Why $15 matters for Ontario’s unions

307556b4-8ae9-4ef4-bb83-c09fddce1ae8By David Bush

In the spring of 2015, a coalition of labour and community groups launched the $15 and Fairness campaign in Ontario. The campaign was shaped in part by the Ontario governments’ Changing Workplaces Review, a full-scale review of both the Employment Standards Act (ESA) and the Labour Relations Act (LRA) announced in February of 2015.

These circumstances meant unlike the Fight for $15 campaigns in the United States and in other parts of Canada the campaign in Ontario has taken the form of demanding a raise in the minimum wage and improving the laws and regulations governing workplace relations. The campaign’s demands range from ending contract flipping, banning scab labour, making it easier to join a union, to improving the enforcement mechanisms in the ESA and legislating paid sick days for all workers.

The long list of demands of the campaign presents both an opportunity and a challenge for labour and community groups. A broad range of demands means the campaign has the potential to speak to a wide audience of workers. The demands can serve to unite workers in different sectors, across unions and even build working class unity between union and non-union workers.

However, having such a long list of demands also means the potential for the fracturing of the campaign. Who decides what are the priorities? What happens when the government acknowledges some demands, while dismissing others outright?

And a union?

The OFL, many of its affiliates and labour councils have endorsed the $15 and Fairness campaign. They have also provided a large proportion of the funding, which is an amazing contribution. And many on the ground activists and leaders in the campaign are members of those unions. However, few unions in Canada have truly seized the real organizing potential of a $15 minimum wage.

Unlike in the United States, there is no major union in Canada using the $15 demand to do large-scale organizing in the service sector (although some unions are advancing the campaign as a vehicle for great work, including the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council using this campaign to organize at Pearson Airport).

In the U.S. the SEIU spent $20 million on the Fight for $15 last year. While there are a number of reasons this hasn’t happened here – differences in labour law, a less acute crisis in union density – its absence has meant some in the union movement see the $15 minimum wage as a demand more for non-union workers, and supporting it as a form of charity. This perception is accompanied by a concern that the $15 and Fairness campaign is being driven by non-union leaders and workers, and does not sufficiently highlight union issues.

It is in this context that the OFL has launched the Make it Fair campaign – which is aiming to activate union leaders to get their members engaged in the Changing Workplaces Review. Some have suggested it makes sense to focus more on labour law changes than the minimum wage demand, which is not being reviewed. While it is true the $15 minimum wage is not technically part of the government’s review, since when did the labour movement let the Liberals dictate the scope of our demands?

$15 matters for unions

The $15 minimum wage is a key demand for the labour movement.

Raising the minimum wage to $15 would not just impact workers outside the union movement. Many unionized workers in Ontario, working in grocery stores, at airports, as security guards and as cleaners make below $15. Raising the minimum wage would have a direct and immediate positive impact for those workers.

A large number of unionized workers make only make slightly more than $15 an hour and the knock on effect of raising the minimum wage upwards would also give them additional bargaining power. If you make $17 an hour and the minimum wage is bumped up by the 30 percent to $15 an hour it makes it easier to demand a corresponding wage increase.

Beyond the direct and indirect benefit raising the minimum wage would have for union members in Ontario, the demand also offers the ability to build a far-reaching working class movement.

$15 and a movement

All the demands of the $15 and Fairness campaign are important and necessary for workers in Ontario. But the demand for $15 in the current context is key for building a broad-based working class movement.

The $15 demand helps to tie in the notion of rising inequality, while also connecting the campaign with the Fight for $15 in the United States and in other provinces. It builds links between unionized and non-unionized workers, while also speaking to the aspiration of the working class for economic justice for all workers.

On the ground, the demand for $15 opens up conversations in a way that banning scab labour or reforming enforcement of the ESA just can’t. From my experience of doing outreach on campuses and on the streets, the $15 demand is key to starting a conversation that allows people to link that issue with all the other demands of the campaign.

When workers see that the campaign is not just about union workers, they are much more open to conversations about contract flipping and the need to ban scabs. And they are much more likely to see how these demands are good, not just for unionized workers, but for all workers. This is the foundation of solidarity. The very act of fighting for $15 actually creates opportunities to fight for progressive changes to labour law.

By ensuring that the $15 minimum wage is front and centre in the campaign, the union movement has the potential to reach huge amounts of people it otherwise wouldn’t. It can strengthen relationships with community groups while drumming up a large amount of individual contacts with workers. All of which will make it easier to organize unions in the long run.

Most importantly, it can embolden action and confidence of workers in Ontario. Raising expectations of all workers is the best and only way the union movement can make substantial gains in the current context. We have a unique opportunity, not only to rewrite labour laws, but to reignite a broad working class movement that can shift the entire political terrain in the province. Let’s make sure we seize it by fighting for both $15 and Fairness.

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