By David Bush
As the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign rolls along in its struggle to raise living standards for Ontario’s workers, it has to be asked, where is Ontario’s NDP?
The Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign was launched last spring in an effort to address the systemic problems facing low-wage and precarious workers in Ontario. The province has seen an explosion in the growth of precarious work. In 2004 22 per cent of jobs in Ontario were low-waged, ten years later that number jumped to 33 percent.
The Liberal government in February 2015 announced their Changing Workplaces Review, a full-scale review of both the Employment Standards Act (ESA) and the Labour Relations Act (LRA). This review, the first major examination of the ESA and LRA in over a decade, comprised of a serious consultations with labour, community and business groups from June to September of last year by the Liberals appointed special advisors. By mid-April the special advisors will release their interim report on the hearings and will be rolling out their recommendations in stages, according to topic-areas, throughout the summer and into the fall.
The campaign successfully mobilized around the consultations, with labour and community voices being the overwhelming majority of those present. Beyond the consultations the campaign has been very active in pushing its demands.
Last April the campaign was launched with a successful province-wide day of demonstrations. This was followed up with sustained public outreach in workplaces, in communities and on campuses. Thousands of people in Ontario have signed the Fight for $15 and Fairness petition demanding an increase in the minimum wage to $15, paid sick days for all, eliminating exemptions to the ESA, making it easier for workers to join unions and raising the floor of work standards for all.
Local groups and unions working on the campaign in a coordinated effort visited local MPPs across Ontario, dropping off the petitions to show support and demanding action. On top of this the campaign has also organized fun creative actions such as a carolling at the Eaton Centre or days of action focused on raising awareness around specific demands like paid sick days. This sustained outreach is still on-going, the group I am part of at York University organizes weekly outreach actions where we hand out leaflets, sign people up to the petition and talk to hundreds of students and workers on campus. And we are just one small group in a much larger provincial campaign. For instance, just the other week the Toronto Airport Workers Council signed up over one thousand people to the petition in one day!
The campaign does not stand alone, as was evident by this past weekend’s provincial strategy meeting, with people from all over the province in attendance. It is endorsed by many groups across the province such as the Ontario Federation of Labour, various unions and labour councils, the Workers’ Action Centre, the Canadian Federation of Students – Ontario, the Decent Work and Health Network, and even two provincial NDP riding associations, to name just a few.
The campaign is also part of a much larger movement across Canada and the United States. Similar campaigns exist in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, British Columbia, and Quebec. The United States has seen an explosion of activity to push the minimum wage to $15 and organize low-wage jobs precarious jobs. The last major day of action to demand a $15 minimum wage in the United States, on November 11, involved strikes and protests occurring in over 270 cities. Major victories to raise the minimum wage have occurred in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and even Alberta, which saw the new NDP government commit to raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2018. Gary Burrill in Nova Scotia was just elected as party leader in part due to his support of the $15 minimum wage demand. The groundswell of support even pressured the federal NDP to include a $15 minimum wage for federally regulated workplaces in its election platform. Sadly, the NDP, instead of highlighting this policy, relegated it to the shadows after the first couple of weeks, choosing to focus on the winning idea of balancing the budget.
But where is the ONDP? Before the 2014 election many of the same forces supporting the Fight for $15 and Fairness were pushing to raise the minimum wage to $14. And when the ONDP announced its election platform they came out for a $12 minimum wage (barely distinguishable form the Liberal’s promise) and tied this announcement to a tax cut for small businesses. Instead of energizing its base, it deflated the movement and allowed the Liberals to position themselves as the progressive alternative to Tim Hudak.
Is the ONDP going to repeat this mistake? The ONDP caucus was quick to appear at the OFL’s supported $15 and Fairness rally last fall, but they didn’t followed that up with words or action. They have not come out in support of the campaign or its demands, despite some NDP MPPs and riding associations supporting it. The ONDP instead has chosen silence, waiting for the recommendations from the review before taking a stand.
The movement for a $15 minimum wage and fair work standards is taking off across the continent as the divide between the rich and the rest of us widens.
In the context of increasing political polarization in North America between the right and left the ONDP’s only path to victory in 2018 is to throw its lot in with the social movements and the labour movement, its base, and speak to the wider working class around issues that matter to them. If the ONDP is unwilling to do that, it not only risks further irrelevancy, but labour and social movement activists must question the value of a party that refuses to be a voice for working people in this province.