“We are building an intergenerational, multi-racial working class movement!” Betty Douglas’ words rang out to a huge standing ovation from the packed hall. Douglas, a McDonald’s worker from St Louis, Missouri, was in Toronto for the Fight for $15 and Fairness provincial strategy session on March 31-April 1.
The two-day conference brought together organizers from across Ontario. It was attended by activists from communities, campuses and workplaces in Sudbury, North Bay, Ottawa, Waterloo, Brantford, Hamilton, Kingston and a number of other towns across Ontario. They came to share and strategize on how to advance the demands of the $15 and Fairness campaign. The weekend’s skills building workshops wrestled with topics such as: using social media for movement building, meeting MPPs, workers’ rights, building in neighbourhoods, on campuses, among healthcare providers and in our workplaces. Table discussions took on challenging debates relating to bargaining for $15, organizing caregivers, overcoming divisions and understanding basic income and living wage.
These discussions took place as we await the final recommendations of the Changing Workplaces Review (a report with a range of options to amend Ontario’s Labour Relations Act) to be presented to the Ontario Ministry of Labour. The goals of the $15 and Fairness campaign are to organize enough pressure to extract legislative concessions out of the Changing Workplaces Review, and to keep organizing so that a $15 minimum wage and other important legislative changes become key issues in the next provincial election.
There are positive signs that the campaign is already having that effect. For instance, a recent article from the Toronto Star notes:
“’Go bold or go home’ is how some key Liberals describe the next 14 months leading up to the election. The initial signs of the new plan will emerge in the April budget. First, Wynne may announce a raise in the minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2018. A Forum Research poll last fall found 72 per cent of Liberals nationally and 84 per cent of New Democrats support the idea. The current minimum wage for full-time workers in Ontario is $11.40 an hour and will increase to $11.60 an hour on Oct. 6. Alberta, which already has the highest minimum wage in Canada at $12.20 an hour, has promised to raise it to $15 an hour by next year.”
This exciting news combined with other inspiring moments throughout the weekend to help energize and motivate the activists there. Food service workers from York attended and led sessions throughout the weekend, reflecting on their successful victory of $15 and health benefits for both full and part –time workers. Malka Paracha talked about “winning back her dignity” and becoming a “newly born leader, a newly born fighter of the fight for $15” who could be an “encouragement for the rest of workers fighting.”
We also heard from Kendall Fells, the national director of organizing for the US Fight for $15 and organizing director of Fast Food Forward, the coalition of workers and community, labour and religious groups campaigning to raise wages for fast food workers to $15 and hour and the right to form a union without retaliation.
The movement in the US has been an inspiration world-wide and has won wage hikes for 22 million underpaid workers and have made $15/hour the new labor standard in New York, California, Seattle and Washington, D.C. This has been credited as one of the reasons wages for lower-paid workers grew faster than for upper-income workers last year. Fells described the process of building community support that helped kick off the first wave of fast food strikes in New York. He also described 2016 as a pivotal year for the campaign. During the run up to the presidential election, they made the crucial decision to not endorse a candidate. “We endorsed ourselves.” Instead he described the strategy in which the campaign pushed their demands and forced politicians to come out in favour or against a $15 minimum wage.
Both he and Betty Douglas described with pride the Fast Food worker strikes that happened in 340 cities across the US just weeks after the election of Donald Trump, the successful campaign to hound and harass Trump’s labour secretary nominee Andy Puzder, and the April 4 Fight for the Dream action across the country.
Douglas, in her speech at the “Fighting for $15: Building Unity in the Era of Trump” stated “racial equality and income equality go hand in hand and the Fight for $15 and Black Lives Matter are two of the most powerful movements in the US.” She described plans for the two campaigns to come together on a national day of action on April 4, the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, in which thousands of underpaid workers, local racial justice activists, elected officials and clergy will hold rallies, marches, teach-in and other actions, culminating in a march on the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where King was assassinated to “continue Dr. King’s fight for economic and racial justice.”
A statement from the Fight for $15 in the US describes the “Fight Racism, Raise Pay” protests as coming as “working Americans face an onslaught of attacks on their right to join together for higher pay and confront racist policies from the White House down to local police departments. Republican lawmakers in more than two-dozen states have introduced legislation aimed at cracking down on protestors like those in the Fight for $15 and the Movement for Black Lives.”
Latierika Blair, a McDonald’s worker in Memphis, Tenn, describes the need for the protest: “We’re joining together with the Movement for Black Lives because our two movements have a common bond in fighting the racism that keeps down people of color everywhere…McDonalds conspires with police to try to silence us when we speak out for higher pay. Corporations and politicians act to keep workers and black people from getting ahead in America. We should be investing in our people and communities. That’s why we have to protest, and that’s why we will keep speaking out together until we win.”
Hearing the news such as this from the US movement and coming together to discuss the challenges and triumphs here in Ontario left participants of the provincial strategy session invigorated to continue and strengthen the work we are doing here to win a better standard of living for working class people. The organizing work undertaken over the 14 months can not only win the demands of the campaign but can build the confidence of workers to take more militant action in workplaces and in the streets and those victories and milestones can be used as fuel for ongoing organizing.
This was first published on socialist.ca.