By Cecilia Miguel & Peter Driftmier
Why we need to put the ‘Fight’ into a Fight For $15 movement now more than ever.
On April 15th, the Fight for $15 movement came to Calgary and Edmonton, furthering the development of a militant rank-and-file labour movement in Canada’s conservative heartland. Workers in Edmonton held an information picket at the University of Alberta, talking to students, gathering hundreds of petition signatures calling for a province-wide $15 minimum wage immediately. In Calgary, fifty workers and community members rallied and marched down 17th Avenue SW, targeting several fast food chains and a McDonald’s corporate headquarters in particular. Both actions helped bolster the growing grassroots demand in Alberta for a $15 minimum wage.
The living wage line in Calgary and Edmonton is currently calculated at $17-18 per hour, but around $15 in some rural areas. With a provincial minimum wage currently of $11.20 (up from $10.20 in October), the roughly 20 percent of Alberta workers who make less than $15 per hour have a long way to go. But on April 15th, workers demonstrated their willingness to fight for change.
Getting a $15 minimum wage on the table
On May Day one year ago, progressive working class Albertans were aware more than ever that our province had built the highest income inequality in Canada (higher than in the United States), yet we could not have believed that four days later our neighbours would for the first time elect an NDP government, ending 44 years of Progressive Conservative rule. The NDP victory also staved off the rise of the farther-right Wildrose Party, which some thought would claim power. For many in Alberta, three primary election promises signalled not just an end to PC-rule, but to our expanding inequality: reintroduction of progressive income taxes, increasing royalty rates on the oil and gas sector, and a $15/hour minimum wage to be phased in by 2018.
The core organizers of the Fight For $15 campaign in Alberta predicted a vicious ‘Tea Party-North’ phenomena, and began a community-organizing strategy in response. We were a group of low-wage and precariously employed workers who had experiences as community and rank-and-file labour organizers. Our goal was to build a campaign that could fight in order to win a living wage for all Albertans. By early June, the first sparks of business lobbyist discontent were already flying in the press, so we held our first action in North East Calgary soon after the NDP victory.
In the months following the election, the government abandoned its stance to increase oil and gas royalties due to pressure from the powerful oil lobby. There is no doubt that the NDP government’s moderately progressive promises immediately faced serious political challenges. Already, the core pillars of their social and economic platform were under threat.
Legislation aimed at integrating agricultural workers into existing occupational health and safety, employment standards, and labour relations codes drew death threats and mass political unrest in rural Alberta. Now, the media continues to amplify the right-wing chorus calling for public sector wage freezes and austerity-driven concessions. Unemployment has reached levels comparable to most other parts of the country, and the province’s economy is officially in recession. Our well-paid working class jobs in oil and gas are disappearing, and there is increased competition for the lower-wage work available.
With this turmoil in the back-drop, Rachel Notley’s $15 minimum wage quickly went from promise to a “notional” 2018 target. Now, following the April 15 actions in Edmonton and Calgary, the Premier has publicly committed again to fulfill this election promise.
While the Fight for $15 movement across the United States has successfully pressured state governments to increase their respective minimum wage, the Alberta government’s commitment to their pivotal election promise remains to be seen. So far this platform is without any meaningful roadmap aimed at instituting a $15 minimum wage. Further, the Fight for $15 movement in Alberta began in anticipation of growing right-wing criticism, instead of being a movement that gained momentum through long-standing community mobilization.
Who is fighting against the $15 minimum wage
The political opposition in Alberta, both on the centre and the right, are cranking up the volume on defeating the NDP government’s $15 an hour promise. The usual arguments from the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose Party shift the blame for the current economic downturn away from resource sector employers to workers themselves. This is the same strategy that had previously failed the Tories in their final months of rule. Only this time the politicians are positioning small business owners against low-wage workers. This discourse overlooks the fact that almost half of all minimum wage workers are employed by companies with over 500 employees. As small businesses struggle to compete with the Wal-Marts and the Canadian Tires, it is hardly the fault of low-wage workers.
Who is fighting for $15 in Alberta?
The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) had financed a door-knocking campaign prior to the 2015 election in an effort to promote organized labour’s agenda (which happened to coincide almost identically with the Alberta NDP’s election platform). Yet following the May 2015 election, the founding group of community organizers in Calgary possessed few allies and resources on which to draw. Still, we began to lay the groundwork for a future coalition by springing off the work of a local activist group – Women Together Ending Poverty (WTEP). WTEP had submitted a 900-signature petition to Rachel Notley demanding a transition of the minimum wage rate to a guaranteed living wage for all workers in the province. Further, WTEP members knew what community organizing looked like without access to resources. Shortly thereafter, Migrante Alberta, an association of Filipino/migrant workers, joined the campaign.
One core organizer had recently been part of an effort to unionize his own workplace – a commissary kitchen of the local Community Natural Foods organic grocery chain – with the need for a $15 wage as a focal point of discussion amongst workers. The union local, Unifor 4050, subsequently joined the campaign, followed by the Alberta College of Social Workers, and Calgary Social Workers for Social Justice. With one week to go before the Global Day of Action on April 15th, the Alberta Federation of Labour endorsed the campaign.
A note-worthy gap in the movement was left by UFCW 401, which had previously supported the campaign during actions that coincided with Fight For $15 demonstrations on Black Friday in November of 2015. UFCW 401 represents some of the lowest workers in Alberta, most of who toil in the food and retail sector, and is well positioned to take up this campaign. Its membership is also disproportionately made up of people of colour and women, so a campaign to engage and mobilize these workers could have reaped great rewards during bargaining, and built new rank-and-file leadership. Further, UFCW is one of two major unions driving the $15 campaigns in the US (the other being SEIU, which has little presence in Alberta). One week prior to the Global Day of Action on April 15th, UFCW 401 officially pulled their plug on support for the action.
The best example of a local organization that prioritizes rank-and-file power above all else is the IWW, which has a chapter in Edmonton. However, given the IWW constitution’s stance against ‘lobbying’, the Edmonton IWW decided not to participate in the campaign. Unlike lobbying that many progressive organizations engage in, however, the campaign has spoken directly to thousands of low-wage workers in an effort to drum up support. Our view as organizers is that we are engaged in society-wide bargaining as workers with those that set our wage rates. This tactic goes beyond engaging in a dialogue with MLAs.
Now, more than ever, Alberta’s low-wage workers need an organization that is based on a rank-and-file mobilization model that identifies the workplace and society at large as points of struggle. A major weakness of the Alberta campaign is that it lacks organizational leadership. Because of this, Alberta’s movement has not received adequate resources from organized labour, like what we see in the US, nor an interest by unions to get their members involved. Instead, unions remain committed to supporting the NDP and electoral politics rather than engaging in community and rank-and-file activism.
The vast majority of the media coverage cites the political parties, big business lobbyists, right-wing academics, progressive think tanks, along with a handful of labour leaders in the province. But missing from this narrative is the voice of low-wage workers in Alberta. This needs to change in order for labour to become central to the policy conversation, and the human face behind the Fight for $15 movement.
Cecilia Miguel and Peter Driftmier are community organizers with the Fight For $15 – Alberta campaign
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