How workers organized to win big in Ontario

12524283_906906869416892_8405209594775350796_nBy David Bush and Doug Nesbitt

After nearly three years of organizing, protesting, striking, and lobbying, a grassroots workers’ campaign in Ontario has secured a huge victory.

Against the unpopular Liberal government’s commitment to neoliberal austerity and sustained opposition from a powerful business lobby, the Fight for $15 and Fairness movement won a $15 minimum wage and other significant concessions. On November 22, Bill 148, which makes these achievements law, passed third reading in the Ontario legislature, overcoming its last legislative hurdle.Bill 148 has the quickest timeline to a $15 minimum wage in North America — just eighteen months. Labor minister Kevin Flynn introduced the legislation on June 1, 2017, and workers will get their first raise on January 1, 2018. The bill calls for a front-loaded phase-in: in 2018, the minimum wage will jump from $11.60 to $14 an hour, and then reach $15 by January 1, 2019. Because of a 2014 victory by the $14 NOW campaign, the wage will be indexed to annual inflation rates.

For the province’s 675,000 minimum wage workers, Bill 148 represents a 30 percent wage increase. Overall, 1.7 million workers will see a direct pay increase.Women and racialized workers, who disproportionately occupy low-wage jobs, will see the greatest benefit. An estimated 130,000 union members will also get a direct pay raise — about one in ten unionized Ontario workers. Factoring in anticipated wage bumps for workers making between $15 and $19, over two million workers will see their paychecks grow next year.

Bill 148 also ushers in a host of other labor reforms.

It extends access to ten job-protected Personal Emergency Leave (PEL) days to every worker in the province, allowing an additional 1.6 million workers to use the benefit. In addition, it mandates that two PEL days be paid and that employers cannot require a doctors’ note. This makes Ontario the first Canadian province where all workers have access to paid sick days.

The law also eliminates on-call or “zero hour” contracts, requiring employers to pay workers for a minimum of three hours for every day they are on call, but are not called in. Employers must also pay the three-hour minimum for canceling shifts within forty-eight hours and give workers the right to refuse last-minute shifts.

The legislation extends card-check certification to some highly precarious sectors, like building services, temp agencies, and home care — the first time card check has been restored outside the construction industry since its wholesale repeal in the Ontario Tories’ 1995 neoliberal blitzkrieg.

In addition to paid sick days, improved scheduling rules, and some gains on card check, Bill 148 introduces equal-pay language, threatening the ubiquitous practice of paying part-time and temporary agency workers lower hourly wages than full-timers doing the same work.

Other reforms include the elimination of contract flipping in certain sectors, improved access to employee lists for union drives, and an extra week of paid vacation after five years of employment.

Bill 148 does fall short of the movement’s demands on a number of fronts. The Liberal government continues to deny collective bargaining rights to farm and domestic workers, and the legislation fails to address a host of exemptions from employment standards. The equal pay for equal work language also contains troublesome loopholes.

Despite these shortcomings, however, Bill 148 is a major victory for the Ontario working class, and the fight for it offers similar campaigns important lessons and new ideas.