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Ford and the fight for $15 and fairness

By: 
Jesse McLaren

September 23, 2018

The situation looks dire. On Sept 7 the Chamber of Commerce called the immediate repeal of all of 148. On Sept 14 the Labour Minister promised to stop $15/hr min wage. Any day the government will move to revoke Bill 148, and with a majority government who can stop them?

There are three common reactions: 1) we don’t need to fight because reforms can’t be rolled back, 2) we can’t fight because they are too powerful, or 3) someone else will fight for us, like elected officials or the courts.

But the experience of the past year—from the passing of Bill 148, to the backlash against $15, and the election—shows that gains can be won or ripped away, and what matters is not the composition inside the legislature but the movements outside.

Legislation: Bill 148

That we even have $15 and Fairness demands to defend is a victory for movement. As the Ontario Restaurant, Hotel and Motel Association, the industry group lobbying to keep hotel workers in poverty, explained “On May 30, 2017, Ontario’s hospitality industry was in disbelief when the provincial government announced the proposed legislation of Bill 148, which included a raise in minimum wage to $14/hr come January 1, 2018 and $15/hr on January 1, 2019…The minimum wage was not reviewed in the changing workplaces review and took many industries and businesses by surprise.”

Big businesses felt betrayed. The Liberals were the party of Bay Street, and had increased tuition, closed hospitals, ignored climate crisis and repeatedly frozen the minimum wage. When it came to the Changing Workplaces Review they repeatedly said that raising the minimum wage was “out of scope”.

One reaction was to accept their terms and not fight to raise minimum wage. Another reaction was to hope that the NDP would save the day. But they have opposed the prior call for the $14/hr minimum wage, repeating the line that it harms small business. Instead there was a broad fight for $15 and fairness—including York food service workers whose strike won $15/hr and fought back against Islamophobia and anti-Black racism at work.

It was the movement that put $15 on the agenda and fought for fairness and that pushed the Liberals to introduce Bill 148 in May. This provoked another series of reactions.

One was to see this as a done deal, but simply introducing legislation did not guarantee it was pass. There was an immediate corporate backlash, like the Toronto Sun that proclaimed, “The premier’s approval of an extraordinary 32% hike in the minimum wage — to $15 dollars an hour by 2019 — has created a union-like dystopia that will leave employers looking for the nearest exit… what the government seeks to curtail — that being precarious, contract employment — will flourish.”

The backlash could make some assume we couldn't win or to place hopes in the NDP. But they dismissed Bill 148 as a Liberal election ploy rather than leading a fight to support and extend the gains.

So the movement continued mobilizing to pass Bill 148 and to support the broader movement, like striking college faculty. Bill 148 was a huge victory for the movement. Not only a major minimum wage increase the 1% had fought against—and the Liberals had said was out of scope—but also PEL days, equal pay, fairer scheduling, and easier unionization.

Despite six months of media backlash against the higher minimum wage, Angus Reid poll in December found 60% people across Ontario support $15/hr—including two thirds of women (who are disproportionately paid minimum wage), and even 40% of Conservative voters. And in January the higher minimum wage was the law of the land

Economic backlash

We’re all told we have to follow the law so one reaction was to celebrate the victory and move on.  But when the 1%’s ideological backlash failed to stop the legislation they then launched an economic backlash against low wage workers.

On January 1, the minimum wage increased, and on January 3 news broke that Tim Hortons franchises were cutting paid breaks and benefits. This was not just a random mom and pop independent business but the billionaire heirs to Tim Hortons fortune, who sent the memo of the clawbacks from their winter resort in Florida—not only reversed the wage increase but lowered overall pay lower than before. So the figurehead of one of Canada’s most iconic business chains was punishing their low wage workers—predominantly people of colour—for a pay raise to undermine workers confidence to fight for more and encourage other employers to do the same

This seemed like unbeatable odds but there was an explosion of opposition against Tim Hortons—which the 15 and fairness campaign organized into a series of actions, including occupations of Tim Hortons stores to show support for Tim Hortons workers.

This tarnished Tim Hortons reputation, pushed others to reverse clawbacks and encouraged others to proudly support higher wage. JJ Bean Coffee Roasters increased wages for all workers earning less than $20 prompting the Financial Post to observe that  “Ontario minimum wage hike having ‘trickle up’ effect on paycheques of higher earners”—showing that all workers benefit from minimum wage increase

Election

Failing to stop the legislation, meeting backlash against claw backs at work, the 1% then put their faith in electoral change. But here they faced a problem: the last election Tim Hudak promised 100,000 jobs losses, the only job loss he secured was his own.

To win the Tory nomination Ford spoke to their base—railing against sex ed, abortion, refugees, the climate and promising the stop the $15/hr minimum wage. But if he campaigned on stopping the $15/hr minimum wage he would alienate the 40% of Conservative voters who support it. So instead he campaigned on populist slogans about being “premier for the people” supporting the little guy against the elites at Queen’s Park. Despite new claims that the Tories are fulfilling their promise to freeze the wage, they never campaigned on this and voters never voted for this.

Ford’s fake populism would have disintegrated had he been confronted on $15 minimum wage. But neither the Liberals nor the NDP did so. Three times the leaders debated and three times there was silence on the most significant minimum wage increase across North America.

For the Liberals they still wanted to stay loyal to their Bay Street base so they attacked the NDP for defending striking college workers. And the Liberals couldn’t defend minimum for all because kept loopholes that provide lower minimum wage for students and liquor store and no minimum wage provisions for farm workers.

For the NDP they had opposed the $14/hr minimum wage last election, were late to supporting $15 and fairness and were worried that any support would build the liberals instead. NDP governments in power also tend to conform to the status quo like BC NDP who were elected to raise the wage to $15 but instead delayed it.

So the campaign pushed all parties to support $15 and Fairness, exposed Ford’s opposition to it, and organized a rally the week following the election—to push whoever was elected to support $15 and fairness. Like the contradictions of Trump’s election, Ford was elected while at the same time support for $15/hr has increased to two thirds of people and 42% of Conservative voters.

Ford government

But the 1% is wasting no time asking for swift action against low wage workers. Ford was elected evening of June 7. At 7:20am on June 8, Financial Post published the article “Now let’s undo the damage of Wynne’s cruel and unfair minimum-wage crusade” claiming poverty wages are a form of social justice:

“The best thing the new government can do for these disadvantaged workers who are unable to sell their labour for $14 hourly, is to exempt them from the law that bans them from charging employers less. But it is not only disabled workers who should be exempted from minimum-wage laws. Other workers face disadvantages through no fault of their own that make it difficult for them to sell their labour for $14. There are immigrants who might not be fluent in English. Or seniors confronted by ageism. There are workers whose skills have become obsolete. Really, anyone who can’t demand $14 an hour for his or her labour should be automatically exempted from the $14 an hour minimum wage.”

This shows how conscious the 1% is about using oppression to sharpen exploitation—to drive down the wages of disabled, migrant and older workers and to divide and conquer the working class as a whole. Now Ford wants to move against $15 minimum wage and all the other gains of Bill 148, and the Tories have a majority inside the legislature. But they don’t have a majority outside, and they don’t have a mandate for austerity.

If you look at the election results, 40% of people didn’t vote at all—an understandable reaction to the record of prior governments. Of those who did vote, 60% voted for parties who supported $15 min wage, and of those who voted for Ford, 42% continue to support the $15/hr minimum wage. If you look at the vote for corporate parties the combined Liberal/Conservative vote declined while the NDP vote increased. It now has a large opposition—including many activists who have been working closely with campaign, who were part of the June 16 rally and have since presented petitions in support of $15 and fairness in the legislature.

Ford will move against Bill 148 any day now, provoking another series of reactions. Some thought we would never have to defend $15 and fairness because Ford never campaigned against these issues. This includes the 42% of tory voters, many of them workers angry at years of Liberal austerity who support $15/hr and took Ford at his word that he would support people. These people can be mobilized to defend $15/hr—not if we dismiss them as stupid Ford voters but if we mobilize on class lines.

Some say we can’t fight because Ford is all powerful, judging by the composition of the legislature. This ignores every victory the campaign has achieved—from putting $15 on the agenda when the Liberals didn’t want it, to winning Bill 148 amidst a media backlash, to defending workers from the Tim Hortons billionaires, to widespread mobilizing after the election—including 20 actions last weekend asking to Ford to fulfill the only promise he made during the campaign and what people actually voted for: stand up to corporate elites, which means protecting the $15 minimum wage and new workplace rights of Bill 148.

Some say we have to put our faith in change from above—from proportional representation, to legal challenges, to next election. But it wasn’t PR that won Bill 148, it wasn’t a legal challenge that defended Tim Hortons workers or won for York food service workers, the recent election didn’t challenge Ford on the minimum wage, and we can’t wait another four years.

Every gain the movement has won has been from below through organizing, petitions, demonstrations, strikes, occupations—uniting non-unionized/unionized workers, students, community members and trying to push the NDP to be a megaphone for the movement. The same strategy that won partial victory on $15 and Fairness is being magnified in the coming days and weeks to defend and extend these gains.

Visit 15andfairness.org for updates

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