Where is the Canadian Working Class?
Updated: Jan 25, 2022
Where is the Canadian working class?
Rather it be academic, political, or mainstream circles, class consciousness appears to be falling into obscurity. More exciting and politically contentious identities are taking precedent over the old cleavages that defined our society 100 years ago. The Canadian working class shares some similarities with its closest Anglo neighbors, but remains unique not only due to the structural factors of its geography, but also the specifically bureaucratic and regulatory nature of the Canadian state. Despite moments of pride, the Canadian working class has failed to produce a level of consciousness that has maintained culturally relevant over multiple decades and generations. Even though high rates of unionism and a functioning welfare state could be examples of working class political success, the Canadian working class remains culturally weak with a large percentage of union workers now belonging to public sector or middle class jobs. This essay explores the history of the Canadian working class with the goal of asking the question: can class consciousness be revived in a post pandemic economy?
Structural Factors Impacting the Canadian Working Class
There are a mix of historical and geographical factors that have impacted the trajectory of Canada’s working class. Firstly, Canada’s economy was primarily based on resource extraction until it gradually started to industrialize in the mid 19th century. This meant that the lion's share of employment was in agricultural, fishing, lumber, or mineral extraction. Jobs in these sectors were labour intensive and highly seasonal, requiring workers to live on insecure and inconsistent pay. As a settler colony, Canada has depended on immigration to sustain its economic and population growth while also using immigrants as a constant source of cheap, healthy, and energetic labour. Employers would intentionally use immigrating ethnic groups to disrupt class solidarity through wage competition, strike breakers, and utilizing ethnic hatred between groups. Canada has also grown in the shadow of two hegemonic super powers, starting with The British Empire and then, after the Second World War, the United States. While both superpowers provided large markets for Canadian exports, they also required Canada to compete with neighboring nations that had far higher capital and capacity for production. In order to remain competitive, often it was Canadian workers that needed to supply a cheaper product through reduced labour costs.
Consequently, the Canadian working class has been in a constant state of precarious hostility. Predictability and security are two important ingredients often absent from the canadian economy. Constant surpluses of labour through immigration, seasonality, or recessions prevented collective bargaining from taking place. Regardless, the Canadian working class has still built a rich history of unions, protest, and at times a united class consciousness, although this mostly came about after industrialization and the massive growth of Canada’s service sector. It is still worth pondering what the Canadian working class could have become if it did not have these constant structural constraints placed upon it.
State Responses to the Canadian Working Class
Canada’s political response to organized labour has been like its response to most things: measured and conciliatory. But in the end the discussion and debate was still restricted to what the state considered acceptable. Canadian labour relations can be broken down into three broad eras: 1) the era before the second world war, 2) the post war consensus which lasted until the 1970s, and 3) the neoliberal globalized economic consensus which started in the 1970s and has survived to present day. Dating back to the turn of the 19th century, the Canadian state has sought to put itself as the arbiter of labour relations. Due to the precarious nature of the Canadian economy, impacted by seasonality, the whims of the British and American Empire, and the instability of a globalizing world economy, the Canadian state has valued labour peace above all else. By no means was this a “win” for the workers. Whenever possible the Canadian state preferred to reduce production costs and increase the competitiveness of their products, meaning that the state favoured the interests of business, so long as the workers were working and not striking.
The second era, termed the “ post-war consensus”, describes the economic agreement between state, business, and labour to maintain a high degree of nationalism and productivity in return for high taxation, unionism, and a growing welfare state. This consensus was shared across most western democracies, but each country had their own particularities. In 1948, the post-war consensus saw the passing of the Industrial Relations and Disputes Investigations Act. This act set the guidelines for labour relations at the federal and provincial level by controlling the recognition and certification of trade unions, designating unfair labour practices, forcing parties to bargain and enforcing the bargain, and designating the proper investigative, adjudicative and conciliatory authorities. Canada sought to bureaucratize labour relations by handing over arbitration to the courts and encouraged rational mediation over the more radical workers movements seen earlier in the century, preventing strikes that crossed multiple companies and sectors. It was the state's intentions to force labour relations into state institutions and encourage a ‘legitimate' approach opposed to the more radical and Marxist strains of labour militancy which preferred action though protests and not court proceedings.
Lastly, the third era, “neoliberal globalization”, has returned Canadian workers back to an era of insecurity. The high inflation of the 1970’s brought the “post war consensus” its first real adversity as states responded with austerity. Over a 5 year period Canada’s trade surplus of 3 billion evaporated into a deficit of 450 million (Palmer and Sangster, 2008, 426). Canada, like other western nations, subsidized capital, offered up loans and grants to large corporations along with tax concessions, and placed the burden of the welfare state on a shrinking middle class (Palmer and Sangster, 2008. 435). Governments tried to restrict collective bargaining by bringing in temporary price controls in exchange for limited political input from unions (Palmer and Sangster, 2008. 435). This was the state's response to an increasingly unstable economy that was victim to the ebbs and flows of the wider globalizing market. Ultimately, it was globalization that damaged unions and the working class far more than individual state actions ever could. The free trade consensus across the political spectrum opened Canada up to international markets. Considering Canada has traditionally been protectionist with certain sectors of its economy (heavy protectionism still remains today in the dairy industry) the move towards complete free trade with its southern neighbors was a large departure from the status quo. Free trade has meant that Canadian workers must compete to maintain competitively priced products with workers with far lower wages and incomparable health and safety standards. Nothing has damaged the Canadian working class more than the ability to move manufacturing overseas while unions saw their powers diminish considerably. In terms of state intervention, Canada has certainly not been labour friendly in this most recent era. But even more tragically, states have realized that the global free trade monster they created 40 years ago has gained momentum far beyond the ability of state policies to augment its path. To a certain degree, the future of the working class is beyond the powers of the state.
Canadian Working Class Culture
Harsh winters and the rugged realities of resource extraction has created a unique working class culture. Despite all the structural barriers and attempts by the state to suppress labour activism there have been distinct periods of class consciousness in Canadian history. The Knights of Labour was the first major labour institution in Canada and united thousands of people and hundreds of towns in the late 19th century as a predecessor to unions. In the period following the First World War, just after emergency measures were lifted, there was a strong sense of political unity between the labourists and the more radical socialists and marxists. In 1919, over 150,000 workers walked out in 427 strikes (Heron, 2018, 358) . Over the entire four year period (1916-1920) over 350,000 workers went on strike with an impressive 40% of strikes succeeding and another 20% ending in compromise (Heron, 2018, 358). There was also renewed optimism following the Second World War with the growth of the welfare state and new legal protections granted to unions. Times of crises became cultural touchstones for many working class people, bringing communities closer and cultivating a class consciousness that resulted in political activism. Public events like labour day were also key cultural markers for the working class as cities across the country celebrated a distinct working class pride. Despite these periods of optimism the Canadian working class has had a hard time solidifying a class consciousness that sustained across multiple decades or generations.
The inability to sustain class consciousness can be explained by a multitude of factors. Firstly, the structural factors discussed earlier prevent a stable environment for the growth of a working class culture. Secondly, the state has prevented cross factory/industry movements by legally recognizing unions at a local level and promoting local legal battles between employer and employee (Palmer and Sangster, 2008, 435). The legal and bureaucratic approach also encouraged unions to play within the legal framework and rewarded moderate union leaders over more radical ones. There was the occasional illegal wildcat strike, but the Canadian state levied hash penalties for those who stepped outside the legal boundaries. Over time, a working class culture of negotiations and bureaucratized unions was normalized, opposed to some of the more radical class conscious movements seen elsewhere (particularly in Europe).
Canada’s broader culture also discourages class consciousness. As shown as recently as the Covid pandemic, Canadians are far more compliant to state laws and regulations than their respective neighbors. The moderate political system has always discouraged fringe parties and beliefs through the two and a half party system, while unions have tried to do the same with preventing more radical factions from joining. Additionally, Ontario in particular has a history of protestant loyalist conservatism dating back to the Orangemen in the 19th century. This inherent social conservatism prevents the formation of a class identity superseded by a religious, or nationalistic one. Considering Ontario is the largest province in Canada with a disproportionate share of the manufacturing, this lack of activism has created a negative ripple effect for the rest of the county. Quebec, on the other hand, has managed to intertwine class pride with other movements, notably separatism, and has a more vibrant and politically active citizenry, resembling more of a European culture of activism compared to the more subdued Anglo norms.
In recent decades Canadians have increasingly seen themselves as middle class while working class identity has declined. Income is now seen as the main signifier of class, despite there still being some disconnect between income and class identity. Income groups that previously thought of themselves as working class have joined the increasing amalgamation in the middle, signifying a false sense of equality western nations like to celebrate. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won a large majority in 2015 partly because the only class category he recognized was the middle class. Apart from deep seeded regionalism, Canada culturally and politically clumps towards the middle, making class consciousness a difficult identity to cultivate. As society becomes more stratified and income inequality grows there may be a shift in identity. Although, it remains a mystery if the increasing number of people reliant on state welfare will take on a working class identity or will float aimlessly, disenfranchised from any type of class identity.
How Canadians think about class today.
Using the Pollara “In Search of The Middle Class'' survey we can compare class identity back to 2014. When asking Canadians which social class they belong to, the majority of Canadians do not think of themselves as working class. People identifying as “poor” range from as low as 6% in 2017 to as high as 20% in 2018 (Pollara, 2020, 13). Those who see themselves as “working class” remain fairly stable, usually sitting around 37% (Pollara, 2020, 13). The largest social class group is the “middle class” often sitting at a slight majority (Pollara, 2020).
Working class identity is somewhat evenly spread across the various regions, but the two largest provinces with the historically most robust manufacturing bases are among the least working class (35% in Ontario and 32% in Quebec). The Atlantic provinces have the largest working class population with 48%, followed closely by British Columbia. There are various structural and cultural reasons for the coastal provinces identifying as working class, but an absence of a healthy middle class is a major factor in the Atlantic provinces.
When comparing Canada to other Anglo democracies, those who see themselves as working class/poor are on par with the USA and Australia. There are more people in Canada who identify as poor than the other countries but survey differences may explain some of that disparity. England is the outlier, with a sizeable majority saying they are working class. Britain is known for its working class culture that has maintained a strong (although declining) political identity historically through the Labour party (understanding the ways the Canadian working class could emulate their British siblings reaches beyond the goals of this essay but would be an important follow-up nonetheless). The fact that Canada is comparable to its neighbors in terms of social class identity is a sign of where working class identity is internationally, and should not be taken as consolation.
Unions used to be the institutional flagship of the working class, but have severely declined over time. Organized workers used to total 2.9 million people, with 37% of the non-agricultural workforce being unionized in 1975. In 2005, this number dropped to 30% with the private sector below 20%. Even though union numbers are comparatively stronger in Canada than its closest neighbors, unionism is a shell of its former self. Unions no longer have the same impact on local communities, they are no longer as politically relevant, and they are often trying to maintain membership rather than grow it. The view that unions are redundant and archaic is hard to counter when most unions have been reduced to bureaucratic institutions rather than vibrant organisms representing working class interests. The few major gains made by the working class in the last decade have been in the area of minimum wages, enforced through the state rather than collective bargaining. The future of the working class may need to move past unions or revolutionize them in a way that makes them politically and culturally relevant again.
Despite an overall bleak depiction of the Canadian working class and its history, there are periods of optimism, particularly following a large crisis. Maybe the lockdown measures and economic instability following the pandemic will trigger a renewed era of class consciousness. Although history tells us that these moments do not happen spontaneously or automatically, they require critical actors and organizations to drive policy changes and a sense of shared fate. The upper class is able to maintain a constant state of class consciousness through various institutions like country clubs and fundraising events. Their excess capital and homogeneous nature allow for their cultural signifiers to maintain over time. The working class has a hard time sustaining their consciousness and requires tireless effort and galvanizing moments. It is unclear if reinvigorated unionism is the savior for renewed class consciousness, or if some new form of economic and political organization will arise as an avenue for class empowerment. Equally important is the state's role in conceding legal and policy ground when the working class demands it. Going by the track record of the Canadian state, this only happens when there is a serious threat of worker unrest and a breakdown of business labor relations. History tells us that working class consciousness in Canada can not be maintained, so it is imperative that rapid progress be made when these brief windows open up.