The year ahead presents the labour movement in Ontario with a serious opportunity to achieve major victories for the province’s working class. In early 2015 the Liberal government launched the Changing Workplaces Review looking at both the Employments Standards Act (ESA) and the Labour Relations Act (LRA). This year the review will issue recommendations and the Liberals are likely to table legislation in response.
This means that the debate over the ESA and LRA, what rights all workers should have, will grow louder and fiercer. What that debate and any subsequent legislation looks like will be determined by who is better organized and who asserts more pressure: workers or employers.
In the spring of 2015 labour, student and community groups launched the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign in the hopes of pushing for better legislation and building power beyond the review process. The campaign demands a series of improvements to both pieces of legislation such as anti-scab legislation, seven paid sick days, an end to contract flipping, greater enforcement of the ESA, and of course a $15 minimum wage.
Over the last 18 months the campaign has grown significantly. It has pulled off a number of major demonstrations, signed up thousands of people to the petition and has built local chapters of the campaigns on campuses and in communities across the province.
The employer campaign
Employers have not been sitting idly by during this process. While it has been mostly quiet on the media front, employer-friendly voices have begun to publish more frequent critiques of the pro-labour demands. The Ontario Chamber of Commerce (OCC) has launched the Keep Ontario Working campaign to push for employer-friendly changes under the review process. Last year the OCC pushed for and won government implementation of the Red Tape Challenge, a crowd-sourcing effort to locate and strip away regulations in key economic sectors.
The Wynne government itself looks long in the tooth. Wynne’s personal approval ratings are abysmal. Sixteen percent approve of her performance while 78 percent disapprove. Her government does not fair much better and is tied with the NDP at 24 percent, while Tories are polling at 43 percent.
The constant corruption scandals, sky-high hydro prices, hospital cuts and dismal employment numbers have made the Liberals deeply unpopular. There is little doubt that the Wynne Liberals will respond to these challenges by trying to replicate their 2014 electoral strategy of splashy but empty “progressive” promises to hold onto the their GTA base and win over wayward NDP voters.
The Basic Income façade
The announcement of the Basic Income pilot project is one such Liberal initiative aimed at disorienting labour and making it seem like the government is responding to the crisis of precarious work.
The reality of the Basic Income pilot project is quite different. It is far less progressive than it sounds and is actually one of the demands being pushed by the OCC in the Changing Workplaces Review. This is because Basic Income dovetails perfectly with governments and businesses who want to attack and defund public services.
As John Clarke notes, the Liberals “are looking with great interest at the possibility of using Basic Income as a stalking horse for their regressive social agenda and it will be the version that Bay Street has in mind that will win out over notions of progressive redistribution.”
Basic Income is a long way off from being implemented or even tested, but the notion of a Basic Income will be held out as a promise by the Liberals in order for them to avoid implementing concrete measures to improve workers’ lives.
The Liberal’s strategy
The Liberals are also likely to carve out labour legislation based on the recommendations of the review that sounds good, but in reality impacts very few workers.
One example of this is the NDP-proposed Bill 26, which the Liberals want to incorporate into the review. The bill proposes 10 paid days leave for workers who have survived sexual violence to do things like go to court, see a counsellor, go to the doctor. The catch is that those workers have to disclose their experience to their employer and provide evidence.
While this bill addresses the serious problem of workers dealing with sexual violence, its solution is ineffective and unlikely to help many workers in practice. How many precarious workers dealing with sexual violence will actually feel confident enough to disclose this to their employer?
The NDP and the OFL have both supported the bill because it brings up a very important issue. However, it is more than a possibility that the Wynne government is likely throw its weight behind this bill in order not to give workers seven annual paid sick days for all workers with no doctor’s note required. This is what the $15 and Fairness campaign is demanding.
The fight over Personal Emergency Leave (PEL) is another example of how the Liberals are likely to shape labour law. Under the current ESA, workers in workplaces with 50 or more employees are entitled to 10 unpaid PEL days – to be used for an illness or death in the family. Employers early on in the review process fought to curb the amount PEL days and how they could be used. Labour and community groups fought back and the end result was the Liberals rolled back PEL days, starting on January 1, to 7 for a specific group of workers, those in the auto sector.
For the Liberals this is a trial balloon, carving out regressive changes in a targeted area, which further erodes minimum workplace standards in the name of greater flexibility. The loss of PEL days for autoworkers shows that the fight over the ESA and LRA will take on something of a zero-sum game between employers and workers, one side will and the other will lose.
The $15 and Fairness campaign faces further hurdles in 2017. The Ontario Tory party under the Patrick Brown has adroitly already captured most public anger around political corruption and hydro rates, despite the latter issue ostensibly favouring the left and labour because of its privatization. The right has also been emboldened by Trump’s victory.
Winning $15 and Fairness
But the Fight for $15 and Fairness has many things going for it. It has built numerous active chapters across the province. It has developed a dedicated layer of labour and community activists and has a toehold in the student movement. Its rallies and public presence has grown significantly over the last year. It has even gotten the NDP on side on the $15 minimum wage.
The labour movement has a chance to redefine the political conversation in Ontario this year. Instead of having the upcoming election be about Liberal corruption, sex-ed in schools and the Hydro debacle, labour could make it a referendum on good jobs. This requires labour leadership to step up its funding of the campaign, set aside book offs and to find the money to hire more staff to work on the campaign. It also means using the Fight for $15 and Fairness demands to organize the unorganized and raise expectations of unionized and non-unionized workers alike. Airport workers, campus food service workers, janitors and grocery store workers have already begun to do this.
It also requires a commitment by labour and community activists to make the Fight for $15 a strategic priority. If the campaign is to be successful it has to achieve victories and in order to do that it needs to grow and quickly.
Beyond the election cycle this campaign remains important for labour because it has the potential to unite union and non-union workers by raising the floor of workplace standards and giving renewed power and energy for trade unions to set the bar. With a rising rightwing stoking racism, xenophobia and anti-union sentiment and an economy producing only bad jobs, it is more important than ever that labour think big and Fight for $15 and Fairness.