By Sean McNeill
On Saturday, September 15th the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign launched coordinated actions in over 15 cities across Ontario, kicking off a busy fall schedule. The chaotic start to the Legislative Assembly’s fall session, and worrying signals from the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, has put the campaign on the offensive. Saturday marked 15 weeks before the minimum wage reaches its final increase to $15 per hour under the Plan for fair workplaces and better jobs Act, previously known as Bill 148.
Ontario’s new government has presented a serious challenge and a determined opponent in the new Premier, Doug Ford. Ford’s electoral platform included a commitment to freeze the minimum wage at $14, and it now appears that the Progressive Conservatives are testing the waters for a potential rollback of other labour protections included in Bill 148.
With the introduction this past week of the Notwithstanding Clause to the Ontario political landscape, and a clear pivot to hyper-partisan governing strategies, there is renewed attention on direct action and protest turn-out as legitimate political tools to oppose the government.
The day as seen from Belleville
Belleville, Ontario is a small city along Highway 401 between Toronto and Kingston. It has a population of roughly 40,000 and is the gateway to Prince Edward County, a popular tourist destination for cyclists and wine-lovers. It is close to Cobourg, where the Northumberland and the Durham Region labour councils organized a major rally last January against local Tim Horton’s franchise owners and Horton heirs, Jeri-Lynn Horton and Ron Joyce Jr.
On Saturday, people gathered in the parking lot of a roadside mall resting at the foot of the Norris Witney Bridge in the Bay of Quinte. Most of the over 20 participants had not met or worked together before. The event was co-planned by the Quinte Labour Council and the Kingston chapter of the Fight for $15 and Fairness.
The event brought out an informal network of individuals who felt personally impacted by the issues or who wanted to show their solidarity. This included at least 15 participants who were both unionized and enjoyed workplace protections equal to or greater than what Bill 148 provides.
Michelle Dalrymple, a secondary school teacher in Belleville, felt a personal responsibility to stand with workers who do not benefit from a union: “My union has worked so that I enjoy fair wages. That should be extended to everybody in Ontario. I have extra money in my pocket to spend on goods and services, as well as taxes.”
Scott Marshall, a fellow teacher and community member, agreed: “We have seen a shrinking middle class and [Bill 148] gets workers one step forward, back on that path.”
Willa Thayer, from Kingston, described how the precarity of her work meant that she worries about the minimum wage even when she is earning more: “In recent years I have lived on minimum wage. As a precarious worker this issue continues to affect me. I can only rent a bedroom because I can’t rely on my current wages of $24 per hour, because it is only temporary.”
The rally was held outside the constituency office for MPP Todd Smith, current Government House Leader and Minister of Government and Consumer Services. While Smith was busy at Queen’s Park in an emergency legislative session, the organizers ensured he would be well informed of their campaign by leaving promotional material on his office windows and doors.
The participants marched the parking lot for about an hour, getting gracious honks from passing cars and a few questions from Saturday morning shoppers. Many participants exchanged contact information to ensure they would be able to support each other in future actions.
The Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign has ambitious plans to keep up the pressure against the Progressive Conservative’s anti-worker agenda, which has already manifested in a commitment to halt the minimum wage increase.
For those involved in the campaign, the stakes are significant. Willa Thayer summarized her concerns and her support for the movement in this way: “There should be a minimum standard of living in a wealthy country, and I am very concerned about what even $15 [an hour] can afford for rent for a single mother. But I love how people who are doing better, such as unionized workers, are supporting this campaign.”
If you would like to get involved in the campaign or find an upcoming event to support in your local area, visit the Fight for $15 and Fairness website’s event page and connect with the campaign on social media.
If you live in Ontario, you can show your support in between events by emailing your local MPP to tell them you support this issue.