Bill 47 is a major attack on workers across Ontario. It freezes the minimum wage for 33 months (amounting to a pay cut), eliminates two paid sick days and reduces the number of unpaid sick days from a possible 8 to 3, it revokes equal pay for part-time, contract and temp workers, and cancels the fairer scheduling provisions that were set to take effect on January 1, 2019. This will disproportionately affect those most concentrated in low paying and precarious jobs: Indigenous, migrant and racialized workers, especially women.
This will also renew a series of debates. After Bill 47 should we move on to other campaigns, ditch $15 and Fairness demands or strategies for something more “radical”, or put our faith in the NDP the next election? These debates have accompanied the campaign since its inception, and a look back can help answer them. As socialist Seattle city councillor Kshama Sawant recently explained to an organizing meeting of the $15 and Fairness campaign, movements are not an easy series of victories but a set of inspiring breakthroughs and frustrating setbacks—and we need to learn from both in order to build mass movements.
Campaign to raise the minimum wage
In 2014 the minimum wage had been frozen at $10.25 for four years, part of the 12 years of freeze between 1995 to 2015 under both Liberal and Conservative governments. The Campaign to Raise the Minimum Raise mobilized to demand $14/hr. Some called for different targets, saying that $14/hr wasn’t radical enough, or that each worker should fight for a separate target as determined by the calculated living wage in each different city. But the Campaign to Raise the Minimum Wage fought for $14/hr because it was a target that workers saw as both achievable, yet still exciting enough to really fight for. It was a demand that could unite working people across the province to apply the necessary pressure to win.
Others who put their faith in an NDP election were disappointed. When the Liberals responded to the movement by lifting the freeze, raising the minimum wage to $11/hr and tying it to inflation, the NDP could have supported and amplified it—reflecting and helping to build the campaign. This was a strategy that worked for Kshama Sawant, who was elected on a platform that supported $15/hr—as part of a movement that won the wage increase in Seattle.
But as Andrea Howath said at the time, “I respect the work of the grassroots movements that have been calling for the $14 minimum wage, but I think that what our role is right now is to consult with families that are affected, as well as small business particularly that’s also affected.” Implying that any increase in the minimum wage is a threat to small business provided no counter to the Conservatives, who campaigned against the wage hike, and allowed the Liberals to monopolize the anti-Tory sentiment and win the next election.
Fight for $15 and Fairness
But the movement continued to broaden—relaunching as the Fight for $15 and Fairness in 2015—and to win over the NDP across the country. Thomas Mulcair campaigned on a federal $15/hr minimum in the 2014 federal election, Rachel Notley campaigned on a $15/hr minimum wage in her election in Alberta in 2015, and John Horgan campaigned on the $15/hr minimum wage in BC in 2017.
But a comparison of Ontario and BC showed the impact of two different strategies to raise the wage: electoral change from above or mobilizing from below. In BC the Fight for $15 was a top-down campaign endorsed by the labour bureaucracy but not organizing workers, and based on supporting the NDP’s election. But when the NDP won on a promise to bring $15/hr, they followed the Green Party and abandoned the wage hike, again justified by big business talking points against the wage hike.
As NDP Labour Minister Harry Bains said, “we’ve listened to business owners, who have told us gradual, predictable increases are the way to go to minimize the impact on their businesses.” By contrast, the campaign in Ontario is based on mobilizing non-unionized and unionized workers. Through petitions, demonstrations, and supporting strikes from Mississauga library workers to York food service workers (which also fought Islamophobia and anti-Black racism in the workplace), the Fight for $15 and Fairness built a broad campaign that pushed the corporate-backed Liberals in Ontario to raise the wage faster than the labour-backed NDP in BC.
This was especially remarkable as the Liberals stated from the beginning that raising the minimum wage was “out of scope.” Some argued that intervening in government consultations was a waste of time, while others accepted the government’s attempt to ignore wage demands. But through continued organizing and mobilizing, the $15 and Fairness campaign kept the minimum wage on the table and wrested from the Liberals a series of major reforms that infuriated their corporate backers.
With Bill 148, the movement pushed the Liberals to concede to the initial demands of the Campaign to Raise the Minimum wage: raising the minimum wage to $14/hr (from $11.40), (tying the minimum wage was a win from the previous $14 Now!). It also won a scheduled increase in the minimum wage to $15/hr in 2019, the fastest increase to $15 across North America (with the exception of SeaTac); 10 personal emergency leave days were extended to millions of workers, the first 2 of which were paid, making Ontario the only province in Canada to provide two paid sick days for all; and legislation around equal pay, fair scheduling and easier unionization that disproportionately benefit the women and racialized communities previously denied these basic reforms.
Bill 148 represented a partial list of the $15 and Fairness demands: the Liberals maintained minimum wage loopholes that kept the wage lower for students and liquor servers and that denied it to farm workers; the two paid sick days were less than the seven demanded by the campaign; and the Liberals backtracked on holiday pay for part-time workers, as a last minute gift to corporations before Christmas. But the partial victory of Bill 148 was still historic, and one that Big Business vowed to challenge by any means necessary—from Tim Hortons clawbacks in January to the provincial election in June.
From Bill 148 to Bill 47
But the outpouring of support for Tim Hortons workers emphasized a problem Big Business would face in the election: two thirds of people supported $15/hr, including 42% of Conservative voters. Even as corporate Canada swung support from the Liberals to the Tories, demanding a reversal of Bill 148, their candidate needed to win a democratic election.
This worked for two reasons. One, Doug Ford lied. While he opposed the $15/hr minimum wage in the leadership debate, he couldn’t campaign on it because the movement had made it too popular. So he had to hide behind populist rhetoric—promising to stand up for the little guy, fight the elites, end hallway medicine and promised not a single worker would lose their job. But this only worked because the other parties refused to expose him. The Liberals couldn’t campaign on $15 and Fairness because they had only provided half the demands, and the NDP didn’t want to campaign on $15 and Fairness because they were late to supporting it and feared campaigning on it would support the Liberals; and they didn’t support all the demands either, supporting only five paid sick days.
The $15 and Fairness campaign knew it would have to keep mobilizing regardless of who was elected on June 7 and planned a mass rally on June 16 well in advance. It also understood the contradictions within Ford’s electoral base, which was important to pry open rather than close shut. Some called for the slogan “Fuck Ford,” which, by extension, condemns all the working class people who voted for him (including the multiracial constituents in his riding), and could have further cemented his popularity after the election. But the $15 and Fairness campaign kept focusing on the class demands of the campaign that could mobilize people regardless of who they voted for, and show people through their own experience who Ford really represented.
This meant that while the Tories won a majority in the legislature, the majority outside have continued to support $15 and Fairness—including many workers from many communities who voted for the Conservatives out of anger at years of Liberal austerity. Meanwhile the official opposition NDP includes a number of activists who have helped reflect the movement inside the legislature, reading the thousands of petitions gathered from across the province.
As a result, the Tories were not able to rapidly push through Bill 47. It’s taken five months to build the counter-attack. First they began trying to soften opposition by rewriting history to claim they campaigned against $15/hr when they didn’t, and made repeated media statements suggesting they had already frozen the wage and reversed Bill 148 when they hadn’t. Then Ford appealed to the Ontario of Commerce for help in fighting the movement, saying “these forces are already organizing…to stop us” and urging them to “keep fighting with me.” Finally, the Tories had to send Bill 47 to committee, using a rushed sham of a consultation process to claim a democratic mandate for an undemocratic bill.
Bill 47 is certainly a setback, but it’s more a case of two steps forward and one step back than a total defeat. The wage hike from $11.40 to $14 remains, as do 8 job-protected emergency leave days for all (albeit more highly proscribed)—reforms which benefit millions of workers that would never have happened through individual actions or electoral reform but only through a mass movement. The movement is also having ripple effects across the country—from the campaign launching in Newfoundland, to federal legislation mirroring the campaign demands that will become a focus of debate during next year’s federal election. While Bill 47 tries to shut the door to paid sick days in Ontario, federal legislation opens them across the country.
It’s important to acknowledge the setback of Bill 47—and what could have been done to build a bigger and broader movement to stop it—but not overstate the case, because this can lead to wrong conclusions about the way forward. Claiming the grassroots, patiently-built mass campaign is a total failure leads to the conclusion that we should instead resort to “radical” tactics like smashing windows or demanding the fall of the government—the first of which is a gift to Ford to condemn the movement, and the second of which is a mile ahead of where most people are at. Or it can lead to conclusions that movements outside the legislature don’t work, and that instead we have to put our faith in the electoral process—despite the proven limits of this approach from BC to Ontario.
What’s been effective, and radical, is not individual actions or parliamentary manoeuvres but the building of a mass campaign uniting non-unionized and unionized workers, placing the fight against oppression at the heart of fighting exploitation, and putting pressure on all political parties to deliver reforms that have been labeled “out of scope” until they have been won.
It’s been this approach that won the gains that remain, and that have laid the networks for the road ahead—both provincially and federally. Despite Ford’s majority in the legislature, backed by corporations and echoed by the media, 77% of people are now opposed to the government taking away their paid sick days and a majority oppose Ford’s halting the $15/hr minimum wage—reforms that until a year ago many thought out of reach. Despite Ford ramming through Bill 47, he has only been able to do so by fracturing his electoral base and revealing his real corporate backers. The full demands of the $15 and Fairness remain, and while there is now an openly hostile government opposing them, there is also a broader base of support—which can learn from both the breakthroughs and the setbacks the need to keep building a mass movement.