By March 2018, every person working at Osgoode Hall Law School will be making $15 an hour or more. That makes Osgoode the first major post-secondary academic unit in Ontario to bring its employment practices in line with the demands of the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign (FF15).
Most workers at Osgoode have long made more than $15 an hour. The two glaring exceptions were Juris Doctor student research assistants, and food service workers employed by the subcontractor Aramark Canada Ltd.
Research Assistants Win a Raise
“Students are in a uniquely dependent relationship with their employers,” explains Osgoode law student and research assistant Alec Stromdahl.
“The same institution that controls your academic life controls your wage. I would have worked for free if asked. The university knows this. Instead of paying you what your work is worth they pay you what you are willing to accept, which is any bread crumb they deem to offer.”
Full-time Osgoode faculty are allocated a certain number of RA hours for the summer, fall, and winter terms. For the summer of 2016, each faculty member received funding for 245 hours of RA work, with wages being calculated at standard rate of $14.50 per hour. While it was technically up to the individual faculty member’s discretion if they wanted to pay RAs a higher rate, paying more per hour would reduce the total number of hours of work that a student could be paid for.
The $14.50 standard rate applied only to JD student research assistants. Some professors receive additional funding from outside grants that may stipulate higher rates of pay. Graduate students, some of whom are covered by a collective agreement, receive a higher rate when working as RAs.
Starting on May 1, 2017, Osgoode will introduce a minimum wage of $15.00 per hour for all research assistants.
Osgoode has agreed to increase the amount of funding allocated for RA wages. This means that the standard RA rate will be set at $15.00 per hour, without a decrease in the total number of hours they are paid for.
Osgoode Hall Faculty Association endorses the Fight for $15
In Fall 2016, the Osgoode Hall Faculty Association (OHFA) joined the Osgoode Hall Law Union (OHLU), along with several major campus student and trade unions, to officially endorse the Fight for $15 campaign.
Janet Mosher, an Osgoode faculty member who serves on the OHFA executive, says endorsing the Fight for $15 and Fairness and calling on the Osgoode administration to increase RA wages are two sides of the same coin.
“We know that the cost of tuition is exceptionally high and that a number of students are graduating with significant debt load,” says Mosher. “That’s why the wages that students receive at the law school really matter.”
“More broadly, as a school that has very expressly committed itself to social justice, we’d be out of alignment with our own mission statement to not endorse this broad-based campaign that articulates $15 as a minimum wage. Osgoode needs to be on board with this campaign.”
Food Service Workers Strike and Win $15
Research Assistants are not the only Osgoode workers who are set to receive a raise to $15 per hour.
Until recently, the lowest-paid food service workers who keep law students fuelled on campus were making just $12.21 an hour, barely more than Ontario’s $11.40 minimum wage, and 6% below the low-income cut-off for Toronto. These workers are not directly employed by Osgoode, but instead work for Aramark, a food service provider sub-contracted to run many of York campus’ food outlets.
On February 16, unionized Aramark workers represented by Unite Here Local 75 went on strike, demanding a starting wage of $15 an hour for all workers and greater employment security, as well stronger anti-harassment protections.
On March 7, workers at York voted to ratify a new collective agreement with Aramark. Under the terms of the contract, the starting wage will be bumped to $15 by the end of the first year. In addition, full- and part-time workers have won an immediate end to dental co-pays, and by the end of the agreement all workers will enjoy comprehensive benefit coverage for themselves and their families at the employer’s expense.
“We showed what can be accomplished when workers organize together and fight,” said Malka Paracha, a cafeteria worker on campus at York. “We were ready to strike as long as it took to win. We said we were going to end poverty-wage jobs on campus and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
Aramark workers received tremendous support from groups on campus, including faculty, campus trade unions, student groups, and the York chapter of the Fight for $15 and Fairness, which helped to organize multiple solidarity pickets in front of Aramark cafeterias during the strike.
$15 Campus Wage: what’s the big deal?
According to Statistics Canada’s low-income measure for 2011, which has not been adjusted for inflation over the past 7 years, a person making minimum wage today makes just above the low-income measure for a single person. If that person has children or other dependents, they end up below the poverty line.
Faced with high tuition fees, a future of student debt and a labour market full of bad jobs, there is no doubt students need a raise. But while there is a misconception that most minimum wage workers are teenagers performing after school jobs, raising the minimum wage will benefit nearly 1.5 million people, almost 60% of whom are at least 25 years old.
In step with a movement that is growing across North America, the Fight for $15 and Fairness has been demanding decent wages and working conditions for all Ontarians. Campaign demands include paid sick days, pro-active enforcement of employment laws, easier access to unionization, and protection for workers when they try to enforce their rights.
“With a rising right-wing stoking racism, xenophobia and anti-union sentiment and an economy producing only bad jobs, it is more important than ever that we think big and Fight for $15 and Fairness,” says Alia Karim, a member of York Campus chapter of the Fight for $15 and Fairness.
“It has the potential to unite both union and non-union workers by raising the floor for workplace standards and allowing people to actually rise up out of poverty.”
With the RA and food service worker wage increases, Osgoode is now on the path to a de-facto minimum wage of $15 per hour for all workers.
“It is important that, as law students and faculty, we see standing up for workplace rights as part of our professional responsibility,” says law student and OHLU member Alex Hunsberger. “If our legal system is to genuinely reflect the principles of fairness and equality, we must ensure workers have the means to defend and improve their working conditions.”
While the Osgoode administration has yet to officially endorse the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign, student and faculty groups say they will continue to support the growing movement to end poverty wages and fight for fairness at work.