Don’t buy into the boss backlash

26678534_2016023098652781_1495537320618481086_oBy Lesley Jamieson

It has come as no surprise that employers and business interests across the province are swamping news outlets with predictions of pending doom. Prices will rise, jobs will be cut, and workers will be punished, they claim. Tim Horton’s franchise-owners in Cobourg recently announced that they will be punishing workers by eliminating various perks designed to improve staff retention such as paid breaks and a benefits package. This move is meant to let the wider public know that this minimum wage increase is too much too soon, and will bring more harm than good.

Those who eat this kind of thing up with relish respond to the Cobourg Tim Hortons story with know-it-all glee, “Of course this is happening. You zigged, they zagged, nothing will ever change. Stop trying.” In the face of this nihilism, I think it’s important to remind ourselves of the enormity of what’s been won through Bill 148, and think through the ways in which we can continue to exercise our collective political power in 2018, to seize upon this political moment and build on what has been already gained.

Against the political nihilists, we should remember that the power of employers to “zag” is actually pretty limited—Bill 148 has raised the bar for the bulk of low-wage workers in Ontario. Workers will now enjoy ten job-protected personal emergency leave days (two of which will paid), greater scheduling protections, and hundreds of new dollars will be going in to workers pockets every month. Whatever forms of retaliation an employer wants to take over the minimum wage increase is limited by this newly improved Employment Standards Act. This is not to minimize the losses experienced by the Cobourg workers, but only to suggest that working conditions in Ontario will be improving in ways that employers can’t touch.

Furthermore, the power of employers to “zag” by ruthlessly increasing prices is also limited by their desire to remain competitive and to avoid alienating its customers. They will certainly push as far as they think they can get away with on prices. But it is in our power to let them know that the limit to our tolerance is lower than they might hope. Unfortunately, price increases disproportionately effect those on fixed incomes, and so we should be intolerant to the extent that we appreciate this!

In the meantime, what can we do as allies to minimum wage workers? Firstly, we can be prepared to respond when a local employer is caught punishing their workers for the minimum wage increase. When a local employer “zags” publicly, we should respond just as publicly with letters to the editors, strategic rallies and canvassing session.

We’re seeing events of this kind organized in Cobourg and in Dundas by the Northumberland, Durham, and Hamilton and District Labour Councils. Additionally, the labour council in Ottawa has taken the proactive step of reaching out to workers to share their stories of “zagging” by setting up a bully boss tip-line. The Kingston labour council is following suit with an e-mail address. In these styles of activity, it is important that we respect the trust workers place in us by ensuring that they are involved and have a say in if and how solidarity actions are held. With the workers’ go-ahead, let’s be loud and uncompromising in our outrage at this behaviour, and put a scare into other would-be bully bosses.

We can also work towards limiting the “zagging” power of businesses by empowering workers themselves to dictate the terms of employment under which they work, with as powerful a voice as possible. We should ask ourselves why workers in so many food-service, minimum wage jobs are not unionized right now, and ask what we can do to make this option more accessible.

Are myths about unions being “outdated” too dominant? Do younger low-wage workers understand what unions are or how to form one? One aspect of the work to be done going forward might be to put on workshops and produce materials discussing basic workplace rights (especially the new rights won through Bill 148) and outlining the basic first steps to and things to know when trying to form a union in one’s own workplace.

Does the two-stage process of unionization prevent successful organizing drives in the food service industry such that expanding card-check certification would help? Would the power of food-service unions be more substantial if sectoral bargaining were available? Then we need to think about how to advocate for changes to the Labour Relations Act that remove these barriers. While card-check certification was won back for certain industries (building services and home care), it would make unionization more accessible if it were extended to all workers.

Let’s ask ourselves what needs to change in order for the workers at the Tim Hortons in Cobourg to be able to demand paid breaks through collective bargaining (if that’s something they want to fight for) rather than receiving them at the mercy of their employer!

The Fight for $15 and Fairness continues—join (or start) your local chapter to help build our collective power to fight back against bully bosses and empower workers!

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