By Doug Nesbitt, David Bush and Gerard Di Trolio
For the last week Ontario has been ground zero over the struggle for a higher minimum wage. On Wednesday workers struck back against greedy employers and inequality with 17 coordinated protests across the province. The actions were directed at the most high profile offender, Tim Hortons, whose company had seen many franchise owners cut back paid breaks and shifts in retaliation for the minimum wage.
On short notice, in some cases less than 24 hours, hundreds across the province protested through the day. At least 200 picketed one of the Cobourg Tim’s slowing business to a trickle. This is the franchise owned by the heirs to the Tim Horton’s fortune.
In Dundas near Hamilton another 150 hit the picket lines as well as 150 at Yonge and Bloor in Toronto. Other pickets and protests were large – 75 in Windsor, 60 in Ottawa, 40 in London, with over numbers ranging from 50 to 20 at each of the numerous Toronto actions, as well as in Guelph and Peterborough. By all counts more than a 1,000 people hit the streets on actions that were mostly called on 36 hours notice.
More actions are already scheduled for the next week. Union flags from the public sector and private sector were on display, along with Fight for $15 and Fairness placards and countless home-made signs.
The message was clearly resonating with the public. Activists from across the province all reported larger numbers than they expected, fliers were snapped up at rapid pace. Laurell Ritichie, a long-time labour activist, who was handing out fliers at an action at Bloor and Spadina noted, “Its been a long-time since I was at a protest where people were this eager to get our materials.”
Protesters were greeted an unending amount of supportive honks and positive greetings from Tim Hortons’ customers and passersby. Almost every single person had heard about the issues at Tim Hortons and most expressed their disgust at the greed. As one Tim’s customer said of the company when being handed a flier, “they’re millionaires, they don’t want to pay.”
The protests have received major national and local media coverage and gained wide sympathy and support. They’re a necessary response to the employers trying to counter-attack the $14 minimum wage and other improvements to employment standards coming into effect January 1.
This sends a message to all employers about the cost of messing with workers. Importantly it also deals employers a major body blow in the battle for ideas about the minimum wage and workers’ rights.
As Pam Frache, the provincial coordinator for the Fight for $15 and Fairness explained:
“I think the message we are hoping to send that we love Tim Hortons workers and we want decent work and wages for all of them. We are not going to stop until every worker has $15 in their pocket. We knew we had to stay mobilized to counter what (the business lobby) message was going to be. We have strength in numbers of ordinary workers.”
Over the past 8 months employers have been losing the battle for public opinion. Their countless studies claiming huge job losses have been unable to stoke the fear they wanted. It is important to situate these “rogue” employers in this context and understand that this is part of a wider business lobby effort of smashing up labour law reform and rolling back workers’ wages and rights.
Far from over
The employers who have attacked workers after January 1 have faced a major backlash. But this is far from over. By actually fighting, the workers’ movement have put the business lobby and the ruling class on their back foot. The pressure from workers organizing from below has sown divisions within the business community and the ruling political class. The tumult between Tim’s parent company and franchise owners has been reignited, while the Liberals have been forced to turn o parts of the business community.
We should not squander this moment by assuming our work is done. Let’s take this energy into building organization. There’s still the chance to launch or rebuild Fight for $15 and Fairness chapters, revitalize our Labour Councils, promote the Workers’ Action Centre provincial tip line, and take seriously the need to organize the unorganized. This means talking to workers, gathering information, and creating the groups and networks we need to push this fight forward.
Employers are on the back foot. Let’s press our advantage and keep building workers’ power.