A pitched battle is currently taking place in Niagara Falls with implications for the future of decent work in Ontario. On Clifton Hill, the heart of Niagara’s tourist district, a courageous group of nearly 100 restaurant workers are on strike against one of the region’s largest employers: Canadian Niagara Hotels Inc.
The predominantly female workers at the Rainforest Cafe have been seeking a contract for over a year and have been out on strike since April 7. They said “enough is enough” and formed a union in early 2018 when their employer responded to the $14 minimum wage increase by forcing them to give back more of their tips and include their managers in the tip-out.
After Ford’s Tory government gutted Bill 148 and cancelled the promised $15 minimum wage, odds are that wealthy corporations like Canadian Niagara Hotels only feel more buoyed by Doug Ford’s first provincial budget. Massive cuts to public services were announced alongside various goodies for big business and a shift towards a new “self-regulation” model for the Ministry of Labour.
Ford responded to the pleas of tourism operators who wanted to “level the playing field” with casino facilities on the US side of the Falls, announcing that he would allow them to advertise free alcohol promotions and start selling booze at 9:00am. But what about levelling the playing field for ordinary working people?
On the other side of the Falls in New York, it is illegal for managers to take part in tip-pools. On the other side of the Falls, New York has a $15 USD minimum wage and a burgeoning One Fair Wage campaign seeking to eliminate the legalized wage differential for tipped employees.
If Doug Ford truly cared about pursuing an agenda for the people, he would adopt these policies here rather than providing gifts and reduced oversight for big businesses.
Self-regulation doesn’t work
Niagara Falls, Ontario is a fascinating case study on the perils of self-regulation. The tourism operators in the Falls “self-regulate” an infamous tourism destination fee that has been the subject of multiple exposés by CBC Marketplace and other news outlets. It is inconsistently advertised and applied, not to mention that there is no transparency as to where the funds go.
Similarly, workers who are forced to participate in Canadian Niagara Hotels’ tip-out system are not provided with a detailed breakdown of the tip-splitting. We have asked for a full accounting of this information from the employer in collective bargaining sessions and were essentially told that it was “none of our business”.
Deena Ladd of the Workers’ Action Centre commented that the shift of the Ministry of Labour’s resources towards self-regulation will be perceived as “open season” for bad employers. She is absolutely correct – workers will face a higher risk of exploitation and abuse.
Fighting back against sexual assault in the workplace
Rainforest workers say a failure of self-regulation – the disastrous mishandling of the issue of workplace sexual assaults – was the lightning rod for their strike vote. Three employees came forward with stories of being assaulted by the same co-worker. After the employer conducted an investigation, the assailant was shockingly permitted to return to work – only to terminate him five days into the strike after the issue became public and the Ministry of Labour paid a visit.
To our knowledge, no orders from the Ministry were posted in the workplace – meaning either none were written or the employer refused to post them. While we remain fundamentally opposed to any move towards greater “self-regulation” of employers, this experience suggests that our current model is far from perfect.
So far, the only approach to bring results for hospitality workers in Niagara is collective action – an unrelenting combination of workplace organizing, union solidarity, and public pressure. This strike, now in its third week, has captured the attention of thousands of hospitality workers in Niagara and put hotel operators on notice. We should all be taking note.
This strike could be a defining moment for the future of labour in Niagara. A win for the Rainforest workers will be a win for all hospitality workers and provide a new spark to the movement for decent work in our province.
Leanne Pearce-Graham is a member of Workers United Local 2347 and currently on strike at
the Rainforest Cafe.
Ryan Hayes is a researcher with Workers United Canada, the union which represents
Rainforest Cafe workers and over 500 hospitality workers in Niagara Falls.