Rallying for a Living Wage in Toronto

By Gerard Di Trolio

Around 300 people turned up in front of 89 Chestnut St. in downtown Toronto last week on a cold Friday evening to rally for a living wage for hospitality and food service workers.1

The rally, organized by UNITE HERE Local 75, Toronto and York Region Labour Council, and ACORN Toronto sought to bring attention to the challenges facing many who work downtown for an hourly wage.

Toronto and York Region Labour Council President John Cartwright explained in his address to the crowd why the location was chosen. 89 Chestnut St. was chosen as it is close to City Hall, Queen’s Park and many major downtown anchor employers like hotels, hospitals, and universities. Local 75 members at 89 Chestnut St. which is a University of Toronto student residence and conference centre will also be heading into contract bargaining in the next few months.

Toronto remains a deeply unequal city, and the gap is growing. Despite the fact that Toronto generates 10 per cent of Canada’s GDP and is one of its wealthiest cities, it has the second largest income gap in Canada, behind only Calgary.

The rally organizers stressed some distressing statistics on what is happening in Toronto. 29 percent of children in the city now live in poverty. 46 percent of recent newcomers to Canada live in poverty in the city. 23 percent of tenants in Toronto have to spend more than half of their income on rent. These soaring rents and the continuing increase of public transit fares is contributing to an affordability crisis.2

Unions have played a role in mitigating the situation for some service workers in downtown Toronto. Unionized hotel workers make significantly more than their non-unionized counterparts.

“It’s a big gap. For example, you may have a non-union person doing the same work, same job, same service, and making nine dollars an hour. Compare that to someone in a union who’s making $18 (per hour),” says long time hotel worker and Local 75 activist Kay Drummond. “So it’s usually an eight to 10 dollar gap and with benefits and so forth.”

Drummond adds that as the hospitality sector expands in Toronto, it is the newer hotels that tend to be not unionized.

But the situation for those in food service is more serious.

“Food service wages by and large are far below any estimation of what a living wage would be. There, the struggles are intense. To choose between medicine, food, and rent,” says David Saunders, Organizing Director of UNITE HERE Local 75. “In Toronto if you think of the large food service companies, a lot of that is non-union, but we do have some density in them. But in the restaurant industry, and the cafeterias across the city, that’s almost completely non-union.”

During the rally, it was stated that in the coming weeks, Local 75, ACORN, the Toronto and York Region Labour Council, and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, will be making an announcement on what a living wage in Toronto would work out to. It’s expected that this living wage for Toronto will be higher than the $14 per hour minimum wage for Ontario that many union and community groups have been calling for. 3

Expect to see the living wage movement continue to gain momentum in the city, especially if governments are slow to act on the situation facing Toronto’s workers.


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