Canada Jobs And Labour: 5 Signs Workers Are In For A Rough 2012

Canada Workers Labour 2012

First Posted: 02/ 9/2012 2:02 pm Updated: 02/ 9/2012 2:02 pm

If there is any doubt that Canadian workers are in for a tough year, consider the cluster of gloomy developments that have taken shape in recent days.

Though Canada’s job market emerged from the recession in a position of relative strength, Statistics Canada reported on Friday that job growth in January left much to be desired, with the economy adding just 2,300 jobs, a far cry from the 24,000 jobs analysts were expecting.

“This is a weak performance over the past six months,” says Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist at CIBC World Markets, who notes that the rate of job growth hasn’t been this slow outside of a downturn since the 1970s.

Meanwhile, Illinois-based heavy equipment manufacturing giant Caterpillar ended a bitter lockout at its Electro-Motive Diesel plant in London, Ont., with an announcement that it will be shifting operations to its other facilities in North and South America, adding 700 skilled workers and managers to the city’s already lengthy unemployment rolls.

And in Toronto, where Mayor Rob Ford has made it his prerogative to “stop the gravy train” of presumably wasteful public spending, negotiations with the city’s outdoor workers stretched past the deadline set by negotiators. The deal reached well into the eleventh hour is said to have come at the expense of union concessions.

None of which has done much to inspire confidence among workers. Far from isolated incidents, experts say these occurrences reflect deeper labour market trends that are increasingly tipping the balance away from employees, and ratcheting up labour unrest.

“We’re seeing more and more evidence of very aggressive, take it or leave it approaches by employers,” says Charlotte Yates, dean of social sciences at McMaster University. “It’s ironic that we call it labour unrest instead of employer unrest, since the employers are the ones who are really being aggressive.”

Here are five signs that workers are in for a rough ride in 2012.

Loading Slideshow...
  • 5 Signs Canada's Workers Are In For A Rough 2012

    Photo: CP/Andrew Vaughan

  • Good Jobs Few And Far Between

    When it comes to evaluating Canadian job growth, the employment numbers are just part of what worries Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist at CIBC World Markets. "It's not only the quantity, but also the quality of employment that's falling in Canada," says Tal. "A lot of the jobs that are being created are low-quality, especially part-time jobs and low-paying jobs." Though -- unlike the U.S. -- Canada has regained all the jobs lost in the recession, he says that an absence of good-paying jobs is the "main reason" why wages have stagnated. Adjusted for inflation, personal after-tax income is now rising at the slowest rate since 1995. Meanwhile, the skills mismatch in many jurisdictions has left employers short on skilled labour despite still-high unemployment levels in other regions. "If you lose a job, you don't have the skill set to go an find a job elsewhere that companies want and need," says Tal. (Alamy photo)

  • Globalization

    When Caterpillar decided to stop assembling locomotives in its Electro-Motive facility in London, Ont., it was a poignant reminder of how globalization is giving deep-pocketed, transnational corporations the ultimate trump card in bargaining with workers: a cheaper alternative. According to Mike Moffatt, a labour expert at the University of Western Ontario's Ivey School of Business, because of automation and an increase in imports from lower wage jurisdictions like China and Mexico, Canadian workers are competing for fewer manufacturing jobs. "That's given firms real power to negotiate down wages," says Moffatt, who points to the <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/02/06/riotintoalcan-alma-idUSL2E8D699U20120206" target="_hplink">Rio Tinto lockout in Quebec</a> as another illustration of the might afforded to companies with global reach. Since locking out workers at its aluminum smelter in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean on December 31, the Anglo-Australian mining giant has used non-union workers to operate the facility at one-third capacity. With no plans to return to the bargaining table, the company recently announced it is restarting two suspended lines, and is expecting to return to full capacity in May. As Tal maintains, "In this environment, the bargaining power of labour is diminishing."

  • Austerity Agenda

    Just as the power has shifted toward private-sector employers, Michael Lynk, a labour law expert at the University of Western Ontario, says there is a sense that governments are becoming emboldened amid the post-recession climate of austerity that has swept from Toronto's City Hall to Parliament Hill. "There's increasingly an attitude of take-it-or-or leave-it by [private sector] employers, but we may begin to see that with public sector bargaining as well, where they basically say, 'You have to meet our bargaining objectives this round, and we're going to be prepared to endure a short or lengthy lockout to prove our point," he says. Though global economic instability recently prompted federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to pull back on his earlier commitment to deep cost-cutting in the upcoming budget, government departments are expecting spending to be slashed by between five and 10 per cent, a goal that will be met at least in part at the expense of public service jobs and benefits. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives recently estimated that the <a href="http://www.behindthenumbers.ca/2012/02/02/federal-cuts-could-push-unemployment-to-8/" target="_hplink">federal government's budget cuts could push unemployment up half a percentage point, to 8 per cent</a>. (CP photo)

  • Pension Problems

    From <a href="http://dalgazette.com/featured/faculty-strike-rumours-explained/" target="_hplink">Dalhousie University</a> to <a href="http://www.thestar.com/article/1120516--labour-strife-ahead-in-air-canada-pilot-talks" target="_hplink">Air Canada</a>, employers no longer able -- or willing -- to fund costly pension plans are mounting attempts to roll back retirement benefits, stoking labour unrest and a growing sense of financial insecurity among workers. As Dalhouse University labour economist Lars Osberg explains, the financial crisis took a huge bite out of the value of corporate pension portfolios and the interest rate required to generate the stream of returns to make these programs sustainable. All of which explains why experts anticipate a deepening of the trend away from inflation-protected, gold-plated defined-benefit pension plans, shifting responsibility for retirement savings from employers to workers.

  • Decline Of Unions

    The power in numbers that enabled Big Labour to negotiate better wages and benefits in the aftermath of the Second World War is a distant memory today, as the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/12/12/canada-income-inequality-decline-unions-middle-class-jobs_n_1139136.html" target="_hplink">erosion of unions continues to whittle away the strength of collective bargaining</a>. This is particularly true in the private sector, where unionization sits at 16 per cent of employees, less than a quarter of public sector unionization. "I think you will see more disputes with unions having to compromise more than in the past," says Tal. "I really don't see that they have the upper hand at this point." Given the yawning gap between private and public sector unionization, Lynk warns that pressure on public sector unions could mount as it has in the U.S. in recent months. "The argument they've been floating is, 'Why should public sector workers have jobs for life, good pensions, and decent wages? They're eating up your taxes,'" he says. "I wouldn't be surprised if we're not [starting] to see the beginnings of that kind of argument here in Canada."

FOLLOW HUFFPOST CANADA BUSINESS