Lessons from the Fight for $15 and Fairness in Ontario (by Alia Karim)

Workers in the Global North have experienced decades of austerity measures designed to promote “flexibility” in the job market, privatization, and competition. As corporate profits continue to break records, the majority of workers have seen their wages stagnate. In Ontario, over 1.7 million workers earn less than $15 an hour.

The proliferation of precarious part-time, contract and temporary jobs, prompted organizers in Ontario’s Fight for $15 and Fairness movement to build a grassroots, multi-racial campaign to raise the floor of labour standards.

For over three years, we have been organizing, protesting, striking, and lobbying to raise the provincial minimum wage to $15 an hour, and demand “fairness” in terms of paid sick days, equal-pay language, stable scheduling, and access to unionization.

But the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign is not only about these demands—it’s about building workers’ power. Capitalists can only make their profits if workers sustain production. When workers refuse to go along, they can enact powerful pressure to improve working conditions, and also to transform the production process itself. Workers have not only fought for important reforms like unemployment insurance, healthcare, workers’ compensation, parental leave, and more, but they have sought broader political change, which we now see in the climate justice movement’s demands for ‘green’, climate jobs.

It’s this power to extract real concessions from capital that makes workers’ movements, like the Fight for $15 and Fairness, so important.

Petitioning in Parkdale, a low-income neighbourhood in Toronto.

Organizing for $15

The ruling Ontario Liberal Party launched the Changing Workplaces Review in 2015 to update minimum work standards. It was during this time that organizers in the Workers’ Action Centre in Toronto decided to draft a new set of demands to raise workers’ expectations about what we could win. The main goal was to raise the minimum wage, which was frozen under the past Conservative and Liberal governments. The growing Fight for $15 in the U.S. was a huge inspiration to us and we wanted to link our movements. In April 2015, the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign was born. They laid out twenty-six demands that came from the needs of workers, not the business community, politicians, or academics.

Then came the real work. Workers needed to build power ‘from below’ at workplaces, campuses, unions, and in the streets. We spent time teaching new organizers how to petition to people, especially those who oppose raising the minimum wage. Business lobbyists had flooded the media with apocalyptic scenarios that raising the minimum wage would result in mass job layoffs, inflation, the death of small businesses, and overall, economic depression. So, we had to convince hundreds of thousands of people that raising the minimum wage makes for a fairer economy:

A $15 minimum wage would increase aggregate demand, it would NOT hurt job creation: recent minimum wage increases have boosted workers’ purchasing power, meaning that aggregate demand would increase as well. Low-income workers would spend in their local economies which would help local businesses. Research from the U.S. (cities like Seattle and SeaTac) shows no job loss effects.

A $15 minimum wage would mean a boost to the economy, it would NOT force employers to raise their prices: it would actually mean a $5 billion boost to Ontario’s economy from workers’ spending. Yes, a high minimum wage would offset some part of the higher labour costs to business, but there is no instantaneous, automatic mechanism between higher labour costs and higher prices.

It took years of petitioning on the streets to popularize the demand for $15. The campaign built a network of campus groups at Ontario universities and colleges. At York University, we used the petition as a way to reach students who rely on minimum wage jobs. Campus chapters organized petitioning, workshops, class talks, coordinated days of action, a province-wide Campus Assembly, and strike support when Ontario College contract faculty demanded equal-pay in their Fall 2017 strike.

The campaign also built extensive networks, such as the Decent Work and Health Network to build public pressure for paid sick days, our faith caucus who made a statement framing workplace inequality as a moral issue, and our Climate Caucus raised awareness about how a shift to an economy in balance with the earth’s limits requires an expansion of work sectors that are already low-carbon: caregiving, teaching, social work, the arts and public-interest media.

Fighting Racism Through the Fight for $15 and Fairness

Organizers in the Workers’ Action Centre—the vast majority of whom are women and workers of colour—have been at the crux of the movement. The Centre has built up the confidence of former minimum wage and temporary agency workers to organize. They have done so in multiple languages—Spanish, Tamil, Bengali, Tibetan, Mandarin, Punjabi, Somali, and more, which was crucial to reaching non-unionized, low-wage immigrant workers in the Greater Toronto Area.

The campaign’s foundation was based on several organizers of colour leading different chapters of the campaign, namely, Somali organizers in Etobicoke, low-income black and brown organizers in Brampton, Mississauga, and Regent Park, Tibetan organizers in Parkdale, and Tamil organizers in Scarborough. We invited black organizers in the U.S. Fight for $15 to our provincial strategy meetings, and Kshama Sawant, a brown socialist politician on the Seattle City Council who helped lead one of the first Fight for $15 victories.

On the ground, I organized student solidarity for Aramark food service workers’ strike for a $15 starting wage and decent work conditions at York University. The workers, mostly women of colour, faced daily harassment by management who yelled at them, followed them on their breaks, and cut their hours. My dear friend, Malka Paracha, a visibly Muslim worker who took a lead role in the strike, publicly explained that her manager harassed her for going to pray on work breaks. At strike rallies, workers explained how they faced racism which provoked a shared struggle with students who also experienced racism and Islamophobia. Public attention to the strike created immense pressure on management to concede, and the 160 striking workers won $15 starting wages and health benefits for both full-time and part-timers.

Paracha said that she always wanted to speak out at work before the strike, but herself and her co-workers simply didn’t have confidence. “Before we didn’t know to fight back against any violation of human rights or discrimination”, she claimed. That changed with the strike. She explained: “With the help of student power we could fight back harder, 100%. We learned how to fight back. It was a learning period for us–to learn how to fight for our rights. Students were the encouragement”.

Malka Paracha, a food service worker at York University.

The unity of students and workers at York relates well to what socialist politician Kshama Sawant said about the Fight for $15 in Seattle:

“The only reason it became such a historic victory in Seattle was because black, brown, white workers all rejected that false divisiveness. Workers of colour and white workers recognized—and we wouldn’t have won if they hadn’t—that we have to fight for this together, because our fates are interlinked.” Sawant outlines a crucial lesson of unity for all of us building social movements, from workers’ movements, to Indigenous sovereignty, to healthcare and climate justice.

Victories and setbacks

Our sustained pressure on the government throughout the Changing Workplaces Review, led them to pass Bill 148 (Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act) in November 2017. Bill 148 was a ground-breaking victory for the Fight for $15 and Fairness. The bill presented the quickest timeline to a $15 minimum wage in North America. The minimum wage raised to $14 in January 2018, and workers were promised $15 in January 2019. For the province’s 675,000 minimum wage workers, it meant a 30 per cent wage increase. Bill 148 gave workers access to 10 job-protected Personal Emergency Leave (PEL) days (two of which were paid), introduced equal-pay based on employment status, and enforced scheduling changes, such as requiring employers must pay for three-hours of work if they cancel a shift within 48 hours. This victory was not a gift from the Liberal Party—it was wrenched by a determined movement, built from below by workers themselves. And, when a handful of Tim Horton’s franchise owners took away workers’ paid breaks and benefits in response to the $14 increase, hundreds of community supporters showed up to Tim’s locations all over Southern Ontario to show their love for workers.

But while we celebrated our huge win, we knew that a storm was brewing. The ruling Liberals faced public backlash from years of cuts to social assistance and the privatization of public hydro. The Conservative base grew as a result of this anger, and as the June 2018 Ontario election approached, Doug Ford led with issues like tax cuts, reduction in hydro and gas prices, “buck a beer”, and making “efficiencies” in government spending. As the campaign for $15 and Fairness campaign, we decided that no matter who formed government, we would put pressure on them through a Rally for Decent Work.

On October 23, 2018, as we anticipated, the Conservative government announced the official repeal of Bill 148. They introduced Bill 47 (Making Ontario Open for Business Act) to freeze the minimum wage at $14/hour until 2020, and eliminate hard-won gains, such as 2 annual paid sick days for all workers. Again, business lobbyists had flooded the media with myths about the impact of raising the minimum wage.

The Conservatives claimed that Bill 148 was a “job killer” and pointed to the fact that Ontario lost 80,000 jobs in August 2018. However, when we take a broader view of the data, it reveals that Ontario added 103,000 full-time jobs in the last year. In September, Ontario added another 36,000 jobs. The Conservatives’ claim that Bill 148 ruined the economy and hurt workers has no basis in reality.

Somali organizers rally outside of Doug Ford’s constituency office.

Why We Keep Fighting As

I write this the Conservatives are reviewing Bill 47—which is expected to pass since they have a majority government. Some people ask, well then, what’s the point of struggling for a higher minimum wage?

It’s easy to give up when there’s setbacks. But what the Fight for $15 and Fairness has done is built the confidence to push back, which is necessary to fight for a better world—we’ve had tens of thousands of ordinary people sign the petition, we’ve centered new organizers of colour and low-wage workers, and we’ve had tons of young people learn how to organize for the first time. And, we have popularized the demand for $15 so much that the Conservatives’ decision to rollback workers’ rights has damaged their popularity. We’re building a strong social force for the future, so we can lead struggles for economic, social and ecological change.

The Fight for $15 and Fairness extracted a historic concession from capital. We won the increase to $14 this year, despite all the businesses who said that it was too much to ask and claimed that it would destroy the economy. Our actions were too big to ignore by mainstream media, who were forced to open up discussion about precarious working conditions. Our fight isn’t over but all throughout this journey we’ve thoroughly exposed the cracks in ruling ideology and built a determined, persistent movement.

Categories: Uncategorized

Leave a Reply