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The Fight for $15 & Fairness isn’t over. It’s just gearing up

By: 
Pam Frache

August 5, 2017

Bill 148, the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, has been referred to the parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs. Over 10 days in July in 10 different cities, the Committee heard deputations on the Bill. In August, the Committee will review the Bill “clause-by-clause” to decide what, if any, amendments will be made to the legislation.

While supporters of the Fight for $15 and Fairness are calling for important amendments—such as eliminating the sub-minimum wage rates for students and liquor servers, strengthening the language for equal pay for equal work, improving the scheduling provisions, adding more paid leave days and simplifying the process by which workers join unions—the ruling class is not rolling over so quickly.

Business backlash

The Ontario Chamber of Commerce is peddling the myth that improving workers’ wages harms the economy. Because corporations fund most news outlets via advertising, they have more success generating stories than we do. Since Bill 148 was tabled, the majority of headlines scream varying age-old doomsday scenarios. In addition, we have good reason to believe that the Ontario Chamber of Commerce is preparing a multi-million dollar campaign to attack head-on the contents of the Bill. Make no mistake: when it comes to defending corporate profits, the ruling class has no hesitation to discipline its own.

That’s why we need to redouble our efforts in the Fight for $15 and Fairness.

We need to know that there is, by no means, a consensus on Bill 148 within the Liberal caucus. Those who have met with Liberal MPPs, or who watched the Committee hearings, know the “wide range of opinion” about Bill 148, even within the governing party. There are MPPs who would be more than happy to distance themselves from Bill 148, should it become unpopular with the public. Let’s not forget that the Liberals are the party that cancelled gas plants on the eve of an election in response to widespread opposition.

Those who have been out talking to workers since the Bill has been tabled know that workers themselves are by no means confident about the impact these changes will have. Owners, employers, and managers have been threatening workers in the workplace, telling them their business will have to lay off staff, cut hours, and/or eliminate paid breaks. Some employers are saying they will go bankrupt. This has had the effect of undermining workers’ confidence to fight for the changes they deserve. This is understandable because, for most workers, the only thing worse than a horrible job is no job at all.

Arm with ideas

Our outreach since the Bill was tabled suggests ordinary workers are excited about the possibility of higher wages, but want to equip themselves with the analysis needed to challenge the corporate narrative of economic doom, even if they are nervous about employer threats and intimidation. That's why we need to use the weeks ahead to spread the word, raise awareness, and systematically arm workers with the tools and analysis they need to defend their rights to decent work.

Like any exercise in unionizing a workplace, knowing what the employer will do before it happens is crucial in preparing, inoculating, and equipping workers to stand their ground.

There is also a palpable class anger that is starting to find an outlet, and it’s most visible on social media. As this article goes to press, a sharable graphic from the Fight for $15 and Fairness, highlighting Galen Weston Jr.’s $8 billion in personal wealth just after he was quoted opposing a $15 minimum wage for workers, has gone viral, reaching more than 230,000 people on Facebook. To date, this is the campaign’s most popular post.

Prior to this, an op-ed by economists published in the Globe and Mail (and the full open letter signed by 53 economists published in the Progressive Economics Forum) and a subsequent Toronto Star article had been among the campaign’s most popular posts. Since then, a detailed article explaining why there is no direct link between wages and prices reached 26,000 and was shared over 200 times.

Although anecdotal, this data suggest that thousands of ordinary people are beginning to engage in a conversation about the economy, how it works, and in whose interest. A Marxist understanding of the economy is an invaluable tool to intervene to build workers’ confidence and consciousness.

Although the $15 minimum wage has been the lightning rod for the corporate opposition, it is also crucial to know that there is much more at stake in Bill 148. For example, the Bill provides two paid leave days for workers – the first such paid leave. Of course, we are fighting for more but many workers, including unionized workers, still have no paid leave in their contracts and even this modest number will benefit union and non-union workers alike.

Similarly, the equal pay provisions in the legislation between full-time, part-time, and temporary workers have huge potential to close the equity pay gap because, as we know women, workers of colour, and newcomers are over-represented in part-time work. This provision of the Bill has the potential to impact unionized workers as well, since many unions have not, on their own, been able to eliminate the wage gap between full-time and part-time workers. And of course, equal pay for temporary agency workers and directly-hired workers could be a body blow to the temporary staffing industry, by eliminating the financial incentives for companies to use them.

It’s no wonder that business interests are up in arms.

Socialists must not underestimate the impact of ruling class effort to undermine support for a decent work agenda and the extent to which it can put Bill 148 at risk now – or after the next election. It isn't just a matter of passing the Bill. The terms on which any reform advances – or falters – really matters.

Provincial politics

If the ruling class is successful in weakening workers’ support for decent work, or if Bill 148 is perceived as a disaster or disappointment shoved down the throats of Ontarians, then Patrick Brown and the Tories will be more likely to capture anti-Liberal sentiment.

On the other hand, if Bill 148 is understood as a win for workers with more work still to do, it builds workers’ confidence to keep fighting and lays the foundation for a much bolder vision that could come from the Ontario NDP in advance of the next election.

Unfortunately, the Ontario NDP caucus has been less than effective in capturing the class anger that is expressing itself in the campaign. So far, the ONDP has been largely silent or attacking the bill, albeit from left-wing perspective. They claim the Liberals “stole” their idea of the $15 minimum wage, instead of crediting the movement for putting it on the table. By denouncing Bill 148 as a "cheap election ploy" on the part of Liberals, instead of a victory won by workers, they are inadvertently replicating the very same messaging peddled by the Chamber of Commerce and the Tories, thereby erasing the movement (which includes rank-and-file NDP members) that forced the Liberals’ hand in the first place.

Unions

Within the organized labour movement, there are also dangers.

Some are repeating the narrative that Bill 148 is nothing but a cheap election ploy that delivers little for working people. This is a tactical error. Not only does it reinforce the ruling-class account, it also minimizes and discredits the work of thousands of people across Ontario who have fought for years to make these demands real. Instead of showing that resistance is effective, this storyline implies that resistance delivers nothing meaningful. Again, this plays into the hands of our opponents.

This narrative also hides the extent to which union contracts will be affected by changes in the wage floor. Unions currently engaged in collective bargaining should pay attention to the way in which Bill 148 – if adopted – will impact their contracts, from scheduling and paid leave days to equal pay provisions and minimum wages. Indeed, with support for a $15 minimum wage at an all-time high (64 per cent in Ontario, and over 70 per cent in Toronto), there is no reason any unionized worker should be working for less than $15 an hour. Now is the time for the organized labour movement to bring workers to $15 immediately, just as the Unite Here Local 75 workers and the Mississauga library workers were able to do.

There’s also another danger: that some will see Bill 148 as a “done deal” and move on to other issues, thereby squandering the momentum we have to really advance a decent work agenda. In particular, some union leaders are dropping the reference to the $15 minimum wage and the Fight for $15 and Fairness. Likewise, this is a mistake. Even if we win the legislation that implements a $15 minimum wage in January 2019 – there is an election standing between workers and this new minimum wage. Although embedding the wage rate in legislation does give some modest protection to workers, there is nothing preventing a majority government of any stripe to repeal or amend progressive legislation as we saw in the mid-1990s when the Tory Mike Harris defeated the Bob Rae NDP government in the mid-1990s.

Build the movement

Despite the high stakes, there is every reason to believe that our side can win this battle of interpretation. As noted previously, polls show that 64 per cent of Ontarians (including over 60 per cent of small- and medium-sized business owners) support a $15 or higher minimum wage. This is a product of the movement’s success. But there is nothing at all automatic that this sentiment will remain intact or even grow. That’s why it’s urgent that we use every opportunity to intervene with politics in our workplaces, unions, campuses and communities to strengthen, grow, and organize resistance in the face of the ruling-class attacks.
 

For more visit 15andfairness.org

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