation. So there’s something really visceral and personal about it.
Labor experts in Canada generally have to rely on polls on individual labor disputes to gauge public opinion, and these vary, Savage said.
Historically, unions have had a negative public image, in part because of the disruption strikes can cause, he said. A memorable example is the 2009 Toronto city workers’ strike, which particularly affected waste collection.
Public support varies because it often depends on the nature of the strike, Savage said. It’s easier for the average person to support a strike that doesn’t directly affect them than one they can’t ignore – like if their flight to Hawaii was canceled or the summer air was thick with a smell of hot garbage.
But in more recent polls on individual conflicts, Savage said he was surprised by the level of support.
For example, an Abacus poll on the conflict between the Ontario government and education workers last year showed that more Ontarians blamed the government, not workers, for the conflict. Nearly half said they would support other unions walking out of work in solidarity.
A few months later, when 155,000 federal public servants from the Public Service Alliance of Canada went on strike, an Angus Reid Institute poll showed strong support for almost all union demands, Savage noted.
In fashion now
“You don’t usually see this level of sympathy for public sector workers,” he said.
Bea Bruske, president of the Canadian Labor Congress, said she has also noticed a change in picket lines and rallies across the country.
“The level of public support and understanding of the need to strike… is higher than it has been in many, many years,” she said.
In the private sector, the general public has little sympathy for giant, profitable corporations, a sentiment that has grown in recent years and which Unifor has successfully exploited against Metro, Savage said.
Support from the national union and the broader community can help push a bargaining committee over the line, said Mario Moceri, a national services staff representative at Unifor who has supported about 250 salt mine workers of Windsor in a seven-month dispute this year: leading to a ratified agreement at the end of August.
It also helps send a message to the employer during negotiations, Moceri said: “I think they knew we were in it for the long haul. »
In some cases, public support is very important to the success of negotiations, King said, while in other conflicts it matters less.
“But what I think is really encouraging lately is that public support is there, even in cases where it seems like it would be less substantial,” he said.
Savage said public support can help keep morale up on the picket line.
“There is nothing worse than a worker on a picket line being spat on and told they are greedy and need to go back to work. This can have a very demoralizing effect on people. »
Public support plays an increased role in public sector negotiations because it’s taxpayer dollars that are on the line, Savage said. Discussions often boil down to disagreements over topics such as cla*sroom sizes and regularity of public transportation.
“This type of public support is essential in public sector labor relations, as governments pay a political price for precipitating strike action and disrupting the services people depend on. »
But increased public support for strikers is not something unions can count on to last, Savage said.
“There is a real window of opportunity, and it won’t be there forever,” he said.