MONTREAL - After nearly a year of searching for a job close to home, welder Garnet Cooke is preparing to leave family behind and follow the trail blazed by many other unemployed Ontario workers who have headed west in search of a new life.

"I have been in this field for 35 years (and) I don't wish to take any more steps backwards," says the 54-year-old laid-off Electro-Motive worker.

Dave Clark said he's gone through various stages of grief since he too lost his job at the London, Ont. locomotive plant after 18 years.

"There's some really bad news out there. People are splitting, families are breaking apart, some people are filing for bankruptcy already. It's tough."

Both men say they are examples of the struggles that many Canadian workers have faced over the past year as employers try to squeeze out costs in the face of a weak economy.

STORY CONTINUES BELOW SLIDESHOW

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  • Labour Day: A Canadian Invention

    Few Canadians realize it, but Labour Day is as Canadian as maple bacon. It all began in 1872, when the Toronto Typographical Union went on strike to demand a nine-hour workday. When <i>Globe and Mail</i> chief George Brown had the protest organizers arrested, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald passed a law legalizing labour unions. Thus, a Conservative prime minister became a hero to the working class, and Canada became among the first countries to limit the workday, doing so decades before the U.S. The typographers' marches became an annual event, eventually being adopted by the U.S., becoming the modern day Labour Day.

  • The Winnipeg General Strike

    The end of World War I brought social instability and economic volatility to Canada. On May 15, 1919, numerous umbrella union groups went out on strike in Winnipeg, grinding the city to a halt. Protesters were attacked in the media with epithets such as "Bolshevik" and "Bohunk," but resistance from the media and government only strengthened the movement. In June, the mayor ordered the Mounties to ride into the protest, prompting violent clashes and the death of two protesters. After protest leaders were arrested, organizers called off the strike. But the federal mediator ended up ruling in favour of the protesters, establishing the Winnipeg General Strike as the most important strike in Canadian history, and a precursor to the country's modern labour movement.

  • The Regina Riot

    During the Great Depression, the only way for a single male Canadian to get government assistance was to join "relief camps" -- make-work projects set up by the federal government out of concern idle young men were a threat to the nation. The relief camps, with their poor work conditions, became breeding grounds for communists and other radicals. The "On-To-Ottawa Trek" was organized as a protest that would move from Vancouver across the country to Ottawa, to bring workers' grievances to the prime minister. The trek halted in Regina when Prime Minister R.B. Bennett promised to talk to protest organizers. When talks broke down, the RCMP refused to allow the protesters to leave Regina and head for Ottawa, and on June 26, 1935, RCMP riot officers attacked a crowd of protesters. More than 100 people were arrested and two killed -- one protester and one officer.

  • Bloody Sunday

    In May, 1938, unemployed men led by communist organizers occupied a post office and art gallery in downtown Vancouver, protesting over poor work conditions at government-run Depression-era "relief camps." In June, the RCMP moved in to clear out the occupiers, using tear gas inside the post office. The protesters inside smashed windows for air and armed themselves with whatever was available. Forty-two people, including five officers, were injured. When word spread of the evacuation, sympathizers marched through the city's East End, smashing store windows. Further protests against "police terror" would be held in the weeks to come.

  • Giant Mine Bombing

    In 1992, workers at Royal Oak Mines' Giant Mine in the Northwest Territories went on strike. On September 18, a bomb exploded in a mineshaft deep underground, killing nine replacement workers. Mine worker Roger Warren was convicted of nine counts of second-degree murder. The Giant Mine closed in 2004.

  • The Toronto G20

    The Canadian Labour Congress, representing numerous labour groups, participated in protests in Toronto during the G20 summit in June, 2010. When a handful of "Black Block" anarchists rioted through the city core, it brought an overwhelming police response that resulted in the largest mass arrests in Canadian history. More than 1,000 people were arrested, with most never charged with any crime. Numerous allegations of police brutality have been made, and the Toronto police are now the target of several multi-million dollar lawsuits. So far, two police officers have been charged with crimes relating to G20 policing, and charges against other police officers are also possible.

  • Occupy Canada

    When Vancouver-based magazine Adbusters suggested the public "occupy Wall Street" to protest corporate malfeasance, New Yorkers took the suggestion seriously, and occupied Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. Canadians followed suit, sparking copycat occupations in all major Canadian cities in September, 2011. By December, most of the occupations had been cleared, all of them non-violently. Though the protests achieved no specific goals, they did change the political conversation in North America. What their long-term legacy will be remains to be seen.

While the creation of Canada's largest private sector union is intended to strengthen the position of labour in 2013, observers — including union officials — say it will still be a challenging year given economic conditions.

Cooke said his life has been turned upside down since U.S. heavy equipment giant Caterpillar Inc. (NYSE:CAT) closed the Electro-Motive plant early this year. It relocated to Indiana after workers refused to accept a 55 per cent cut in wages and benefits.

He's gone from earning nearly $35 an hour to living on $850 every two weeks from employment insurance.

"If it wasn't for the fact that I had my next older brother move in with me to help alleviate some of the bills and the stress of having to pay full rent, I don't know what I would be doing right now," he said in an interview.

Workers received $1,500 parting cheques and severances ranging from $13,000 for those with three years' service to $148,000 for employees with 30 years on the job.

As an older worker, Cooke says he sees few job opportunities as companies prefer younger workers willing to take deep wage discounts.

So Cooke is working on his red seal — an interprovincial stamp on his welding certificate — and plans to head to the oilsands in Fort McMurray, Alta. From there he's willing to criss-cross the country back to his birthplace in Nova Scotia if he can secure a job with Irving Shipbuilding, which won a huge government contract.

Clark said his anger has turned to hope as the former General Motors employee awaits for his name to be called from a preferential hire list that will give second-chances for work in Oshawa, Ont., to about 145 of Electro-Motive's 481 laid off workers. GM sold Electro-Motive in 2005.

"I'm very fortunate, very blessed to have that, but in the meantime I have to survive until March, April to get my call," the 49-year-old father of three said.

The head of the Canadian Auto Workers union said Electro-Motive is a painful example of the labour climate in Canada, where companies feel emboldened to seek deep cuts in wages and benefits — some earned through decades of negotiations.

"They have a confidence level that I've not seen in my 35 to 40 years," Ken Lewenza said from Toronto.

"Today in manufacturing, for example, holding your own is a victory because the corporations have so many demands against the union it's almost unconscionable."

In addition to cutting wages and benefits, companies are routinely trying to move workers from costly defined benefit pensions, which guarantee payments in retirement, and are imposing two-tiered models where new hires earn less and have to contribute more towards their pensions.

The CAW was able to secure new collective agreements this year for Canadian employees of the Detroit 3 automakers. But the union had to agree to a two-tier wage system, including a 10-year progression to full pay and a hybrid pension plan for new employees.

The automakers wanted to see new hires permanently earn less than current employees.

Lewenza hopes next year's formation of Canada's largest private sector union — through the merger of the CAW and the Communication, Energy and Paperworkers union — will strengthen to voice of workers to fight political changes that affect their lives.

"It gives us the tools to be more active politically."

Still, Lewenza doesn't anticipate the pressure letting off in 2013 as long the as economy remains under stress.

"I see us fighting like hell as we did in 2012," he said.

"This is a battle and I don't see that changing in the near future because public policy mechanisms are being put in place to force workers to feel the uncertainty driven by the economy."

The as-yet unnamed super union will hold its founding day convention on Labour Day weekend 2013, where it will approve the union's constitution, name and logo, and elect its first leaders.

George Smith, a labour expert at Queen's University, said the merged union — which will represent more than 300,000 workers — is a significant event that will help the union put free collective bargaining and labour relations on the public agenda.

But Ian Lee of Carleton University calls the merger a defensive strategy to address the steep downhill decline in union membership in Canada, to 16 per cent of the private sector and 33 per cent overall.

"I'm not saying it's going to hurt them," Lee said. "I just don't see it having any major impact on private sector industrial relations in Canada."

While private sector workers are feeling the effects of the economy and globalization, they and public workers also face federal and provincial governments willing to intervene in labour disputes.

Smith said 2012 was a tumultuous year for labour relations in Canada, partly because of the "unprecedented" intervention of the federal government.

"I think it's fair to say that unions and unionized employees, particularly in the public sector, feel they are under siege," he said.

If labour relations swing at times to favour one side or the other, the current environment has definitely moved in favour of management, Smith added.

Ottawa threatened to prevent strikes by Air Canada workers and imposed arbitrated settlements that mostly ended up favouring the airline. The government also intervened with Canada Post.

In Ontario, parents are bracing for strikes as teacher unions battle the Liberal government's decision to impose legislation that freezes wages and cut benefits.

Smith, a former Air Canada (TSX:AC.B) employee relations director, said the airline may have won the short-term battle with the help of the government but risks longer-term ramifications that will likely surface at the next round of bargaining.

Public sector employees are also under pressure after the federal government pushed through omnibus legislation that forces newly hired public servants to begin collecting pensions at 65 and to contribute more over the next five years.

In the private sector, Lee said workers are going to face ever growing pressure because of globalization, a strong loonie, a slow growing economy and competition from right to work states.

The Sprott School of Business professor said he's hearing more people talking openly about being thankful to have a job, which suggests that ordinary Canadians realize there's a new normal about worker compensation.

"I think it's a year of transition and we're moving into a world where it's more competitive, and the impact of globalization is becoming more obvious to workers."

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