The minimum wage is scheduled to increase from $14/hr to $15/hr on January 1, 2019 for approximately 1.7 million workers in Ontario.
Progressive Conservative (PC) leader and Premier Doug Ford announced in the during the PC leadership campaign that he would cancel the scheduled increase and freeze the rate at $14/hr.
A September 14 op-ed in The Financial Post by the Minister of Labour, Laurie Scott, suggested that the government will freeze the minimum wage at $14/hr. On September 26, Scott said again that the government intends to freeze the minimum wage will be frozen at $14/hr and that legislation will be introduced in the fall.
There is no clear indication from the government how long the minimum wage will be frozen at $14/hr and which provisions within Bill 148 will be rolled back or watered-down.
With that being said, Ford’s government has demonstrated over the past few months that it will steamroll its agenda through the legislature. The strategy will be no different with the minimum wage and Bill 148.
The reality Ontario faces today with the Ford government is similar to what working people confronted in 1995 when PC leader Mike Harris became premier following the NDP government of 1990-1995.
Harris and Ford were both were elected with large majorities in similar political climates. It is therefore important to understand Harris’ approach to dealing with the NDP’s Bill 40, as Ford is using the playbook that Harris mastered.
The NDP’s Bill 40
Bob Rae’s NDP government announced their intent to reform the Ontario Labour Relations Act (OLRA) – which governs the relationship between unions and employers in most workplaces – in their Throne Speech in 1990.
In 1992, the NDP’s Bill 40 was introduced after a comprehensive review and consultation process had occurred. Following hundreds of presentations in multiple locations, the Bill received Royal Assent on November 5, 1992 and came into force on January 1, 1993.
Bill 40 was considered by labour to be a step in the right direction. Some of the advancements in Bill 40, included: an anti-scab provision, extended coverage to workers who were previously excluded from union representation, and greater access to private property for picketing and organizing.
From the outset, groups such as the All Business Coalition and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business unleashed ruthless campaigns suggesting that the proposed changes would destroy Ontario’s economy.
A report produced by Ernst and Young for the Council of Ontario Construction Association detailed how 295,000 jobs would be lost along with $8.8 billion in investment within five years, while another estimate suggested that 500,000 jobs would be lost along with $20 billion in investment because of Bill 40.
The doomsday predictions propagated by big business never materialized. In fact, from 1993-1995 when Bill 40 was in existence, Ontario’s economy grew by over 6%, thousands of new jobs were created, and business investment, exports, and corporate profits all increased.
The PC’s Bill 7
The PC government led by Mike Harris quickly moved to implement its anti-worker agenda following the 1995 election. The Employment Equity Act was repealed and workers’ compensation was restructured to the detriment of injured workers over a number of years.
Harris took aim at Bill 40 in August of 1995 by suggesting, without evidence, that the Bill was hampering the province’s economy. The PCs suggested that their proposed legislation would ensure that Ontario would once again be “be open for business.”
The PC’s Bill 7 was introduced on October 4, 1995 and received Royal Assent on November 10, 1995. The legislative steamrolling took place over a mere 36 days.
No consultations, town halls or legitimate debates took place; although no consultation or review of any kind would have altered Bill 7 and the PC’s anti-union ideology.
Harris went straight for the jugular of organized labour and he did it swiftly to ensure there would be minimal opposition. It did not help that there were deep divisions in organized labour and that there were no grassroots groups similar to the Fight for $15 at that time which could mobilize working people against Bill 7.
The PC’s Bill 7 was a major setback for the labour movement. The anti-scab law was eliminated and it became more difficult to unionize and easier to decertify, as the card-check system was replaced by the mandatory-vote system.
The Liberal’s Bill 148
The Liberals completed a comprehensive labour law review of both the Employment Standards Act (ESA) and the OLRA, from 2015-2017.
When Bill 148 was introduced in 2017, most of the corporate media along with the big business lobby commenced a hyperbolic campaign suggesting that the sky would fall if the proposed changes were made.
The Ontario Chamber of Commerce reported that within two years 185,000 jobs would be lost. Similar reports came from other corporate lobby groups and right-wing publications.
The alarm bells sounded by the big business lobby and corporate media have so far proven false, just like they did with the NDP’s Bill 40. In Ontario, since the minimum wage increased, the unemployment rate has been around its lowest level in 18 years, both full-time employment and part-time employment have increased since last year, while the average weekly number of hours worked have increased and wages grown.
This is not to say that millions of working class people are no longer struggling, but it certainly puts some myths to bed, particularly the myth that raising the minimum wage will create economic catastrophe and will negatively impact workers.
During this period, the big business lobby’s fear mongering campaign has also resoundingly failed, as 66% of Ontarians still support the wage hike, including over 40% of conservatives.
Taking on Ford’s agenda
Since the election, Ford has taken a sledgehammer to many Liberal policies.
The government also announced that WSIB premiums will be reduced by nearly 30% for employers. This will cause a fiscal crisis at the WSIB, which will result in cuts to entitlements and services for injured workers.
It is only a matter of time before Ford attempts to steamroll a bill through the legislature to freeze the minimum wage at $14/hr and repeal Bill 148, similar to what Harris did back in 1995 with Bill 7.
However, history does not need to repeat itself.
If working people want to fight back against Ford’s anti-worker agenda, they cannot rely on or expect the corporate media and their attacks on Ford’s personality to effectively combat his programme. Workers cannot rely on “moderate” conservatives to rein in Ford, nor can they rely on political grandstanding by the opposition to defeat the government.
Labour will have to organize and mobilize like it did during the Days of Action and apply the lessons learned from those battles to the current conditions. Trade unions will have to work in conjunction with the Fight for $15 and Fairness , student, anti-poverty, and tenants groups in order to build a common front of working class people.
As time proceeds, actions will have to escalate and workers will have to engage in levels of civil disobedience not seen for many years. Ultimately, the most effective way to challenge anti-worker governments is by using the greatest weapon in the arsenal of the working class: the general strike.