The Fight for $15 and the Ontario NDP

by Gerard Di Trolio

We are fast approaching the tipping point for the $15 per hour minimum wage movement in North America. Recent events in Los Angeles and Alberta confirm this, and show the movement’s momentum.

This is a victory that is thanks to the tireless efforts of workers and labour movement activists across the U.S. and Canada. We have seen rallies, walk-outs, petitions, and quite possibly the largest ever mobilization of service sector workers.

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The visibility of this movement was greatly enhanced by the election and minimum wage victory of avowed socialist Seattle city councillor Kshama Sawant. Her election was not so much proof of an electoral road to a better minimum wage but an example how elections can consolidate the demands of movements on the ground that have gained critical mass.

This movement has helped bring economic inequality to the forefront of the political debate, and even Hillary Clinton is trying to refashion herself into a progressive Democrat from a corporate one in time for the presidential primaries.

One political party of the centre-left has been conspicuously silent in the minimum wage debate – the Ontario New Democratic Party (ONDP).

The 2014 provincial election was a debacle for the ONDP. It managed to alienate a large portion of its base by moving to the centre by stressing fiscal responsibility and dialing back how far some of its policies would go. The ONDP only offered a slightly higher minimum wage than the Liberals. The ONDP’s proposal of $12 was still below the poverty line. While this was going on, the labour movement in Ontario was championing $14 per hour.

adeccoSince the election, the ONDP has been forced to reposition itself. Some of this was simply to ensure Andrea Horwath could hold on to the party leadership. But whatever the reason, there has been a shift. The ONDP has strongly come out against the governing Ontario Liberals’ privatization plans of Hydro One and has refused to support back-to-work legislation aimed at striking teachers. To its credit, the ONDP has managed to top a recent poll that saw the Liberals plunge into third place.

While the ONDP is quick to highlight how hydro privatization will disproportionately hurt middle and low income people in their pocketbooks, the party still hasn’t forwarded a comprehensive plan to combat economic inequality in Ontario. This silence is becoming untenable.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley remains committed to a $15 per hour minimum wage for the province. Federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, whether you even consider him a social democrat or not, continues to stress a $15 per hour minimum wage for federally regulated industries.

While some of Mulcair’s moving to the left may be opportunistic, done to deal with floundering poll numbers last year, it still creates space for social movements to place pressure on the NDP to deliver a progressive platform. The NDP has managed to recently turn the federal election into a three-way race be differentiating itself from the traditional mainline parties. Mulcair’s announcement last year of a federal $15 per hour minimum wage was the beginning of that shift.

Now that the Ontario labour movement has launched a campaign for $15 per hour, there’s no excuse for the ONDP not to embrace it. The Liberals will most likely once again fear monger that they are the only choice to stop the Progressive Conservatives. New Tory leader Patrick Brown’s social conservatism will give Premier Kathleen Wynne plenty of ammunition on the campaign trail.

CCpztE3WEAEYb_kAs the Liberals continue austerity, privatizations, and attack public sector workers, the only way forward is to embrace economic justice. If the ONDP does not, it will slide into further irrelevance.

There is no guarantee the ONDP will respond accordingly. While public opinion on economic inequality is shifting, centre-left politicians are resistant to acknowledge that anything resembling a rise of progressive sentiment exists. Witness the response of the establishment of the British Labour Party. All of its leadership candidates are signaling a return to Blairism, seemingly having learned nothing about its electoral wipeout in Scotland.

It will be up to the labour movement and the left to build popular support and pressure to get politicians to institutionalize a living wage. Simply casting a vote and going home to wait for change is not enough. That however does not absolve the ONDP from criticism of having an inadequate response to economic inequality. The ONDP can either adapt or find itself in the kind of terminal decline that has faced many other social democratic parties that have done little to challenge neoliberalism.

The labour movement and community organizations in Ontario are out there right now fighting for 15. It’s time for all progressive forces in the province to join them in the struggle.

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