By Zaid Noorsumar
The Fair Workplaces & Better Jobs Act may have been enacted by the Liberals, but the groundwork to create a political climate to make such a bold move possible was done by grassroots organizers.
Kathleen Wynne, whose party froze minimum wage at $10.25 for four years between 2010 and 2014, wasn’t keen on a sharp increase in early 2017. She changed her tune four months later.
NDP leader Andrea Howarth, who endorsed a $15 minimum wage in April 2016, hadn’t always been so keen on a big jump either. In 2014, she had called for a $12 minimum wage by June 2016. That was significantly less than the $14 base wage anti-poverty activists were demanding back then.
Those activists eventually formed the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign, and razed to ground the framework of conventional wisdom on the issue. Here are the stories of four organizers who have been integral in achieving this major victory for Ontario’s workers.
Note: The transcripts have been condensed and edited for clarity.
How did you get involved in the $15 and Fairness campaign?
Five years ago in 2012 I met one of the organizers of the Workers Action Centre (WAC), and he invited me to a workers’ right workshop. I thought it would be useful for me to know more about workers’ rights and labour laws. Then I began attending WAC events and became a member, and came to know about their mission statement. Their goal is to improve workers’ living conditions and to fight against unreasonable labour laws. So I liked their mission statement and they invited me for their outreach activities. So I began helping them in their outreach work.
What role did you play in the campaign?
After one year (of being a WAC member), I attended a leadership program offered by WAC. Eventually I became a senior leader and began helping them with organizing and outreach work.
I helped them with their organizing programs, helped them with logistics, facilitated some of the workshops, and also went out to meet with Tamil people and speak to them, and organized some of the outreach among Tamil groups.
How did people in the community react to you?
Initially, in the Tamil community in Scarborough, as many are juggling multiple jobs, it was very difficult to find their time. But still, I went and explained to them about the importance of knowing labour laws, workers’ rights, and slowly, slowly, we invited them for organizing meetings. They didn’t want to come to the meetings downtown but were okay to come to Scarborough. That’s how more and more people came and they connected with us.
After that I came to know about these Tamil organizations functioning in Scarborough. Then I went to them and explained to them (about our work). They are also helping us now, and they send their representatives to our meetings.
What kind of groups are these?
They are all working in the Tamil communities. There are different programs – for seniors, educational programs for newcomers, young mothers’ programs. So we went there and conducted workshops on labour laws and workers’ rights for newcomers, so in a class we see Tamil people, we see people from Pakistan, from Bangladesh, India and from all over. For Tamil people we have translations of campaign literature (if needed), and our workshops would be conducted in multiple languages.
What other work do you do?
I contribute to the Workers’ Action Centre monthly newsletter. I write in Tamil about our campaign activities, our planning for the next month, and our upcoming events.
In addition I write articles in Tamil dailies and weekly publications. Initially these publications were very negative about the minimum wage. We would send articles but they wouldn’t publish them.
So I called them and spoke to them. I told them it’s very important because they always concentrate on the issues back home. There is very little information about the difficulties Tamil people here in Canada currently face. So I explained to them, they should know these things.
These articles were all about the importance of minimum wage. (It’s about) how much Tamil people were suffering in Ontario despite coming here with education – PhDs, Masters and all –but they don’t get proper jobs, how they are juggling with multiple jobs etc.
And also, I translated the leaflets and other campaign materials – how the economists supported this, the history of raising the minimum wage, the government’s position on this, the importance of $15 and fairness.
What did you learn from your experience in this campaign?
The importance of improving the minimum wage and the importance of improving labour laws. These are very outdated labour laws, even considering our own countries back home. We’ll continue with this struggle and we are going to support this campaign to make improvements in the labour laws.
What are the next steps for $15 and Fairness?
There are so many demands and not all of them were accepted. We asked for seven paid sick days but now there are 10 emergency days, but only two are paid. Also equal pay for equal work, they made some adjustment in the language, but still it’s not enough. And also fair scheduling, there are still some ambiguities in the language. We will continue to call on the government to make it clearer, to make it stronger, to favour employees.
How long have you been involved in the $15 and Fairness campaign?
I joined in February 2016 as a community organizer in Regent Park. And after one year, I became a community organizing mentor after a year.
What kind of work do you do as a community organizer?
We have a local monthly organizing meeting in Regent Park. We have 65 people in the committee. We plan any outreach committees we are doing in the community. We do things such as door-knocking and tabling at different community events. We also get involved in any rallies in the city, (such as for women’s rights or environmental causes). We also do presentations to different communities.
At different times, it is different things. Like in the beginning, we are focusing on increasing minimum wage. But it’s not only $15 per hour that is important. Some people may be earning more than $15 per hour, but there is no fairness. They don’t work decent hours, or don’t get respect at work, or don’t have the right to form a union.
For example, Regent Park Community Health Centre, most staff are unionized. But some of them, like cleaners, are not included in the union. They joined in our campaign to get their rights. Now (after Bill 148 has passed) they have rights making it easier to unionize.
How was the response to your outreach work from people in your community?
In the beginning, it was hard for me to get a response from the community, because it was new for them. Also since most of them are immigrants, they don’t know what their rights are. So they were scared about joining the campaign or signing a petition.
Though that (fear) was a problem, we used different ways to (appeal to them). We would go door-knocking and talk to people in person, and also included people from different communities among us. Like we had a Bengali leader, a Tamil leader and a Somalian leader in our group. Once people saw these people, they started to listen to us.
After May 31, when Kathleen Wynne announced that she was going to increase minimum wage, after that it totally changed. People came to congratulate us, and then asked what activities they could join us in. They noticed that our work was successful.
What did you learn from your experience in the campaign?
In the beginning, when we were reaching out to community people, we thought it’s a very high demand. From $11.40 to $15, it’s huge right? But I continued organizing in the community. I would question myself all the time– is this possible? But it shows that when people come together for grass-roots mobilization, we can move forward.
What’s next for $15 and Fairness?
Our goal is to reach out to every single person in Regent Park and tell them, “Know your rights as a worker.” Then if their rights are violated, we are going to build a direct-action group for Regent Park. If someone needs help, we can refer them to WAC. We will also reach out to different community groups.
And my target is to reach out to front-line health workers in this community to educate them on the changes in labour law due to Bill 148, which will affect them.
How did you get involved with the Workers Action Centre?
It was a meeting, a women’s place, in Scarborough, and they called me that night to come to a meeting. And two of the staff members here (at WAC) were there. And I thought ,“This place is so interesting. Where were you guys when I fractured my ankle (at my daycare job)?” And this was at the workplace. My staff member was icing me and I thought I had a sprain but it turned out to be a fracture. It was a nightmare.
And you had no benefits or any form of compensation?
No, and that’s why I was always fighting for paid sick days. At that day care, a non-profit, we had no sick days, no benefits. And working with children, and doesn’t matter, if you had your boosters and everything up-to date, you have to come in contact with kids. I had gotten, along with other teachers, pink-eye, and these diseases are contagious. I had to take (unpaid) time off work, and had to get eye-drops at my own cost.
What has been your role in the $15 and Fairness movement?
As a senior leader, I organize in Scarborough in the Malvern community. I do a lot of outreach with David (Harris), who’s also in Scarborough in the Tamil community. So we do a lot of outreach, presentations and workers’ rights workshops together. We get petitions signed, hand out buttons and leaflets. Then we have information tables at different events. Scarborough Town Centre is a really good connection, where we are able to get a lot of people coming and going there. This year we were able to get close to 20 new members to join WAC.
Can you tell us more about the specific types of outreach work you do?
We have done presentations to social work students at Centennial, we have done visits to MPPs, we did a workshop at Polycultural Immigrant & Community Services for newcomers,
we’ve done outreach at Pape subway station and Taste of Danforth and we’ve got more to go.
The Tamil Fest this year was huge. We shared a booth with OPSEU. And there were over 200,000 people who attended Tamil Fest. And we had 33 WAC members come and help throughout the event. We had a lot of signatures (for petitions), handed out a lot of leaflets and had a very busy weekend.
Why do you think $15 and Fairness is important?
I just did a workers’ rights workshop last week for single mums. And some people weren’t even aware of what the current minimum wage is. Information is so important, right? They know it’s going up to $14 and then $15 but not many people know it is $11.60 [at the time of this interview the minimum wage was $11.60].
And then we did workers’ rights workshops, and we were able to tell them what’s happening with Bill 148 and what’s coming up. It’s amazing how many people don’t know of different things in the ESA (Employment Standards Act) or what the minimum wage is.
What have you learnt from your involvement in this campaign?
At Malvern Community Centre, we did a table there. They got two hockey rinks. We had an information booth there. That’s probably because most of those people are making more than $15 an hour if they’ve got their children in hockey. We didn’t have a really great reception there. But most of the places we’ve been, have been great experiences.
What I’ve been learnt mostly is that not everything works but mostly it’s been great when we’ve done presentations and workshops. Even I have learnt a lot about things like ESA, which you tend to forget over the years when you’re working. It’s an interesting subject learning about how the labour movement began. You know, once you get here, and you take the training, you’re like, wow. You know, you go and get a job, and you don’t think about the old days and what happened – people had to fight for workers’ rights we take for granted today.
How did you get involved in the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign?
I got involved when I was a student at York University. I was writing my thesis on temporary employment agencies and I saw a flyer for a panel on precarious work. It was hosted by the $15 and Fairness group at York University. I found out more about the campaign at the panel and started coming out to meetings after that.
You have been working on the $15 and Fairness campaign for a while now, why do you think it is so important? What kept you going?
I think the campaign is important because so many of us are currently struggling to survive with precarious jobs. It has become very difficult to find permanent jobs that have benefits and pay well. There are so many negative impacts of living this way and it needs to change. What kept me going is just knowing that no one deserves to live this way and that until it changes, my friends, family and community members will have to continue to struggle and be exploited.
What kinds of organizing did you do in the campaign? On average, how many hours per week did you work?
There were a wide range of things that I did while organizing. This included doing outreach at various events to get petitions signed and raise awareness. It also involved doing presentations and workshops to educate people on the campaign and the reality of work in Ontario. I also helped build a local committee in Brampton to provide a space for others to also get involved and provide their input. At the start of the year I worked an average of 7 hours a week on the campaign. Halfway through the year, I had the opportunity to increase my involvement and worked an average of 28 hours a week.
What is next for the campaign?
The next phase of the campaign will be educating workers across Ontario so that they know what our new rights are. But also, we want to make sure that we can access these rights so we will want to help workers be able to enforce these new rights. In addition, we will fight for more protections as there are still so many exemptions in the Employment Standards Act. This means that many workers are still not entitled to all of the most basic of protections that have been set out. There is also still a lot of work that needs to done around temp agencies.
What did you learn from your experience in this campaign?
I learned a lot from my experience with the campaign. It is such an enlightening and inspiring movement to be a part of! I learned how to organize, but most importantly, how to do it in a way that includes all communities and groups in the movement and gives them a voice. This was truly a multi-racial, diverse movement that included people and groups from all walks of life. That is one of the reasons why we were able to achieve so much.