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CUPE Ontario calls on McGuinty Liberals to raise social assistance rates, minimum wage

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Patti Encinas has a dream that one day she'll finally land a full time job. She dreams of being able to afford a proper pair of prescription eyeglasses or going to the dentist on a regular basis. A few years ago, she "splurged" and went to see a dentist for a routine examination. But she hasn't been back since.

For almost 11 years, Encinas has worked part time in a hospital with no benefits. She loves her job, the people she works with and takes pride in the work she does.

"(But) some days it's really hard to bite my tongue when I hear remarks about how nice it must be to have all that extra time off," she said at Thursday's rally at Queen's Park.

Working part time gives her ample time to sit at the kitchen table in front of all her bills, figuring out how she's going to pay them. "Shaving a little more here and a little more there all in hopes of meeting the minimum payments."

By the time she's finished, there won't be anything left for a rainy day. In spite of it all, she's thankful that her part-time job keeps her "one nostril above water." She'll never forget what it was like living on social assistance.

No amount of juggling bill payments could make ends meet. She still drinks her coffee black, a habit stemming back to her days on welfare when she had to make the powdered milk she got from the food bank stretch as far as possible.

There just wasn't enough milk to put in coffee and cereal.

"So next time you're standing in line at the grocery store frustrated at the long lineup, think about the simple purchase of milk as a coveted luxury," she said. "(But) they'll be no long lineups two weeks down the road."

That's when social assistance recipients and the underemployed will have run out of money. And while they're lining up at the food bank, politicians will be meeting in five star restaurants devising new ways to implement austerity programs that will make life harder for those already struggling.

"Make no mistake, they're coming after your job next," said Encinas. "Take time in that grocery line to think about who you're going to vote for in the upcoming (provincial) election."

Members of CUPE Ontario took a break from their convention on Thursday to send a message to the McGuinty Liberals about the growing poverty in their communities, the vital role played by public services and the importance of good jobs.

"For far too long politicians have ignored the issues that matter," said Candace Rennick, Secretary/Treasurer, CUPE Ontario. "These are issues that we will have at the top of our minds come election day in October."

Along with community allies, activists, workers, students and other Torontonians, they marched from the Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel to Queen's Park.

CUPE called on the government to raise social assistance rates, restore the Special Diet Allowance and set a minimum wage that people can live on. They also want an increase in funding for public housing, childcare and post-secondary education in order to keep these services affordable and accessible.

The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) has partnered with CUPE Ontario for several years as they fight for increases to welfare, disability and minimum wage rates. OCAP believes that this is one crucial way to improve the health of poor people.  

The union representing more than 200,000 workers in the province also urged the premier to strengthen employment standards, safety provisions, sick pay and restore anti-scab laws and card certification.

The Workers' Action Centre in Toronto works with non-unionized people who call their office daily about unpaid wages and unsafe working conditions. Most secure employment through temporary agencies that foster precarious work in companies around the city.

"We are not going to take this any more," said Sonia Singh, an organizer with the Workers' Action Centre.

Two weeks ago, Singh was inside the provincial legislature with two workers who stood up to talk about thousands of dollars owed to them from a painting company.

"This is a company who has broken the law time and time again, a company that hires workers knowing fully that they are not going to pay that worker."

Singh said companies do this with the knowledge that they can ignore orders from the Ministry of Labour without suffering the consequences.

"Wage theft pushes workers into poverty," said Beixi Liu, an intern-organizer with the Workers' Action Centre. "We need the laws to be enforced."

Click here to see more photos from the rally and march.

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