A rally supporting $15 minimum wage occurred in Toronto on Saturday. Ontario premier-designate Doug Ford has said he will cap the minimum hourly wage at $14.
By Nick Saul
With budget top of mind for Ontario voters, it’s time to talk about who’s winning and who’s losing in our economy. The evidence couldn’t be clearer: the divide between the rich and poor continues to widen. And many of us who are doing well simply have no clue how poor our neighbours are.
Or maybe the problem isn’t that we don’t know, it’s that we think living in poverty is a lifestyle choice. We blame people who are poor for shoddy budgeting or getting themselves into bad situations.
At Community Food Centres Canada, we know this couldn’t be further from the truth. Every day, we see people like Nicole, who emigrated here as a young single mom and worked as a housekeeper, a telemarketer, and a caregiver but, with rent and child care, still couldn’t make ends meet.
While charities like Community Food Centres provide programs and supports that help people like Nicole, the real solutions for poverty and food insecurity lie in the hands of government.
That’s why we need to pay close attention to the parties’ policy ideas and ask ourselves if their positions on issues like housing, social assistance, child care and wages will help everyone — or further undermine the health and well-being of low-income Ontarians.
Which is why we’re so concerned about the Progressive Conservative resolution to cancel the minimum wage increase to $15 per hour, replacing it with a tax cut for low-income workers. This will leave the nearly 9 per cent of Ontarians making minimum wage even farther outside the fold, and could cut yearly incomes by up to $712.
That’s bad news for the 595,000 Ontario households that can’t afford to put food on the table. Despite the exhausted adage that people living in poverty need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, nearly 60 per cent of those households rely on wages as their primary source of income.
It’s a problem for us all because the costs associated with poverty are downloaded onto our overburdened health care system, our economy, and, by association, onto Ontario taxpayers. Research shows that food insecurity significantly increases health care costs, and that income inequality slows growth. We’re doing our economy no favours by leaving our neighbours in the dust.
For many of us, a yearly earnings reduction of $712 may not sound like a big deal. But the difference between a $15 minimum wage and a $14 minimum wage (even with a tax cut) is about equal to three months’ worth of nutritious food — no laughing matter for those who often go without.
So let’s make sure that, in addition to the economy, equality takes a starring role in this upcoming election.
When politicians in this critical election come knocking on your door, I hope you’ll tell them that, regardless of political stripe, we need them talking about ideas and policies that bring us together rather than pull us apart. We are all better off when we stand together.
Nick Saul is president and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada.
'Once our politicians get elected, they don't come and talk to the men and women on the street'
Residents of Toronto's Jane and Finch neighbourhood crowded into a gymnasium on Tuesday night to find out what four provincial election candidates will do about their concerns.
Held at the Driftwood Community Centre, the meeting was organized by the Jane Finch Toronto Strong Neighbourhoods Task Force and it was an opportunity for residents and community groups to highlight key issues in the community.
Residents pressed candidates on what they would do to address their issues.
Progressive Conservative candidate Cyma Musarat, New Democrat Tom Rakocevic, Liberal candidate Deanna Sgro and Trillium Party candidate Lucy Guerrero were there.
Here are five issues residents highlighted:
Minimum wage and workers' rights.
Winston LaRose, a member of the Jane Finch Concerned Citizens Organization, or "Mr. Jane and Finch," as he says he is known, said the Jane and Finch community is often overlooked by politicians.
'These are the forgotten people'
"These are the forgotten people," he said. "Once our politicians get elected, they don't come and talk to the men and women on the street, or I'd say in the housing, because that's where they're located."
For LaRose, the state and recent closures of Toronto Community Housing buildings were top of mind.
"We must talk about people living on Shoreham Court, living on Driftwood Court, those in Grand Ravine, those in places like Firgrove, which most of the politicians don't want to go to."
Community housing was also on the mind of local tenant representative Amanda Coombs, who said access to fresh food was one of her key concerns.
"Inside of the food banks, a lot of the foods they receive are canned goods and full of preservatives," she said.
Politicians often out of touch, say some
When it comes to everyday issues, she said, most politicians are out of touch. Coombs is one resident who remains undecided about which party will receive her support.
"I just really hope that whoever is elected is really somebody who sees from the inside out and not from the outside in."
High school teacher Dennis Keshinro said improvements to education are especially important to the riding, which is diverse. Keshinro said he wants to see the next government do a better job of focusing on the needs of students of immigrant backgrounds who may be pushed from grade to grade without being properly equipped for the curriculum.
"When we have 10 students going to school and we only have five and three graduating, that's a huge problem," he said.
Keshinro said he's watching the candidates carefully, but isn't disclosing which one has won him over.
Education was also a concern for community advocate Suzanne Narain of Jane and Finch Action Against Poverty.
"Many of the families in this neighbourhood are immigrant families and education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty, but we see that there are increasing class sizes, less support for special ed," she said.
With just over a week to go until election day, Narain said she knows which party will be getting her vote, but she's concerned about what she calls "professional politicians" telling the community what's best for them without having real experience living in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood.
"One of the problems that we see in many elections is that we see people say that they're for the people or that they want to advocate for the people but they are actually of the elite… they make it see like they care about the livelihood and dignity of poor people when they are not."
Ultimately, LaRose said he hopes this election will galvanize those in the community who lack representation in government to exercise their right to vote.
"You get out there and cast your vote," he said. "Make sure your voices are heard and well-represented."
By Naureen Rizvi
Workers in Ontario have fought long and hard for the $15-an-hour minimum wage, and there is no good reason to delay the increase. With data coming in since the January 2018 increase, it’s clear that improving standards for all workers helps our province.
Shortly after the government tabled Bill 148, Ontarians began to see a steady stream of ominous headlines about the negative consequences of a $15 minimum wage. Some critics warned that the size and speed of the increase would almost certainly lead to large-scale job losses and runaway inflation.
These apocalyptic predications have not come true since the changes were enacted. Workers knew that by raising standards, we would all benefit.
When we compare Ontario’s labour market with other large Canadian provinces, zeroing in on those segments where minimum wage workers are over-represented found that Ontario’s job numbers did not significantly underperform provinces with stagnant minimum wages.
In the first four months of 2018 Ontario’s overall number of jobs contracted by one per cent, which was in line with Quebec (also one per cent) and the Canada-wide average (0.9 per cent).
Workers aged 15 to 24 in Ontario, who are over-represented in minimum-wage work; saw a 4.4 per cent reduction in their employment, which was slightly above the Canada-wide average (4.1 per cent) but below the average in British Columbia (6.5 per cent).
As for inflation, prices across Canada rose by 1.9 per cent over the past four months. In Ontario, the figure is only marginally higher at 2.1 per cent.
These numbers are not indicative of catastrophe. If an elevated minimum wage did not lead to significant job losses or high levels of inflation, what did it do?
It changed lives. In Ontario, average hourly earnings are up 8 per cent in retail and over 9 per cent in accommodation and food services. These figures dramatically outpaced other provinces.
Ontario-wide, the average wage rate is up by 2.1 per cent in the first four months of the year, which is 50 per cent higher than the Canadian average.
What’s special about this growth is that it’s combatting income inequality. The growth is concentrated in the lower part of income distribution, and it actually increased median wage growth. I cannot stress how rare this is, and how important.
It’s simply not fair for people in Ontario to go to work every day and still not be able to afford rent or groceries for their families. Paying all workers an increased minimum wage is the first step towards addressing this inequality, though that’s not where it ends.
Both the NDP and the Liberals have committed to increasing the minimum wage to the legislated $15 an hour in January 2019.
Andrea Horwath’s NDP further pledged to expand the higher minimum wage to apply to servers, students under 18, homeworkers and all other workers who are currently carved out from the increase and allowed to be paid an even lower amount.
Ontario PC leader Doug Ford, on the other hand, is still trying to sell the corporate line that a higher wage will decimate the economy, and vowed to freeze the minimum wage at $14 an hour, depriving hundreds of thousands of workers of a scheduled pay raise. Even coupled with his tax scheme this could cost minimum wage earners $800 a year.
Ontarians have a stark choice to make about what kind of government we want to elect on June 7. I hope voters choose a party that is able to look at the facts in front of it and create a platform that works for working people. Because it is clear, there is no good reason to freeze the minimum wage.
Naureen Rizvi is Unifor Ontario regional director.
By Sara Mojtehedzadeh
Job creation is an evergreen campaign promise, but as for your rights on the job — well, they don’t tend to be a wedge issue.
That’s what Navi Aujla hopes to change this time around.
“I think there’s a lot of myths around, if we increase the quality of jobs it’s going to lead to job loss. I think it puts a fear in folks that asking for what we deserve is going to put us out of work,” says the 26-year-old organizer with the Fight for $15 movement.
Low pay and temp-agency work are common in her community, the Brampton native says. She’s experienced it first hand — and wants political candidates to take note.
“At one factory we were made to race against each other and you feel like you have no choice to try and win that race because they may not call you back,” she recalls. “There’s constant threatening going on — ‘if you don’t make this many pieces, we’re not going to call you back tomorrow.’ ”
Around one-third of Ontario’s workforce are vulnerable workers in precarious employment, according to a report by two independent special advisers appointed by the province. A study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) found in 2015 that Ontario’s low-wage workforce grew by 94 per cent over two decades, vastly outstripping the growth in total employment, which grew by 30 per cent.
After a two-year review of the province’s labour standards, the Liberals prefaced election season with reforms tackling precarious work, including a pledge to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2019, starting with a boost from $11.60 an hour to $14 in January.
Bill 148, introduced in November, represented the most significant changes to Ontario’s employment laws in decades. It mandated equal pay for temp, casual and part-time workers doing similar work to permanent employees, provided all workers with a minimum of two paid emergency leave days, and gave them the right to refuse a shift if the request is made with less than four days’ notice. It also doubled the Ministry of Labour’s complement of employment standards officers to improve enforcement.
Outgoing labour minister Kevin Flynn says the province’s most vulnerable workers are feeling the difference.
“Where you’re seeing the changes are the places where it was needed the most, it’s the places that just stick to the bare minimum or sometimes avoid the bare minimum,” he told the Star.
Rising labour costs led some in the business community to warn that wage increases would lead to job losses. So far, Flynn says, that has not come to pass. Employment in Ontario increased by 10,600 jobs in March with a gain in full-time positions.
“Jobs are still being created,” he said.
If elected, Flynn said his party will continue to review the existing “patchwork” of exemptions to Ontario’s workplace laws that leave some professions without any basic protections, a process that kicked off after Bill 148 passed in November. He says he’s also committed to improving occupational disease victims’ access to workers’ compensation, and to looking at ways to reduce violence against workers in the health-care and education sectors.
Like the Liberals, the NDP have committed to a $15 hourly minimum by 2019, and say they will remove exemptions for students and liquor servers who currently make a lower minimum wage.
Their platform promises three weeks’ holiday to every worker. (The Liberals introduced a new three-week entitlement for employees with five years of service at a company.) The NDP has also pledged to set up a task force to “remove barriers between injured workers and the compensation they deserve,” and to reintroduce card-based certification to make it easier for workers to unionize. Unlike the Liberals, the party says it will not use back-to-work legislation to end strikes.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath says prescription drug and dental coverage are also key for workers in an insecure economy.
“We need to address the holes (precarious work) creates in the ability of people to stay healthy,” she told the Star.
“They talk a good game about there being lots of jobs,” Horwath said of her rival parties. “But is the economy really working for people?”
The Greens, meanwhile, note that the province’s social safety nets “were not designed for an economy with so many contract, freelance, precarious and temporary jobs” and offer up a guaranteed basic income as one solution — an approach advocated by some precarious-work experts and piloted in Ontario by the Liberals.
“A Basic Income Guarantee will provide the economic security people need to be entrepreneurs, to be able to afford retraining or to experience gaps in work without falling into poverty,” the Green platform says.
Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford has said he will freeze the minimum wage at $14, and will instead eliminate provincial income tax for everyone earning below $30,000.
Ford declined an interview request but in an emailed statement, spokesperson Melissa Lantsman said “folks struggling to make ends meet” needed help.
“That’s why Doug said that under a PC government, if you are making minimum wage, you are going to pay no income tax at all. That’s our plan for Ontario. That’s our plan to put more money in your pocket. No matter where you work in Ontario, if you are making minimum wage you won’t pay a single cent in income tax.”
Income taxes are partly levied by the federal government, so Ford’s plan could only eliminate the provincial portion of low-wage earners’ income tax.
The party’s platform, released Wednesday, also says a Ford government would reform the province’s foreign credential recognition process to “help qualified immigrants come to Ontario and contribute to the economy to their fullest potential immediately.”
In response to a question asking if the Progressive Conservatives would keep intact the other worker protections introduced in Bill 148 — including equal pay for temps and paid emergency-leave days — Lantsman said a PC government “will work with businesses and unions to ensure that these changes work for everyone.”
According to an analysis by the CCPA, a higher minimum wage as promised by the Liberals and NDP leaves low-wage workers $1,500 richer than they would be under Ford’s taxation plan.
Economist Armine Yalnizyan, who recently co-authored a report called Race to the Top, which tackles how to make economic growth inclusive, says the Ford platform offers a narrative that may be comfortingly familiar — cut taxes and let businesses generate jobs and prosperity.
But she says the trickle-down growth mantra is a “social experiment that failed to deliver on its own terms,” given rising inequality and job insecurity across developed economies.
“There are a lot of people who are preaching the zombie policies of the 1980s and ’90s,” Yalnizyan says.
She sees two policies as being the real key to a better life for workers. One is a decent minimum wage — one that is “anchored at 60 per cent of the average wage.” (By this measure, even the proposed $15 minimum wage would be $1.50 shy of the mark.)
The second is sectoral or broader-based bargaining. In North America, unions have traditionally operated workplace by workplace. In broader-based bargaining, workers and their representatives negotiate with business leaders to set minimum working conditions across an entire sector. This would go farther in providing basic protections for all workers in the sector — and level the playing field among business competitors, Yalnizyan argues.
“Sectoral bargaining can become a friend for both workers and businesses, and eliminate the real exploiters in the system who actually make it hard for good employers in those sectors,” she says. “I see sectoral bargaining as a real promising future if we are to make every job a good job.”
Aujla says improvements to basic workplace standards will particularly benefit “women, new Canadians and racialized Canadians,” who are overrepresented in precarious jobs.
She’s hoping to see stricter regulations around how long workers can be kept in temporary positions before being made permanent, stronger scheduling protections, and an elimination of current exemptions to the Employment Standards Act that mean some workers aren’t entitled to the minimum wage.
A minimum wage boost will put money back in the pockets of those most likely to spend it locally, she says
“Right now workers who are making minimum wage are barely getting by. Even at $15 (an hour). it only puts workers who are working full time at 10 per cent above the poverty line.”
“It’s really important to elect people who are going to have our backs in this election because we could lose all the things that we’ve won,” she adds.
“And we know that along with all the things we’ve won, there’s a lot more that needs to be changed.”
By Melissa Keith
Fighting for $15 and Fairness is second nature for Canada's many service-industry employees, who know the impossible struggle of urban life on minimum wage. Individually, they have battled for pay increases, job security, medical insurance, paid sick days, and the other ingredients that make a job a "good job." But when each worker fights this fight alone, any personal gains can come at the expense of co-workers, or at a high cost to the individual.
I've experienced and endured restaurant and retail workplaces where survival meant competitive hostility among employees, as each strove for the best shifts, most hours, that elusive raise, promotion to management, or other perks. Dynamics like those don't spawn a pleasant workplace climate. Informal and unfair choices by owners and managers motivated the decisions that impacted our lives. I was let go at one restaurant after three years, because another server wanted my job to go to her friend. The server was dating the restaurant owner's son at the time.
Can minimum-wage jobs ever incorporate enough fairness for workers to be freed from clashing over crumbs? When the Ontario Legislature passed Bill 148 (the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, 2017) last November 22, the stage was set for finding out. Under this act, minimum-wage workers received a boost to their paycheques, to $14 per hour effective January 1, 2018, to be followed by an increase to $15, scheduled to take effect January 1, 2019.
In addition, paid and unpaid "personal days" off work became a legal reality in a sector where taking time off is often accompanied by the implied threat of losing one's job. Other changes introduced with the legislation sound suspiciously like examples of basic compassion and common sense:
* a minimum of three weeks' vacation after five years with the same employer
* up to 10 individual days of leave and up to 15 weeks of leave, without the fear of losing one's job when a worker or their child has experienced or is threatened with domestic or sexual violence
* expanded personal emergency leave in all workplaces
* (unpaid) job-protected leave to take care of a critically ill family member.
Knowing one's work schedule in advance is another feature of a fair workplace. Starting January 1, 2019, Bill 148 gives employees the right to refuse a shift they have been assigned with less than 96 hours' notice, eliminating a stressor for the many workers with limited transportation options and multiple roles (for example, those working at more than one job; those who are also students, caregivers and/or parents). These and other changes within the progressive bill are resonating with minimum-wage workers and others who want an equitable employment landscape.
BILL 148 AN INCOMPLETE VICTORY
For Nadira Begum, the passage of Bill 148 is a victory, but an incomplete one. "I have two part-time jobs right now, in the non-profit sector, with no benefits. But now, I can access personal emergency leave; because now, temporary, part-time, casual worker — it doesn't matter," she tells Our Times. "Most of the [Bill 148] changes, I can get access to."
The organizer in Toronto's diverse Regent Park neighbourhood is an advocacy worker focused on "decent work for racialized women." Begum arrived in Canada 12 years ago and found herself unable to land work that made use of her social-work background from Bangladesh. She couldn't afford the time to upgrade her qualifications.
"I had two children, so it was impossible for me to go to university. By this time, I had kind of like part-time work. Before, I had three to 10 jobs at the same time. All of my experience is non-profit sector; I didn't work groceries or other places." Instead, she became a volunteer in Regent Park, and got involved in the Fight for $15 and Fairness in 2016. She is now a leader for the campaign in her community.
Begum says her situation is all too common: Educated immigrants apply for jobs commensurate with their qualifications, but find their credentials unacceptable to employers in Canada. "Lots of people in Regent Park, they face the same conditions. They don't have any choice — they have to do two or three part-time jobs, because their education is not equal here."
For people struggling to support themselves and their families under such conditions, Bill 148 represents a lifeline — Begum says after the first minimum-wage increase came into effect, one woman proudly informed her that she could finally pay her hydro bill.
UNDERPAID WORKERS ARE TREADING WATER
The spiralling cost of living in urban centres means underpaid workers are treading water. There can be no savings, no security when rent alone consumes most of one's income and food banks are a necessary part of life.
News outlets catering to business and corporate interests have chosen to frame systemic injustice as personal inadequacy, notes Pam Frache. The coordinator of the Ontario Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign and Workers' Action Centre organizer is cautiously optimistic about Bill 148's chances of being fully implemented next year. She views the March 10th election of Doug Ford as Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario leader as a potential threat to full enactment, but no insurmountable barrier for the campaign and its supporters.
What happens when a win for workers is followed by a narrow and controversial win for a politician promising to undo the workers' victory?
"We were concerned, obviously, about the direction of the Progressive Conservative Party in general, just because they already said they were going to prolong the implementation of the $15 minimum wage," says Frache. "In the mid-1990s, the Conservatives not only reversed progressive labour-law changes that had been implemented by the Ontario NDP government [under Bob Rae], they actually rolled back employment standards. They gutted social assistance, [making] literally lethal social-assistance cuts, so we know from their past practices that we need to be concerned."
Those practices have not changed, according to Frache: "We know that the Progressive Conservatives actually voted against Bill 148, which is the bill that brought in the changes that are on the table now."
Former Toronto municipal councillor Doug Ford, much like his late brother, former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, represents the current trend of populism in politics.
TAKING DOUG FORD SERIOUSLY
"We were considerably concerned about the Conservatives in general, but I think what's interesting about Doug Ford is that he's quite brazen in their agenda," says Frache. "The worrisome thing is [that] some people are not going to take his candidacy seriously. There are people who are thinking, 'That's great: He's a controversial figure, so we don't have to worry about what he represents!'
"Some people are responding with insults and derision. We've all seen this movie before — we saw this movie with Rob Ford in Toronto, we saw this movie with Donald Trump, and I think that what we have to do is really unpack the populism in Doug Ford's message and address it. There's a kernel of truth in every single thing that he says."
Disenfranchised workers struggling to put food on the table have turned to outspoken candidates like Ford and Trump out of frustration, Frache notes. "If we just simply dismiss what he's saying, we're going to lose our audience, because there's a goodly section of the population who feel that life is not getting better; life is either a grind or getting worse.
"We have politicians who don't speak clearly, don't mean what they say and say what they mean, and I think they see in Doug Ford someone who means what he says and says what he means."
POPULIST APPROACH DISGUISES ANTI-WORKING-CLASS SLANT
The populist approach disguises the anti-working-class slant of the right-wing agenda, cautions Frache. As corporate interests feed stories to traditionally conservative business-media outlets, those who benefit from maintaining an impoverished pool of readily available, marginalized workers are presented as benevolent employers. Similarly, politicians supporting this agenda are painted as down-to-earth, plain-spoken opponents of an elitist, out-of-touch left.
"[Ontario voters] may not agree with everything Doug Ford says, but I think they like his clarity and his boldness," says the organizer. "I think that the job of progressives is to really take his base seriously and have real conversations with them."
This means the kind of direct and unpretentious outreach being carried out by Frache and Begum, as well as by Navneet (Navi) Aujla, a workers' advocate in Brampton, Ontario. The York University sociology graduate speaks from firsthand knowledge of the insidious spread of "temp agencies" and how they impact workers.
She observes that racialized workers with few options for paid employment find themselves forced into the free-for-all world of the agencies, which have flourished thanks to ongoing racism, sexism and other forms of workplace exclusion.
"Some of these temp agencies aren't even in a building — they're [accessible only] through a phone call and then if they don't pay your wages, you can't find them," cautions Aujla. Twice, she was paid less than minimum wage by such agencies, which open — and close — randomly, as is convenient for their operators.
While doing research for her master's degree at York, Aujla learned that temp agencies exploited immigrants to Ontario as far back as the late 1800s; as early as 1914, the province brought in regulations to prevent them from taking advantage of workers. Early temp agencies staffed factories with industrial workers. In a 2009 article published in Just Labour: A Canadian Journal of Work and Society, David Van Arsdale and Michael Mandarino note a second rise in employment agencies just after the Second World War beginning with Winnipeg-based "Office Overload" in 1951. Within the decade, the company had expanded to Toronto, Hamilton, Vancouver and Montreal, placing women who had filled unconventional labour-market gaps in factories during the war years back into stereotypical clerical gigs.
Aujla says it was her own experience with temp agencies that originally motivated her to join the Fight for $15 and Fairness. "I had worked through a bunch of them before, when I was still studying. I ended up also researching temp agencies when I was doing my master's at York, so I really got to see how problematic they are. Also speaking to members of my community, especially South Asian immigrant women, to see the kind of horrible conditions they had to work through and how powerless you are in that position."
She encountered a panel discussing the campaign for $15 and Fairness on campus, and appreciated that temp-agency work was part of the conversation. "That's how I got involved. There's also a $15 and Fairness campus group at York, and when I finished there, a couple of us started organizing for the campaign in Brampton."
Advocates of better conditions for marginalized workers may argue that workers should reject exploitative jobs, employers and temp agencies, on principle. The Brampton resident argues that few who accept this work have any choice.
TEMP AGENCIES ARE STOPGAP MEASURES
"When I first started doing it, I was a student and I needed work during the holidays. I couldn't find it anywhere else, so I had to go through the temp agencies."
It was after this experience and during her bachelor's degree that Aujla delved into studying temp agencies. She discovered they have become increasingly common within the past five to 10 years. Recent immigrants living in her community told Aujla that, like her, they turned to the agencies for "general labour" positions in the warehouses and factories prevalent in Brampton.
Temp agencies are, true to their name, a stopgap measure when it comes to employment. Aujla describes getting two days' work, then nothing else for the next week, when she was temping as a general labourer. "Maybe you go in for one day, and then they send you home after three hours," she says. "Not knowing how much work you're going to be getting, or how many hours, or even when the work will be, because the calls come one day before."
IF YOU SAY NO, THEY STOP CALLING YOU
Transportation can be a very real barrier on such erratic schedules, as can arranging child care, yet endless flexibility is demanded of on-call temps. "If you say 'no' to going in more than once or twice, then they're just going to stop calling you back," warns the organizer, who admits she has even cancelled a medical appointment in order to accept a one-day job. "Then there was another time they texted me at 6:35 a.m. and said, 'We don't need you to come in.'"
Before Bill 148, the most vulnerable members of the provincial workforce had few protections against dehumanizing expectations in their precarious jobs, particularly as temp workers.
"There is no control over your schedule and you're at the whim and mercy of when they are going to call, always waiting by your phone," says Aujla. Direct communication with the actual employer is impossible; workers are routed back to the temp agencies, which take a substantial cut of what the company pays to use (as opposed to hire) the worker.
Aujla no longer takes temp gigs, and admits to having an element of rare safety and educational privilege even when she did: "I was living at home, so I didn't even have as much of a need; I can't even imagine what it's like for folks who are depending on this kind of work for survival. You can't plan anything else, in case they do call you."
Bill 148 is a welcome step toward transparency. "There's so much secrecy! Everywhere I worked, you got minimum wage or less, because the temp agency was taking a cut," notes Aujla. "They don't disclose that, so you don't even know how much it is." She says workers could be making wildly different hourly wages, but talking about pay within such a divided (temp/non-temp) workplace is taboo.
Hence, the "equal pay for equal work" provisions the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign has embraced and that came into effect on April 1st: "The law says that basically anyone who is working part time or through a temp agency or seasonal — if you're doing the same work as somebody who's full time, you should be paid the same. You can't be discriminated against based on your employment status, because the work is the same."
The need to increase protections for marginalized workers has seldom been stronger, contrary to the view coming from business advertorials and right-wing lobbyists. "Even when you speak to the older generation, like my parents, or people who have been here for maybe 10 to 15 years, when they first came, you didn't have to go through a temp agency to get work — you could go to a factory and get hired directly," explains the Brampton organizer. "Now, it's like no one is hiring directly. Even if they have jobs [available], they will send you through a temp agency."
Aujla says even community agencies are funnelling job applicants through temp agencies, as opposed to doing their own hiring. It's created a haven for the Greater Toronto Area's 1,700 temp agencies (more than the number operating in seven provinces combined, she notes) and a ghetto for many job-seekers.
Bill 148 has tackled several of the abuses that led to the rise of precarious work in the province. On November 27th, an "employee misclassification" clause came into immediate effect: "Employers cannot misclassify employees as independent contractors. This addresses cases where employers treat employees as if they are self-employed and not entitled to employment-standards protections. If there is a dispute the employer will have to prove that an individual is not an employee."
Aujla states that the Fight for $15 and Fairness movement continues to push for greater rights. "If the companies are held liable for safety and injuries, that would also be a huge success. What we're still pushing for now is, workers should be hired directly after three months [temping]; there should be a limit on how many workers can be brought in through a temp agency at a company — we're saying 20 per cent; and there should be no barriers to workers getting hired directly."
COMPLACENCY IS NOT AN OPTION
Complacency is not an option, agrees Frache. She says the public must look for hidden agendas when they read business news on Bill 148 and the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign. One example: a seemingly surprising supporter of a Guaranteed Annual Income for Ontarians is actually backing the idea as a means to suppress workers' rights.
"The Ontario Chamber of Commerce, which has been a vocal opponent of the campaign for $15 and Fairness, they have this coalition of businesses — mostly corporate lobby outfits — which is all about suggesting that if you do anything decent for workers, then we're going to have massive unemployment," she explains. "They oppose raising the minimum wage to $15, but they very much support a Guaranteed Annual Income.
"The reason is because of corporations that have a sub-poverty wage model. This would let those corporations off the hook, because if the state provides the wages, then they don't have to."
Unions, and supporters like the Ontario Federation of Labour, are a fundamental part of the ongoing Ontario Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign. Frache says that a 2017 strike by Aramark employees at York University demonstrated the collective power of organized labour and activists. "It was an absolute breakthrough!" she says with approval. "The way they won, by framing their demands as part of the Fight for $15 and Fairness. Normally, these workers would be separate, taking on Aramark alone."
Instead, all unions represented on the campus were joined by students, "uniting the whole campus," with the York Federation of Students providing free "Solidarity Coffee."
Malka Paracha was a part of the activism behind that victory. The North York resident works as an Aramark food-service supervisor at York University. "I'm very proud to say that I'm not only a shop steward with Unite Here Local 75, but also known as a strong leader at my workplace," she says via email. "I got that position in September 2014." She became involved in the $15 and Fairness campaign while planning for the 2017 strike period, encouraged by members of the campaign, whom she reports "showed a strong support and solidarity with us to achieve our due demands as a contract."
The York Aramark workers' contract had expired in September 2016. Paracha notes that in the wording of a new contract, she and co-workers requested a wage of $15 per hour "to enhance the living standards of those who were living below the poverty line by earning the then minimum-per-hour rate." When the company management held back on approving this hourly wage increase, the unionized York Aramark staff voted in unanimous favour of a strike.
It wasn't simply the pay increase that Paracha was looking for — she wanted real fairness enacted in the workplace. "I suffered a lot because of my hijab and religious practice in my early years of work," she recalls. "I was literally told by the management at work that I'm not presentable, so I'm not eligible for a higher position, even though I had enough experience, proper job skills and knowledge."
She says she was also expected to socialize with men on the job in ways she considers incompatible with her faith: "My second disqualification for promotion was my other religious concerns, like not being able to shake hands with male officials, keeping myself simple and reserved in mixed gatherings, and so on."
The shop steward happily shares that the strike accomplished its goals — and then some. "We signed a robust contract with the company, under which we not only achieved the minimum-per-hour rate of $15 but also got 100 per cent benefits for full-time and part-time workers. And we are the one who set the standards for the rest of the workers in precarious jobs, for the companies and unions, that the minimum raise of $15 is achievable."
Paracha, who lobbied continuously for Bill 148, says she feels "very positive" about it: "I hope for an effective implementation of the bill after elections" are held across the province on June 7.
A Fight for $15 and Fairness provincial strategy meeting held on March 23 and 24 is just one example of how the campaign is keeping the momentum going. Pam Frache says after the passage of Bill 148, part of the ongoing battle is maintaining presence and influence without the same level of financial support that backs the American Fight for $15 and Fairness campaigns.
Populist voices loudly calling for the market to "self-regulate" are ill-informed, and pose a real threat to recent gains. (A truly self-regulating market in need of workers would necessarily improve wages and conditions to attract those workers, she explains: It's the self-interest of CEOs that actually interferes with that kind of self-regulating labour market.)
"We need to be very, very careful that we don't let the business community offload its obligation to provide decent work onto the public purse, which is less and less sustained by corporate taxes and more and more sustained by ordinary workers," she argues.
"If you look at what's happening in the United States, there is widespread documentation on the fact that food-stamp social programs are subsidizing the poverty-level wages of profitable corporations like Walmart and McDonald's and so forth. We don't want to let corporations off the hook."
Aujla agrees that regardless of what happens in the June provincial election, the fight will go on. She wants to "let every party know that we're not going to back down."
The frontline outreach of the Workers' Action Centre and its support of minimum-wage employees will continue, as will the centre's political activism: "No matter who is elected, [elected officials] have to stand for these issues that we're pushing. We're strong, we're getting the word out there, and we're building our movement, so that no matter what happens in the election, we're strong enough to stand up to any political party and what they might try to do."
The St. Catharines Standard: The Niagara Workers’ Activist Group advocates for better working conditions
By Cheryl Clock
Back in 2015, in a room at the Stokes Seed building on Page Street in St. Catharines, she stood in front of a crowd, feeling awkward, anxious and yet resolutely strong. She clutched a handwritten speech and fought back some serious butterflies that had invaded her abdominal cavity the night before.
In the audience were people interested in the rights of workers. Labour representatives. Lawyers from community legal clinics. Members of the Niagara Poverty Reduction Network. And a representative from the Workers' Action Centre in Toronto.
The gathering was the inaugural meeting of the Niagara Workers' Activist Group, a grassroots organization that exists solely on the currency of passion, commitment and lived experience.
A tiny group that would be part of big changes to labour laws.
Last November, the Ontario government adopted Bill 148, the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act. It made changes to the Employment Standards Act, the Labour Relations Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
Most notable, was the increase in the general minimum wage to $14 an hour on Jan. 1, and then to $15 an hour Jan. 1, 2019.
Facing a room of strangers, Lisa Britton, 51, told them she had worked hard all her life, but felt deeply betrayed by a fundamental idea she held as truth: That a job would guarantee her a livable wage. It did not. And never did.
No matter how hard she worked, no matter how many hours she worked, no matter where she worked, she struggled.
Indeed, she has struggled most of her life to pay for the basics such as food and rent even though she was always working. She has worked the gamut of jobs — full-time retail to call centre, and a piecemeal of low-wage, part-time employment to fill in the gaps. She has been on Ontario Works. She has used a food bank.
"I believed a job was the way out of poverty," she told the crowd. "But it's not."
For the longest time, she blamed herself. Until she realized she wasn't alone.
"I left that night with hope," she says.
"I was amazed that there were so many people in area who cared about this."
Deena Ladd, co-ordinator of the Workers' Action Centre, was there too. The meeting came on the heels of the government announcing a review of the labour laws, and Ladd, who has spent some 25 years in the field of labour activism, was set to present her organization's policy brief on changes needed.
When she heard Lisa speak, it was as if her briefing had come alive.
"I felt, have you just read our report?" says Ladd. "It was satisfying for me to see what we pulled together resonated with her experience."
Indeed, as Ladd travelled to communities across Ontario, she heard similar stories: people unable to survive on an $11-and-hour minimum wage; no paid sick days or in workplaces with fewer than 50 employees, no unpaid time off; and generally, no control over work schedules.
At the same time, groups similar to the Niagara Workers' Activist Group were forming across Ontario. Anti-poverty. Fight for $15. Labour action groups. They became places for people in low-wage, precarious jobs to find community and plan action.
"They could talk about their experiences and not feel ashamed," says Ladd. "They came feeling, 'How can I fix myself,' and realized that actually, there are others who find themselves in the same situation when the majority of jobs in their community are part-time and precarious.
"Otherwise, who provides you with that context?"
It was in these groups, existing on threadbare budgets or none at all, run by people who themselves were struggling, that individual experiences fuelled collective change.
Lisa had been working the midnight shift at a gas station and without notice, her hours were cut in half. Four shifts a week, down to two. Then eventually, down to one, on the worst night of the week for her, a Saturday. When she got off work at 7:30 a.m. every Sunday, there were no city buses running so her husband had to get up early to drive across town and pick her up.
Her employer offered vague explanations.
She called the Employment Standards Information Centre, frantic, desperate to get her hours back. "I remember crying when I was on the phone with this guy."
Meanwhile, she had joined the Niagara Poverty Reduction Network, an organization dedicated to wiping out poverty with education and advocacy.
During one meeting, frustrated and desperate, she asked if anyone had advice about restoring her shifts. "I was completely at a loss," she told them.
Jennifer Pothier, then from Niagara North Community Legal Assistance suggested that the region needed a workers' action centre, like the one in Toronto. And that's all it took. A small group, including Lisa, Pothier, Sue Hotte from the Niagara Regional Labour Council, Willy Noiles from the Ontario Network of Injured Workers' Groups organized the first town hall style meeting.
And Lisa found herself in a place she never imagined she'd be – in front of a crowd of people, telling her story.
"I couldn't understand for the longest time why it was so hard," she says.
"Why no matter how hard I worked, there was always more month than money."
Her next audience was a collection of government representatives in Hamilton, at one of several public hearings held across the province as Bill 148 was being developed.
In the fall of 2015, this time with typed speech in hand, she told her story. Again.
She talked about working two jobs, at a department store and call centre, just to have enough money to survive. She had to quit the call centre due to migraines, but work at the department store wasn't dependable. "Hours fluctuated wildly according to the season," she said. "My expenses didn't fluctuate with the seasons though. I had to pay the rent and bills anyways. It was stressful and exhausting."
Eventually, even those hours were cut to nine a week.
Her husband worked as a chef and struggled on low wages, until severe back problems forced him to quit.
Then when the hours of Lisa's barely-above-minimum-wage job at the gas station were chopped in half, she felt defeated. "I felt hopeless, like I was disposable," she said.
That meant barely surviving on Ontario Works. "My anxiety was terrible," she says. "I was a mess."
And yet, she persevered. The workers' activist group gave her purpose. Each time she shared her story, the more empowered she felt.
"I wanted to be an agent of change and here I am," she says.
"A tiny little group in Niagara made history. We made it better."
These days, Lisa lives on ODSB – the Ontario Disability Support Benefit — and she co-chairs the group's monthly meetings. She encourages other people working in low-wage, non-unionized, precarious jobs to come out and share their stories.
"Our meetings are a safe place," she says. "There's a seat at the table for everyone who wants it.
"We are the answer. The work we are doing as a movement, we are the answer."
By Afnan Naeem
ANALYSIS: Canada is working toward achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals — and Ontario has an important policy role to play, writes Afnan Naeem
The next provincial election is coming up — and nothing says policy change quite like change in government. Naturally, policies will get reshuffled and reprioritized based on how they align with the victorious party’s political platform and ambitions.
Ontario’s successful pursuit of sustainable development — a term encompassing 17 goals, laid out by the United Nations, that address poverty reduction, health, climate change, and more — in some ways is connected to its labour and economic policies. So how might the June 7 election affect that?
The state of labour policy in Ontario
Recently, labour policy has seen significant changes — primarily thanks to years of citizen-driven movements such as the “$15 and Fairness” campaign for a higher minimum wage and fairer working conditions. These changes include policies such as equal pay for equal work, which means employers must pay casual, part-time, temporary, and seasonal workers the same as full-time and permanent workers who are doing substantially the same job. Workers also now have 10 days of emergency leave, two of which are paid. The minimum wage has been increased to $14 per hour (and will be raised again to $15 per hour in 2019, unless the Progressive Conservatives win the election — the party has stated its desire to freeze the minimum wage).
Ontario’s sustainable development
Sustainable development is a shared global priority, and while the UN’s sustainable development goals pose a challenge for Ontario and other jurisdictions, they are noble in intent. Achieving the SDGs must start with our own individual actions, which have the potential to ripple out to our communities. At the provincial level, though, they can be achieved only through sound policy and agenda-setting. The SDGs are meant to be holistic; they involve multiple systems that interact with one another in some capacity.
One hundred and ninety-three countries have signed onto the SDGs, and each of these countries is responsible for its own progress. The decentralized nature of governance in Canada (in which certain policies fall under provincial jurisdiction), however, makes some of these goals provincial responsibilities. Labour policy, for example, is set and governed at the provincial level (in Ontario’s case, by the Ministry of Labour).
Goal 8 of the SDGs states that participating countries should “promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.” It’s a goal that Ontario must strive to achieve, and it also has implications for Goal 3, which dictates that Canada, as an SDG signee, must “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.” Thus, the provinces — including Ontario — must work toward sustainable development individually if Canada is to make progress as a whole.
Labour and economic policy is an important part of this. The UN has developed various indicators for tracking progress on each of the SDGs. In the case of Goal 8, one such indicator reads: “Protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers, including migrant workers, in particular women migrants, and those in precarious employment.” It is clear that Ontario has a major role in ensuring that progress is made on this front.
According to the World Health Organization, employment and working conditions are “social determinants of health,” a term that refers to “the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age” — things governed by our social and political environments that affect our ability to live healthy lives. Our health is not merely affected by our health-care system or our access to it; it’s also influenced by policies outside of health care. Current research bears this out: 50 per cent of health outcomes among Canadians are attributable to social determinants. Reducing disparities that are the result of social determinants constitutes an important investment: 20 per cent of the more $200 billion a year spent on health care in this country is the result of socio-economic disparities.
Sustainable development and political will
The implementation of SDGs depends on political will. Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming provincial election, Ontarians must work together to make sure the province continues to strive to achieve economic growth and decent work for all.
By Jeff Lagerquist
Part-time, casual and seasonal workers in Ontario now have the power to demand the same wage that their full-time colleagues receive if they do the same job under new rules brought in by the province on April 1.
The change forces employers to either boost the wage of the lower-earning worker, or justify the gap based on seniority, merit or a “system that measures earnings by quantity or quality of production,” when a potential discrepancy is raised.
The “Equal Pay For Equal Work” amendment to Ontario’s Employment Standards Act also shields workers against repercussions from opening a dialogue about pay with their employer, or talking about compensation with their peers.
With this legislation, the Wynne Liberals have thrust labour relations in Ontario into uncharted waters. The province is the only jurisdiction in North America requiring equal pay for non-full-time workers.
CTVNews.ca spoke to two employment lawyers about what workers need to know if they plan to make a case for levelling the paying field.
Who can ask for a review?
The legislation applies to part-time, casual and seasonal workers in Ontario who are not employed by federally regulated businesses.
Exempt employees include those who work in banking, air travel, most federal Crown corporations, as well as telecommunication and broadcasting.
What information do I need to request a review of my pay?
All eligible employees in Ontario are entitled to request a review regardless of what information they may have about their pay relative to full-time co-workers.
No proof of unequal treatment is required, such as a copy of a full-timer’s pay stub or anecdotal knowledge of how much another person makes.
“The onus is on the employer to either prove that you are paid as much as the full-timer, or to explain why you are not paid as much,” Howard Levitt, an employment lawyer and senior partner at Levitt LLP told CTVNews.ca in an interview. “Even if you don’t have the information, you can make the allegation.”
There are some proactive measures that workers can take before approaching their employer.
Philip Graham, a lawyer with Koskie Minsky LLP specializing in employment law, encourages workers to make sure their employers have an up-to-date and accurate job description for them on file. He said that information will be a major factor in how a company determines if workers are doing the same job for different pay.
“You can always approach your employer’s HR department and ask to have your job description updated or reviewed,” Graham said in an interview. “Your manager maybe has you doing something that HR does not know about.”
Performance evaluations are another important factor for workers in certain manufacturing roles or telemarketing sales positions, for example, where pay is directly influenced by production quotas or sales outcomes.
Of course, knowledge of another worker’s pay is an asset.
“It’s fine to say, ‘I know that Bob is making X amount and I am not when you submit your request for review,’” Graham said.
How is equal work determined?
The province defines equal work as “substantially the same kind of work in the same establishment” that requires “substantially the same, skill, effort and responsibility,” performed under similar working conditions.
Work does not have to be identical to qualify.
The “same establishment” can mean two or more locations, if they are in the same municipality. A location in another municipality can qualify if so-called “bumping rights” exist.
“Bumping rights are the contractual right of an employee being laid off to replace an employee with less seniority who is not being laid off,” the legislation states.
Skill is defined as “the amount of knowledge, physical skill or motor skills needed to perform a job.” These include education, training, experience and manual dexterity, such as hand-eye coordination.
Effort can be either mental or physical.
Responsibility includes both the number of responsibilities, as well as the level of accountability and authority the employee has.
Working conditions include the environment, an office or outdoors for example, as well as exposure to weather and health hazards.
What counts as a difference in rate of pay?
The legislation accounts for differences in hourly pay rate, salary, overtime pay and commission rate.
Other forms of compensation, such as health and retirement benefits, stock options and bonuses are not mentioned.
How do I request a review of my pay?
Requests for a pay review should be sent to management, ideally someone in a human resources department, if it is a large company.
Use email to create a dated digital record of your request.
The legislation notes that “it would be helpful” if the employee can outline the following points when requesting a review of their pay:
- The positions or jobs that they are comparing their work to
- Why they think the work is equal
- Why they think their rate of pay is unequal
What information should I expect in my employer’s written response?
If the company believes there is no violation of Equal Pay For Equal Work under the Employment Standards Act, they are required to explain in writing that there is either no difference in the rate of pay, no difference in the employment status of the employees being compared, or that the work being performed is not equal.
The legislation allows for exemptions based on seniority, merit, or a “system that measures earnings by quantity or quality of production.”
“All of the exemptions need to be objective and quantifiable at the end of the day,” Graham said. “Your employer can’t all of a sudden have a seniority system, or all of a sudden have a merit system that has never been in place before, as a result of your pay review request.”
A manager’s personal preference for one employee, or their work, over another’s would not be a valid justification for a pay gap.
What should I do if I disagree with my employer’s response, or do not receive a response?
In both cases, workers are advised to file a claim with the Ministry of Labour under the Employment Standards Act.
“Once your complaint is filed with them and the employer is notified, it moves quite quickly,” Graham said. “You are usually looking at a matter of weeks before they get the ball rolling.”
If an employer denies a pay raise due to seniority, merit, or a “system that measures earnings by quantity or quality of production,” and a ministry claim is initiated, Levitt said inspectors can review the company’s records.
“If they say it is performance related, they are going to want to see the stats of the performance, and they are going to want to see the stats of everybody else’s performance,” he said. “They are going to be erring on the side of finding that the employer acted inappropriately, a little bit like the occupational health and safety branch when someone is fired after saying the work was unsafe.”
If I get a raise, how will I know if it’s enough?
Employers cannot lower other employees’ pay to even things out, but knowing how much of a raise you should receive to make things equal can be tricky.
“The legislation does not include an obligation for them (employers) to disclose to you some sort of evidence of what other people are making. That may in itself be a flaw in the legislation,” Graham said. “It really comes back to whatever launched your suspicion in the first place that you might have been underpaid. Someone saying, ‘Hey I’m making X dollars.’ And you’re like, ‘I’m not making that much.’”
According to Levitt, the legislation could potentially lead to situations where a part-time, casual or seasonal worker earns more money than full-time employees.
“It may be that a seasonal employee says, ‘I’m paid $16 per hour. There are people being paid $18 and $19 per hour who are permanent.’ Which amount does the employer adjust it to, and what rights do the other employees have?”
Both Levitt and Graham agree that a number of unknowns remain when it comes to how this legislation will work in practice.
“The legislation, not to be cynical, is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination,” Graham said. “I’m not sure if the legislation has the necessary teeth to bridge the gap. I think employers will . . . find ways to justify those pay differentials.”
Levitt said he expects any resulting pay gains will be offset by cutback hours and lost jobs as employers grapple with rising labour costs on the heels of a minimum wage hike.
“I think this is going to have a bigger impact on employment and business than minimum wage,” he said. “Suddenly a lot of part-timers will get wage increases. The employer is going to scratch their head and say, ‘How can I get rid of these people? It’s just not market productive for me to pay people this much for this particular job. I can’t get by.’”
There is also the question of if the legislation will survive if Progressive Conservative candidate Doug Ford unseats long-time Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne in the June 7 provincial election.
With that in mind, Levitt said he is not too worried about the knock-on effects the legislation will have on Ontario’s ability to compete with neighbouring jurisdictions where part-time labour is less expensive.
“It’s going to be reversed in three months,” he said. “Ford said he is not going to touch minimum wage. He is just not going to increase it. This one, I think he might roll back.”
By Syed Hussan
For most, an election raises two questions: should I vote? And who should I vote for?
The Ontario general elections are set for June 7, 2018. Doug Ford snatched the Ontario PC leadership, running on a populist platform of repealing Ontario’s new sex ed curriculum, stopping the minimum wage increase, and restricting access to abortion. The Liberals, under Kathleen Wynne, are smelling defeat and tacking left, promising progressive changes like free childcare for many. The NDP and Andrea Horwath have gone even further, promising the Liberal goodie bag plus universal Pharmacare, dental care, and more.
But an election is about more than whether and for whom you should vote. It’s an opening to push conversations towards just futures, within an atmosphere of heightened debate over political, social, and economic issues. The result of an election and the arrival of a new government often has a material impact on the most excluded and illegalized people. But should we intervene in the conversation? How, and with what goals? Is it the best use of our energy to engage with elections?
I invited five Ontario activists that I greatly respect to weigh in on these issues. I asked them all the same two questions, followed by one personalized question. Their ideas represent some (though not all) of the key schools of thought on elections. If you agree with their ideas, join them (or others like them near you) – or start your own collective. More than anything else, we need many more people organizing together to build the worlds we want to live in.
How should we engage with Doug Ford in the upcoming Ontario election and after? Should we even engage in the elections?
Pam Frache: We cannot allow Doug Ford to masquerade as a defender of the “little guy” when he is driving an agenda that will make life worse for those he purports to protect. But we won’t beat Doug Ford by offending his base with derision and insults. For in every populist message Ford delivers, there is also a kernel of truth that we must patiently identify and try to explain. In this way, we can help focus the legitimate anger that people feel about the system in a constructive direction. Ford is a pro-business candidate and opposes any measure that may cut into corporate profit. That’s why he is unlikely to support changes that raise wages or give workers more agency on the job. If we intervene in this election with bold, working-class demands, we can help polarize the election between corporate interests and the rest of us, which can help expose Ford’s real agenda. But to succeed, we need an even stronger movement for decent work. That’s why building a multi-racial, working-class movement is our foremost task before, during, and after the June election.
John Clarke: The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) thinks it is not a good idea to promote the ‘lesser evil’ theory, and we don’t want to support the Liberals in any way. But Ford represents an intensification of the regressive agenda – and the provocative nature of his electoral campaign may give us reason to target this as he campaigns. If he is elected, his Government will be waging war on workers and communities and either we’d defeat his agenda or suffer huge losses. Our goal would have to be a real common front of social mobilization against Ford and the Tories.
Vanessa Gray: Unfortunately, all of our problems cannot be solved through elections. We should engage by showing commitment and support to the communities impacted by the Ring of Fire. Ford is another example of white supremacy, which wants to grow the Canadian economy. These days, the dominant political agenda seems to be one that is working against the scientific evidence that we need to cut down our emissions. While First Nations people continue to bear the brunt of the impacts on the land, the so-called “progress” is never enough for some Canadians.
Sandy Hudson: Ford and his party’s obsession with destroying the sex ed curriculum and access to reproductive choice may sound outrageous, but we all know by now how this game works. The very act of raising these issues in the debate gives their reconsideration a legitimacy that they otherwise wouldn’t have. It has already begun to shift discussions to the right. We need to raise our own principed positions that truly shift conversations to the left. Reducing hospital wait times isn’t going to do it. Let’s talk about nationalizing our communications infrastructure, free education, and demilitarizing police. The way to make these issues a factor in the debate is to mobilize a base that makes it impossible for the politicians vying for election to avoid taking a position on them. As a Black Lives Matter (BLM) activist, I can tell you that it is possible to force local, provincial and federal discussions on what some people may have thought were “controversial” issues. We did it by mobilizing, sticking to our principles, and never letting up.
Chris Ramsaroop: From the perspective of working with communities that, by design, are excluded from traditional methods of “civic engagement” like electoral politics, it’s critical that we don’t fall into the trap of believing all our problems can be fixed through elections. The Conservatives (like the Liberals) continue to use racially coded language to exclude migrants from basic access to healthcare, employment standards, the right to organize, etc. Our organizing work will continue to focus on the structures of migrant worker schemes and we will continue to chip away at the facade of the notion of the Canadian nation state as benevolent when it’s premised on theft, dehumanization and exclusion of migrant workers.
By and large, Conservative and Liberal policies are pretty much the same with respect to working class communities. Our work on the ground must be to challenge the inherent divisions that capitalists use to divide workers, such as racial and gender divisions in the workplace, but also to identify spaces where solidarity has been built and continues to be built.
What are the lessons from your histories of organizing (for the Days of Action, Stop the Cuts, Fight for 15, BLM etc) that are particularly valuable in this moment? How should they shape movement strategy?
Pam Frache: On November 29, 2016 – just 21 days after Trump’s election – thousands of workers in 340 cities (including 20 airports) took strike action, organized by the U.S. Fight for $15. They demanded not only a $15 minimum wage and the right to join unions, but also an end to racist police killings, an end to deportations, and for universal healthcare. Remember, the world expected Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to become president and most were shell-shocked when Trump prevailed. Asked how they pulled off 340 strikes just three weeks after the election – while most were reeling and demoralized – U.S. Fight for $15 organizers gave a simple answer: “We didn’t. We all thought Clinton was going to win the election, so workers had been preparing these strikes for weeks. Workers know they can’t rely on politicians.” The strikes involved not just fast food workers, but child care workers, home-care workers, airport workers, and even contract faculty. Hundreds were arrested on the day, among the workers: faith leaders and other community advocates. This bold action helped inspire the incredible resistance that followed, including the airport workers and taxi drivers who shut down airports across the U.S. in response to Trump’s Muslim ban, and the millions who marched in the women’s march in the U.S. and around the world.
John Clarke: The key lesson of the Days of Action against Mike Harris’ Conservative government in ‘95 is that we won’t win if we aren’t prepared to take things to the level necessary. The campaign in the ‘90s showed incredible power but it was frittered away by escalating and de-escalating the struggle, and by failing to adopt a perspective of raising the level of action to the point where the Tories either capitulated or faced a movement capable of creating political and economic disruption on a decisive scale. Those within unions and social movements who accept the logic of this strategy should start talking and planning right now.
Vanessa Gray: Through the rallies and strikes in Ontario, the common thread has been generational gaps between students and political activists (mostly academic). I think we should question how accessible our movements are, because the support Doug Ford has comes from a larger number of people who don’t follow the political agenda that most of us can barely keep up with. While our movements are unique and beautiful, we need to find time to meet and come to terms with the fact that we have a common enemy.
John, would building the “common front” you talk about entail creating a new structure, or bolstering an existing one? What are some coordinated activities for this front to enact?
John Clarke: If Ford is elected, he will most likely want to move quickly with his austerity measures and related social regression. When the Harris Tories came to power in the ‘90s, they enjoyed a period where the left was shocked into demobilization, allowing them to push through their initial work. We want to initiate action as quickly as possible, but also to escalate the response from forms of moral appeal to those that are disruptive and powerful enough to actually force the Tories into retreat. As that struggle emerges, I would expect that some kind of formal union or community alliance would be created, after a round of meetings and discussions. But right now, I think the focus is on trying to bring together a caucus of organizations and individuals that share the goal of resistance and stopping the Tories. The Days of Action taught us that that kind of caucus needs to stay in place once the main organizations are moving. This time around, the fight-back needs to be much more decisive and based on a plan to escalate pressure – and that will require those of us who share this goal to do more than stand at the back of the crowd chanting slogans about shutting down Ontario.
Vanessa, in regards to the election, what are specific mechanisms to strengthen anti-colonial analysis and action?
Vanessa Gray: Until Indigenous peoples have attained self-determination, we deserve to be able to participate in provincial politics in a meaningful way. The Canadian government continues to prioritize the economy over Indigenous nations that are struggling to reconnect with our cultures and lands. The politicians work against our interests, like securing drinkable water, adequate housing, food sovereignty, and culturally relevant education. Every nation whose land Ontario occupies should be represented in provincial decision-making, and all decisions should require the free, prior, and informed consent of the Indigenous nations that would be impacted.
Pam, what are some specific strategies that $15 and Fairness will be using in the next nine weeks to win over workers? On another note, do you think there is a need or a space for a coordinating body – a “common front,” like John suggested?
Pam Frache: We see workers, not politicians, as the drivers of change. The whole movement for $15 and Fairness has been built by small groups of committed people having conversations (in as many different languages as possible) with other groups of people. It doesn’t sound very exciting. But it is through these thousands of conversations and actions that we have been able to knit together a network of leaders committed to fighting for decent work and wages. Organization will be crucial for the struggles ahead, no matter who forms government. In our experience with the fight for $15 and Fairness, the process of involving others in the campaign poses the question of organization. The more we persuade, learn, activate, involve, assess, energize, motivate, and even make mistakes, the more likely we are to grow and expand organization over the long run.
We are fighting for a big vision for decent work, before, during, and after the Ontario election. This big vision has been developed by workers themselves and will require a united working-class movement make it a reality. To that end, we have three tactics. First, we are redoubling our effort to collect as many signatures as we can on a big visiof to implement and fund $15 and Fairness (and invite each signatory to join the movement). Second, we want to make existing support as visible as possible, so we want to decorate doors, windows, lawns, bulletin boards, and community hubs of Ontario with “Proud to support a $15 minimum wage and decent work for all” signs and banners. Third, we are co-sponsoring, along with the Ontario Federation of Labour, a decent work rally on June 16, so that, no matter who forms the next government, we want them to be too afraid to attack our gains, and instead feel the heat to deliver more.
Chris, you talk about challenging the inherent divisions that capitalists use to divide workers. How do we challenge these deeply-rooted divisions in a short period of time before the election? How can short term strategies build towards a long term project?
Chris Ramsaroop: I agree with John that learning from the experiences of the Days of Actions, there needs to be a space – a common front, a caucus, or whatever we want to call it – where we engage in organizing and action that pushes boundaries. The Harris period was marked by a consistent and intense fightback that was both militant and creative – it encouraged unconventional strategies. For younger organizers – like myself, at the time – it was critical in developing our awareness of what we can and should demand of the state. Whether it was large mass protests or small autonomous actions, people came together first out of a necessity to counter Harris’ reactionary strategies, but also to demand a future that was not premised on austerity nor on begging for scraps. The fight-back is for the short term, but for the long term we need to develop and sustain a community of resistance. As we move forward, it’ll be critical to ensure that young comrades don’t burn out, and older comrades are not pushed out.
Part of our work over the next nine weeks will be to engage with migrant workers about the significance of this election. Wedge politics will mark this election and, learning from our past organizing work, we will need to engage with allies across the province to counter the impending xenophobia and anti-immigrant hysteria. There won’t be a cookie-cutter approach to fighting back. Each community struggle will look differently because the terrain is different.
Leamington, for example, has a very different geography to Simcoe, Tillsonburg, or any of the other communities that we organize in. Justicia for Migrant Workers’ (J4MW) Harvesting Freedom campaign taught us that interventions at local farmers’ markets were critical in forcing a conversation about food production, racism, and white supremacy. We also faced extreme hostility in these spaces, where our adversaries felt compelled to “protect the family farm.” In the past we have also intervened in local election debates – a few years back we brought a bus load of migrant workers who demanded to have a say in electoral issues. This simple, mundane act of “civic engagement” was met with police, who cordoned off the migrant workers from the rest of the audience. As a result of the heightened exploitation that migrant workers face (being tied to an employer, absence of labour and social mobility, constant threats of deportation) we will need to be creative in our approaches and to use this moment to build long term.
Sandy, you talk about changing the message to push the conversation left. What are strategies or messages that most Ontario organizations can take up during the next nine weeks?
Sandy Hudson: At this stage in the game, I think organizations should think about using a strategy that demands that our most urgent issues – the ones that mean life or death for those of us who are workers, who are migrants, who are Indigenous, and who are Black – are considered, publicly, and at a time when those who hold the levers of power are most vulnerable. Our issues are the most urgent, and we should frame them as such. Politicians so often treat the issues that result in the disruption of our lives as inessential “special interest” issues. We need to creatively and strategically use public space to force mainstream media to put our issues front and centre. Politicians know that generally, the public will support our demands if they are aware of them. So they do everything they can do avoid publicly reckoning with them. It’s our job to make that suppression of our issues impossible.