Women and the Fight for $15

21641077_2180631205295938_6237598897006924246_oBy Emily Leedham

On September 19 the Manitoba Federation of Labour and Make Poverty History organized a rally calling on the PC government to raise minimum wage from $11 to $15 an hour. The event provided an important look at Manitoba’s political climate, and the challenges that face the formation of a sustained Fight for 15 & Fairness campaign in the province.

Right now, the minimum wage debate is like a ping pong ball batted around by politicians vying for power, leaving workers to be spectators, not participants in the struggle. If a Fight for 15 & Fairness campaign is to be successful, it needs to be centered around the voices of minimum wage workers, not politicians. As the majority of low-wage precariously employed workers are women, and disproportionately Indigenous and racialized women, their voices need to be prioritized and not ignored as they so often are.

Lessons from the rally

I was part of the rally’s planning committee as a non-unionized minimum wage worker. Trying to find ways to put low-waged women workers front and centre proved challenging.

We only found one minimum wage worker willing to speak and she ended up being the only speaker who was a woman as well. Her words were powerful, and I could imagine how much more impactful it could have been we were able to make the event more worker-centric.
Of the four articles written about the rally, only one even mentioned her, and barely.

Suffice to say, all eyes and ears were on Wab Kinew. This rally was one of Kinew’s first public events since being elected leader of the NDP just a few days prior. In his platform, which he reiterated at the rally, he promised a $15 minimum wage by the end of his first mandate if elected to the premier’s office.

That’s 2024 – seven years from now.

The crowd of union members cheered.

But hinging the wellbeing of Manitoba’s workers on Kinew, or any one leader, is a flawed approach. Politicians, even in the NDP, will make political calculations based on electability, not necessarily on the needs of workers.

Exploiting women’s voices in the leadership race

These political games were on full display during Manitoba’s NDP leadership race.

Rival candidate Steve Ashton pledged to raise the minimum wage to $15 within the first year of his mandate, besting Kinew’s 2024 plan. But Kinew remained the frontrunner and had the unanimous endorsement from the MFL.

One week before the election, Ashton’s campaign cynically leaked documents showing domestic abuse allegations against Kinew from over ten years ago. This forced Kinew’s ex, Tara Hart, into the spotlight. She did not choose to have her story revealed in this way, Ashton’s campaign took that choice away from her.

Once the story became public Hart stood her ground and said she wanted an acknowledgement and apology from Kinew. His response to her and the story was to deny that the particular event ever happened. Hart was subjected to threats and online harassment from people accusing her of lying.

Women and the issues they face are nothing more than chess pieces for key players in Manitoba politics shuffle around in their pursuit of power.

MFL president Kevin Rebeck, who endorsed Kinew during the leadership campaign, spoke at last week’s rally. He called on Pallister to implement a $15 minimum wage within the next few years.

While it is encouraging to see the MFL willing to push for an earlier implementation, sexism will sink any attempts to build trust and relationships with minimum wage workers and thus any chance to organize an effective Fight for 15 & Fairness campaign.

What to learn from other provinces

Rebeck also referenced that Manitoba needs to follow suit of other provinces that have committed to raising the minimum wage to $15, like Ontario, BC, and Alberta. What needs to be considered is the vast political differences of each province and the tactics used to achieve minimum wage increases.

Alberta will be the first province to achieve a $15 minimum wage. However, this has resulted in a heavy backlash from the business community. Without a movement of workers behind the increase, the narrative has largely remained in control of the business sector and paternalistic long-winded technocrats, giving “progressive” centrists pause.

This is a victory for Alberta’s workers. But in a province as politically volatile as they are right now, workers need to be engaged in the long game to defend against any future rollbacks – and keep fighting for more. Considering Alberta has the lowest unionization rate in Canada and a heavy right wing ideological history, building grassroots worker power to challenge that influence is a must.

In BC, the NDP recently backtracked on their promised timeline to raise the minimum wage by 2021. The province’s Fight for $15 campaign, directed by the BC Fed, became largely inactive in the lead up to the election and after and has not been able to counter BC NDP’s waffling on the issue with any significant pressure.

Comparatively speaking, the Fight $15 & Fairness campaign in Ontario has been most vibrant and militant Fight for $15 campaign in the country. Their organizing, with worker-led actions and comprehensive list of demands, allowed the stage to be set from the ground-up. Even with the possibility of a PC government on the horizon, worker-capacity has been set in place to challenge future attempts at unraveling their rights.

A key player in this effort is Ontario’s Workers’ Action Centre, a political organization that exists specifically for:

“developing leadership amongst the workers directly affected by low wages and poor working conditions, and to actively involve them in our campaigns and advocacy work to improve wages and working conditions for all workers.”

In 2014 the CBC profiled Acsana Fernando, a refugee, a minimum wage worker, and a Workers’ Action Center volunteer. CBC producers joined her for an entire day, documenting her experiences, struggles and perspective. This is a good example of how labour organizing can help workers find their power and claim their voice.

Ontario’s Fight for 15 & Fairness campaign also put together series of videos where different workers were able to share their stories. This kind of thing doesn’t happen unless workers are able to build trust with the others they organize with.

Though the Fight for $15 is an international campaign, we won’t be able to copy and paste our approach from somewhere else. We have to find tactics that work best for our context and that means listening to and empowering workers here.

Women are already doing the work: Find them and support them

While it is challenging for women and marginalized workers to attain the same kind and platforms as politicians, or to be taken seriously when they are in positions of influence. But that does not mean that they are not willing to speak or do the hard work of labour organizing in Manitoba.

The province’s first ever Tim Horton’s and the country’s first ever KFC/Taco Bell franchise, were unionized by women organizers. These are workplaces traditionally untouched by the unions for being too challenging and risky.

Addressing sexism within the labour movement and from political and community leaders is also important because many arguments against the minimum wage are heavily gendered.

A recent Global News Winnipeg op-ed in framed the minimum wage debate as being one of “math vs. feelings.” This approach shuts down women’s voices and delegitimizes their lived experiences. It also sets up a dichotomy where any argument that incorporates personal experiences cannot also be rational or economically sound. In a province where nearly 30 percent of workers make less than $15 and the majority of low-wage workers are women, it is imperative that we take seriously the lived experience of women workers.

In Winnipeg, we’ve seen the rich get richer and the poor get poorer over the past 30 years. The province’s rate of violence against women is also double that of the national average – and we know domestic violence and poverty are heavily linked. Manitoba also happens to be the worst province in the country to be a First Nations person.

This state of affairs unfolded under the NDP’s watch.

But the NDP thinks they can turn all this around by dismissing the voices of Indigenous women for the sake of maintaining their new leader’s reformed image. The NDP are putting all their energy into attacking Pallister without addressing the lack of trust and disillusionment that cost them the election in the first place.

A Fight for 15 & Fairness campaign in Manitoba can’t just be a tool to get the NDP re-elected.

It is an opportunity for workers to develop organizing skills to better their working conditions, and subsequently families and communities, regardless of the party in power. It is an opportunity to build trust and relationships among workers from different backgrounds, and have broader political conversations about the impacts of colonialism and capitalism. It is about engaging in a struggle to create a more just and equitable world by building workers’ power.

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