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The growing fight for $15 & Fairness

By: 
Pam Frache

May 25, 2016

Since its relatively modest beginnings in the fall of 2012 when a handful of fast food workers in New York and Chicago walked off the job, the Fight for $15 has spread to more than 300 US cities and inspired a global movement—including across Canada and Quebec.

In Canada, the Fight for $15 & Fairness grew out of Ontario’s successful Campaign to Raise the Minimum Wage, a labour-community alliance that launched a $14 minimum wage campaign just as the Fight for $15 was emerging in the US. Within a year, the Ontario campaign had forced the Liberal minority government to implement a 75-cent increase in the general adult minimum wage and promise to adopt legislation that would modify the wage each year to keep up with rising prices (indexation). As a result, the minimum wage will be adjusted every October 1 to reflect changes in the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The first 25-cent adjustment took effect on October 1, 2015. The 2016 adjustment of 15 cents will bring Ontario’s general adult minimum wage to $11.40. Of course, workers need far more than $11.40 an hour, but these modest gains show that, when workers fight as a class, they can win.

Just as importantly, the Campaign to Raise the Minimum Wage opened up an important public conversation about the nature of work, especially for non-union workers who comprise over 70 per cent of the workforce in Ontario. Because it is virtually impossible to talk about wages without also talking about the other factors that conspire to create bad jobs, the Campaign to Raise the Minimum Wage helped crystalize the conversation about decent work. It also put pressure on the Liberal government – returned as a majority government in June 2014 – to go beyond mere tinkering with the minimum wage to adopt legislative changes that would better protect workers. Bill 18, adopted in November 2014, implemented small, but important, measures  to mitigate wage theft, make temporary agencies jointly responsible with their client companies for wages, and extend some modest protections to migrant workers.

But, rather than deflating the movement, every concession offered by the government has served to widen the public conversation about precarious employment and increase pressure on the government to go further. This dynamic helps explain why the Liberals felt compelled to launch a comprehensive review of both the Employment Standards Act (which sets out minimum employment standards for non-union workers) and the Labour Relations Act (which governs the way workers form unions, as well as the way in which employers and unionized workers interact).   

At the same time, major breakthroughs in the US Fight for $15 movement were generating excitement in Canada. In 2013, the Seattle suburb of SeaTac voted in a referendum to adopt labour legislation (ordinance) that raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour, provided a modest number of paid sick days, instituted fair scheduling with advance notice, mandated employers to offer work hours to existing employees before bringing in new hires, and more. Central to the campaign’s success were strong labour-community alliances that sought to draw workers outside the organized labour movement into a broad working-class campaign to win better working conditions for all workers in the jurisdiction.

Meanwhile, just next door in Seattle, the socialist Kshama Sawant put the Fight for $15 at the heart of her municipal election campaign, successfully ousting an incumbent Democrat city councilor and generating widespread enthusiasm for a $15 minimum wage ordinance that would include important additional provisions to stem the growth of precarious jobs in Seattle.

Fight for $15 and Fairness

In keeping with the growing momentum in the US and in light of the pending Changing Workplaces Review in Ontario, the Campaign to Raise the Minimum Wage re-launched under the auspices of the Fight for $15 & Fairness, where Fairness means:

·      seven paid sick days;

·      an adequate number of paid hours;

·      fair scheduling with advance notice;

·      better protections from reprisals when workers speak up for their rights or organize unions;

·      proactive and publicly-provided enforcement of laws combined with stiffer penalties for employers found to be violating laws;

·      an end to ESA exemptions that leave so many workers without the minimum legislative protections;

·      an end to contract flipping that undermines workers’ wages, benefits and access to unions; and

·      many other other measures that would make it easier for workers to organize and unionize for better work.

The Changing Workplaces Review is the most comprehensive review of Ontario labour and employment law in a generation. By reviewing both Acts at the same time, the government has presented the workers’ movement with an extraordinary opportunity to face off against the 1% as a united forcenot one that is weakened by the artificial divisions between union and non-union workers. It provides workers with an incredible opportunity to build meaningful working-class solidarity, renew and extend rank-and-file networks inside and outside the unions, improve the political terrain for workers, win meaningful reformsand, in doing so, build the skills, experience and confidence of all workers for the struggles that lie ahead.

Renewing and rebuilding rank-and-file networks

Today, many labour-led campaigns rely heavily on officials in a top down model where the official leadership develops the strategy and members are deployed to attend pre-determined meetings, forums or rallies. However necessary these efforts are, it is not unusual for these kinds of campaigns to start and stop abruptly. And despite impressive mass meetings underpinned by paid book-offs and per diems, all too often very little independent activity is sustained in the wake of such impressive forums.

A campaign like the Fight for $15 and Fairness can be a bridge between the energy created at the large forums and the crucially-needed, ongoing work of building an engaged, network of rank-and-file workers, both within their own workplaces and among other workers.

Because the Fight for $15 and Fairness is predicated on workers’ own self-activity, workers can run with the campaign regardless of whether workers occupy official positions within their organizations or whether their union or students’ union has officially endorsed the campaign. Union and non-union workers alike can use the campaign tools to talk to their co-workers and neighbours about the need to organize for better working conditions, and in doing so, learn skills and hone their analysis in a way that makes them better fighters for the next round of collective bargaining. Do wage increases cause inflation? Will all the jobs just move away? How do temp agencies undermine workers solidarity? Do unions hurt the economy? How do workers form unions and why is a secret ballot to unionize not fair in the context of a workplace? By learning how to answer these and other tricky questions, the Fight for $15 and Fairness offers socialists, trade unionists and non-union fighters a chance to identify a network of serious activists inside and outside the unions who can form the basis of a new rank-and-file network that is already active and not dependent on official leadership.

For Marxists, it is a rare occasion to be part of a campaign that builds local capacity while feeding a global movement. It's the kind of campaign that builds working-class solidarity across workplaces, across sectors and across borders in a way that lends itself to socialist ideas and offers a wider audience for socialist publications. In short, it’s an opportunity to increase the number of organized socialists in workplaces, in unions, on campuses and in communities everywhere.

For more information about the campaign visit: www.15andFairness.org.

To get involved in the Fight for $15 and Fairness in Ontario, email Fightfor15andFairness@gmail.com and let them know where you want to plug-in.

There will also be sessions on the Fight for $15 at the World Social Forum in August 2016; for more information visit: fsm2016.org.

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