By Alia Karim, Peter Hogarth and Jesse McLaren
On March 23-24, 2018, the Fight for $15 and Fairness movement organized their third annual provincial strategy meeting to look back on the lessons of the past year and plan for the months ahead. With 10 weeks to go to the Ontario provincial election, and the threat of a Conservative government in June, this was an important time for activists from around the province to meet.
Over 250 participants attended to discuss how to defend the movement’s gains and fight for more. The Fight for $15 and Fairness has already won significant victories through Bill 148—including a $14/hr minimum wage in 2018 and $15/hr in 2019, equal pay for equal work, 10 personal emergency leave days (two of them paid) for all workers, card-check certification for building service workers looking to unionize, and important changes to liability requirements for temporary labour agencies and the companies that hire them. These substantial gains were won by a broad-based, grassroots movement, uniting non-unionized and unionized workers, students, faith and migrant communities, health workers, injured workers, and others. From Sudbury to Windsor, London to Kingston, the campaign has greatly expanded. But the movement is still fighting for more, including the extension of paid emergency leaves; ending the unfair sub-minimum wage rates for farm workers and workers under 18 and extending protection for migrant workers; capping the number of workers that can be hired through temp agencies; and making it easier for workers to unionize. Precarious work disproportionately affects women and racialized workers—but it is they who are leading the fight.
Since January, when the minimum wage increased to $14, there has been a growing backlash from the 1%. Tim Hortons franchisee owners began to claw back hours and paid breaks. Temp agencies are furious that equal pay and health and safety provisions remove incentives to exploit temp workers. And newly-elected Progressive Conservative leader, Doug Ford, wants to cancel next year’s raise to a $15/hr minimum wage and improvements to labour law passed in Bill 148. Like Trump, Ford is appealing to low-income communities who have suffered through years of Liberal austerity, claiming that he will cut “waste” in the Ontario government and save taxpayers money (which really means cutting public services) to support “the little guy.” But opposing the legally-enshrined minimum wage increase is a warning that he will open Bill 148 legislation and gut it.
In one strategy session about the election, organizers discussed how many Ontarians are frustrated with 16 years of Liberal rule, particularly with Liberal government cuts and scandals and, more recently, Kathleen Wynne’s privatization of hydro. On top of that, there is a real threat of Ford to gain more popularity and use the anger toward the Liberals to get Conservatives ahead. But organizers agreed that instead of being fearful and paralyzed by the Conservatives, and instead of narrowly focusing on electoral politics, we must push our issues front and centre and force all candidates to reflect their election promises on demands of the Fight for $15 and Fairness. The campaign is based on a growing movement led by workers and their communities—not the priorities of elected officials in government. This means that for the next 10 weeks the campaign will organize education workshops, canvasses, solidarity actions, picnics, letters, social media blasts, and more, to the election day, and after it, so that we grow the movement for decent work.
Guest speakers emphasized how the fight for decent work in Ontario is part of broader fights here and around the world. As climate justice activist Avi Lewis explained, “caring work is climate work,” and the fight to improve the wages and conditions of existing low-carbon workers is a climate solution. Meeting participants then sent a solidarity photo to the Indigenous-led climate justice movement on the west coast working to stop the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Bhairavi Desai, an organizer with the New York Taxi Workers’ Alliance, explained how the fight for decent work is part of the fight against racism and Islamophobia: New York taxi drivers who are a predominately racialized workforce, have been organizing against Uber and Lyft. In January 2017, drivers went on strike against Trump’s racist travel ban of immigrants coming to the U.S. from Muslim-majority countries—sparking the shutdown of the JFK airport and an online campaign against Uber. Desai explained how their movement was a continuation of struggles led by the left—from the Arab Spring to Occupy to demonstrations against Trump. Later, Ekyeong Kwak, LGBTQ activist from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, told of how the fight for the minimum wage and against oppression was the foundation of the mass movement that toppled the repressive South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, last year.
The way in which struggles against sexism, racism, and capitalism are connected, and fought through workers’ movements, was on display throughout the two-day meeting. Every session showcased the impressive women that are at the forefront of the fight for decent work in Ontario, organizing in their communities, schools and workplaces for $15 and Fairness. It was incredibly inspiring to have so many workers under one roof—so many of them racialized women—strategizing on how to raise the confidence of combativeness of working class people in Ontario.
This inspiration can inform the next 10 weeks leading up to the Ontario election, as the Fight for $15 pushes all parties to defend and extend the gains of the campaign. Borrowing from the Fight for $15 in the US who planned nation-wide minimum wage strikes across the country after the 2016 presidential election, Ontario’s Fight for $15 and Fairness and the Ontario Federation of Labour are organizing a demonstration for decent work on June 16, 2018, the week after the election, to pressure whoever is elected to reflect the decent work demands that workers are raising.
This was first published by socialist.ca