By Doug Nesbitt
About 200 people from across southern Ontario, and as far north as Sudbury and North Bay gathered in Toronto on March 31-April 1 for a provincial strategy session of the Fight for $15 and Fairness.
It was a great two days of discussion and workshops all geared towards building this campaign that has started to shape some of the political terrain for labour in Ontario, and begun to get a hearing on some of its key demands like paid sick days, fair scheduling and a $15 minimum wage. Loads of information, experiences and lessons were shared. It was not the usual labour convention or educational.
There’s a common question heard in organized labour’s ranks: “Where are the young people?” and “How do we get young people involved in unions?” This is where they were. A solid majority of the participants were under 40, a majority were women, and at least half were people of colour.
The Ontario Fight for $15 and Fairness has reason to feel confident. Before the conference there was the incredible victory for $15 and fairness by striking food service workers at York University. These workers, members of Unite Here Local 75, and employees of multinational Aramark struck and won a $15 wage floor. Some of the strikers spoke to us describing their incredible experience and transformation from an abused and divided workforce to a united, confident union of workers. The York Fight for $15 and Fairness was among the groups playing a leading role in building the support for the workers on campus, and spearheading an active boycott of Aramark’s strikebreaking food services that remained open.
Yet, the next 14 months are going to be the toughest for this young but energetic campaign.
Changing Workplaces Review
The recommendations of the Changing Workplaces Review (CWR) are due in May. The CWR is the first serious examination of Ontario’s Employment Standards Act and Labour Relations Act in two decades since the right-wing Harris years. For over a year, the CWR has done public consultations and faced sustained lobbying from various groups and individuals. The CWR’s interim report of the consultations from last fall shows that a lot is still up for grabs.
We can expect the CWR to be good for workers and unions in some places, and good for greedy anti-union forces in others. But none of the recommendations will become law unless the government of the day implements them.
The CWR’s recommendations is going to open up a new phase for the Fight for $15 and Fairness: the struggle to have the best recommendations brought forward as legislation before the scheduled June 2018 election, and fighting against the CWR’s weaknesses, and any backwards legislation.
We can expect the Chamber of Commerce, other employer associations, the Tories, and a lot of media blowhards to say the sky will fall if even some of our demands are met. They will say that employer-union relations will be fatally “out of balance” if the Harris-era laws are rolled back.
The Liberals only have a brief window this fall to bring forward any legislation out of the CWR recommendations. Odds are what the Liberals will pick and choose what to pass as legislation in 2017, and what to turn into campaign promises for 2018. Using CWR recommendations as campaign promises is going to be their bid to blackmail people into voting for them.
We have already heard rumblings that some in the Liberal caucus think a $15 minimum wage is necessary if they are going to try and win re-election. This is remarkable because the CWR has already stated that the minimum wage is outside its mandate. But the Liberals are third in the polls, behind even in the NDP, while other surveys show over 60 percent of Ontarians support a $15 minimum wage, including 70 percent in the Greater Toronto Area.
In the fall session and the election, expect the Liberals are going to play games with the Fight for $15 and Fairness demands.
Navigating the election
These legislative and electoral dilemmas was the major strategic discussion carrying through the Fight for $15 and Fairness strategy session in Toronto. What emerged from the conference was the type of political clarity on elections that organized labour has largely lost sight of in Ontario, other provinces, and federally. What is this political clarity?
The campaign has to focus on grassroots organizing over the next 14 months, continuing to build local neighbourhood-based and campus-based campaign groups, while also convincing larger numbers of trade unionists to take up the campaign’s demands. This is especially crucial in unionized jobs with sub-$15 wages or no paid sick days. Like at York, these demands can be central to agitating union memberships, building new campaigns and making big pushes in bargaining. The alliance between union locals and Fight for $15 and Fairness can broaden the fight, and begin to build real solidarity between the demands made in contract fights and wider numbers of workers, especially non-union workers.
$15 and Fairness has done its fair share of lobbying of Liberal MPPs, but if this is the carrot, Fight for $15 and Fairness is clear that we also need to carry a big stick. The Liberals are no friends of workers and they have to be corrected severely. They are, after all, the definitive party of Bay Street. They are liars and opportunists.
People at the conference were clear that if Fight for $15 and Fairness reduced its work to lobbying at the expense of building local campaigning groups focused on building organizers (not lobbyists!), then the campaign would lose its real strength.
Kendall Fells, an American Fight for $15 organizer who spoke at the provincial meeting, put it this way:
“Why worry about the person testing the wind, when you can just be the wind.”
This earned a huge roar of approval from the audience.
Opening up this entire discussion 14 months before the election reflects not just the maturity of the Fight for $15 and Fairness, but the extent to which the campaign has developed its own hard-nosed strategic thinking.
The conference was able to get everyone on the same page about ramping up our organizing activity over the summer, hounding Liberal MPPs through the summer BBQ circuit and into the fall legislative session. But a big push against the Liberals in the summer and fall requires building bigger capacity and clarity on the issues surrounding the CWR recommendations. Fortunately, the summer is going to give us the time to study the CWR recommendations and build up a base of support through patient organizing in weather that favours our work.
Pushing the NDP
Last but not least, there also has to be pressure put on the NDP. They can’t get a free pass on any of this. The best thing the NDP can do right now is begin putting through private member’s bills that reflect the demands of the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign.
If the NDP puts forward these demands, it puts the issues out to the public on a broader platform and in the media. The naysayers and pundits will run their mouths, but this sort of legislative activity will feedback into the groundwork being done by Fight for $15 and Fairness and union campaigners. It also stops the Liberals from seizing the political initiative on progressive employment and labour reform by forcing them to vote on clear demands. The Liberals can’t credibly claim to support progressive reform if they are voting it down through the fall session.
A new private members bill that called for the restoration of card check certification, which existed in Ontario under Bob Rae, and first contract arbitration was put forward by the NDP recently and defeated. This piecemeal bill was not used to organize around the issues and generated next to no publicity. The NDP is refusing to put forward a more comprehensive $15 and Fairness bill, to educate and organize around, because they only want to put bills forward that can have a chance at being passed. This backwards approach to private members bills in opposition will only serve to leave the door open for the Liberals come election time.
The NDP needs a push to bring forward a whole lot more than private members bills that force the Liberals into a corner on a whole host of questions. The NDP is notoriously bad for pushing on an issue over a longer period of time. The party’s brain trust is too busy with polling data and marketing campaigns to understand how keeping an issue on the front burner over a long period of time can help people doing the hard groundwork happening independent of electoral games. Hearts and minds have to be won, not just a vote every four years. If Fight for $15 and Fairness activists live in NDP ridings, they need to put pressure on them too.
Sticking together in 2018
The success of the Fight for $15 and Fairness strategy session was laying out all this political terrain in detail while keeping our eye on the prize: realizing the demands of our campaign through building collective power that is just as comfortable as petitioning on a street corner as it is lobbying an MPP, organizing co-workers in a contract fight for a $15 wage floor, and enforcing a boycott on scab operations.
Like the CHS workers now on strike across the province, there is also lots of opportunities for Fight for $15 to build solidarity with union workers in contract fights. Solidarity work like this can begin to raise the expectations of what is possible.
Allowing Fight for $15 and Fairness to be sucked into the machinery of the election will burn people out, demoralize, confuse and divide us. People will campaign and vote for who they choose, but we can’t allow our campaign demands and the Fight for $15 and Fairness organizing work to be suspended during the election campaign. We can’t be caught flat-footed after the election.
As the American Fight for $15 organizers explained to us in Toronto, they believed – like everyone else! – Hillary Clinton would win the American election. And so they planned for a November 29 Fight for $15 day of action across 340 US cities. They kept their eyes on the prize, ready to fight the Democrats in power. In the worst case scenario, which played out with Trump’s victory, November 29 proved important for thousands of people in shedding the sense of fear and isolation they were feeling, and building some of the confidence and defiance needed that we saw explode in huge numbers on the streets and in the airports of America in January.
When the dust settles after the June 2018 election, we may be ahead of where we are now but our struggles won’t be over. There is a long road ahead of us in bringing justice and democracy to this economic and political system. The Fight for $15 and Fairness is building something that can survive that election and retool itself for the struggles ahead.
Doug Nesbitt is an editor at RankandFile.ca and a Fight for $15 and Fairness campaigner in Kingston