Historic breakthrough for Ontario’s Fight for $15 and Fairness

14570275_1311308368913738_7074836874133375060_nBy Pam Frache and Evan Johnston

The Fight for $15 and Fairness has made major gains in all areas of its campaign, from equal pay to fairer scheduling (including more paid vacation), from paid sick days to greater access to union protection. The Ontario government also pledged to raise the minimum wage from $11. 40 to $15 by January 1, 2019. Previously won indexation legislation will ensure that workers also receive their wage adjustments each year on October 1, in addition to the raise the $15.

These measures were announced at a news conference on May 30, when Premier Kathleen Wynne promised to table legislation—the “Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act” —within 48 hours to make the necessary changes to labour and employment law. Although raising the minimum wage to $15 does not require a change in law, other crucial steps must be legislated.

If adopted, these changes would mean substantial improvements in the lives of workers and, crucially, will open the door to bigger labour law changes, should the Ontario NDP decide to come forward with a much bolder vision for decent work.

But there is no room for complacency.

Business backlash

The government’s proposed legislation opens up a whole new terrain of struggle. Even after it is tabled, legislation must go through three rounds of consideration in the legislature (readings), including committee hearings after second reading.

While this gives the Fight for $15 and Fairness another chance to fight for improvements to the legislation in areas where the government did not go far enough, it also gives the business lobby time to organize, intimidate, and threaten both workers and government.

In fact, the business lobby—including the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses (CFIB)—has already swung into high gear, with new websites (Ontario Proud) and social media trolls threatening a “mass exodus” of business, catastrophic job loss, inflation, and more. There’s no doubt the temporary staffing industry will mount ferocious opposition to the measures that support temp agency workers.

That’s why we must be ready to redouble our efforts in the Fight for $15 and Fairness to push for more and to counter the backlash. Workers will need to be armed with the arguments to defend improvements in wages and working conditions; so everything we can do to share information and talk to coworkers will be crucial. The debate is already raging on social media.

Rank and file mobilizing

That a $15 minimum wage—and other important issues like union rights and greater protections for workers—is even on the agenda is due entirely to organizing efforts of workers and students across the province to make it happen. It is a vindication of an organizing approach that is focused on activating rank and file networks and that refuses to accept the parameters laid down by the ruling class.

In fact, at the outset of the campaign, the Ontario government firmly stated that the minimum wage rate was “out of scope” and that they were not prepared to do anything more than they had already done in 2014 when, in response to the previous minimum wage campaign, they raised the wage to $11 and indexed it to the CPI. Even some labour leaders argued it would be un-strategic to focus on a $15 minimum wage during the Changing Workplaces Review. In this light, the $15 minimum wage announcement is even more significant.

But the campaign has always been about more than the minimum wage.

$15 and fairness

Winning a legislative provision that “ensures casual, part-time, temporary and seasonal employees are paid equally to full-time employees when performing the same job for the same employer,” as outlined in the announcement, is a crucial step forward for women and workers of colour who are over-represented in part-time employment, due to their family caring responsibilities or because of structural barriers in the labour market that put equity seeking groups at a disadvantage. This provision will also put a substantial dent in the material incentives for businesses to employ temporary help agencies, since they will no longer be able to pay temp agency workers less than their directly-hired counterparts. And of course, an equal pay provision will also be a boon for union members who haven’t been able to close the wage gap between full-time and part-time members through collective bargaining.

The government extended job-protected emergency leave to the 1.7 million workers who are currently excluded from this provision because they are employed in small workplaces with fewer than 50 employees. And in response to the demand for 7 paid sick days (one hour of paid leave for every 35 hours worked) the government agreed to make 2 of the 10 emergency days paid (at present, emergency leave is unpaid) —and no doctor’s note will be required for workers who take their paid emergency leave.

Significant strides were also made for workers trying to form unions. For instance, card-based certification has been extended to workers in temporary help agencies, the building services sector, and the home care and community services industry.

The changes would also provide successor rights in the building services sector, which will go a long way in curbing contract flipping. The proposed legislation goes further by giving government the regulatory authority to extend these protections to re-tendered contracts in services that are publicly-funded contract services, such as public colleges and universities. And here it must be said that the victorious strikes of Unite Here Local 75 at York University and the University of Toronto made a huge difference in securing this and other aspects of the proposed legislation.

Refuel and energize

And while we must prepare for a backlash from the corporations and business lobbyists, we can also anticipate negativity from progressive quarters as well: “Nothing is really there” or “This is just an election ploy” or “$15 now, not later.”

Such messaging is a mistake. It erases the years of effort put in by activists everywhere, minimizes the extent of the gains made on behalf of all workers in a period of austerity, and reinforces the disempowering notion that nothing can really be done to effect change.

Of course, we need $15 immediately (and we still need to fight the sub-minimum wage rates that would remain unchanged in the proposals); but an 18-month phase-in is the shortest implementation period yet in the low-wage workers’ movement, outside of collective bargaining. Surely few of us seriously believed we would be handed our entire wish list of labour law changes from a neoliberal Liberal government. We need to use the concessions announced by the government as milestones to refuel and energize for the struggles ahead. If we want better results—and we surely do—then we have to change the balance of class forces. More of us need to make organizing for decent work a priority in every workplace, on every campus, and in every community.

And while it’s no secret that getting labour and community groups to prioritize the Fight for $15 and Fairness has been an uphill battle in certain circles, we must celebrate the extent of our accomplishments and imagine what the struggle could be with more people engaged. Make no mistake: getting these issues as far forward as we have in such a short period of time is an incredible accomplishment. It gives us a glimpse of what’s possible when we organize seriously, strategically, and for the long haul.

This piece first published on socialist.ca 

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