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Students fighting to raise the minimum wage

Image used by permission of Fight for $15 and Fairness - York University.

On this week's episode of Talking Radical Radio, Scott Neigh speaks with Jessica Chen and Jermaul Newell. They are students at York University in Toronto and are active with the campus chapter of the Fight for $15 and Fairness, which is working to raise the minimum wage, improve basic employment standards, and build solidarity between students and workers.

The extensive mobilizing by low-wage workers pushing to raise the minimum wage has been one of the most widespread and energetic movements of recent years. It has taken different forms in different jurisdictions, but across North America these campaigns have come together under the common banner of the Fight for $15, which encapsulates the core demand of a raise in the minimum wage to $15/hr. Though the outcomes of these campaigns have also varied from place to place, they have won at least some level of increase in minimum wages in a lot of jurisdictions, and they have won commitments to phase in the full $15/hr amount in more than few.

Though bringing the minimum wage up to more livable levels is the most visible demand in pretty much all of these campaigns, on some level they are also about more than dollars and cents. Whether it is present mainly in the details of the many stories that low-wage workers tell about their lives, or whether it finds expression in concrete demands, all of these campaigns convey a more expansive vision of dignity and a message of solidarity. They are about all of the many ways that low-wage workers get ground down because of how employers are allowed to treat them, and about their growing determination to stand together and get that changed.

Ontario is one of the jurisdictions where demands beyond the minimum wage level have been most clearly articulated, in part because the provincial government has been undertaking its first exhaustive review of the rules around basic employment standards in two decades. In Ontario, the campaign is called the Fight for $15 and Fairness.

Along with regular actions in communities across the province -- often anchored by workers centres, labour councils, anti-poverty groups, and other kinds of organizations -- the Fight for $15 and Fairness has also included plenty of campus-based organizing. This is really not surprising: years ago, when it came to grassroots politics, the categories of "student" and "worker" were treated as separate, and the political work done by activists in their respective milieus was often quite distinct. Increasingly today, however, students have no choice but to be waged workers as well. Tuition in Ontario is among the highest in Canada and lots of students can only afford to pay for school, rent, food, and all the rest by working one, two, or even more jobs. And most jobs available to youth pay the minimum wage or only slightly more.

Jessica Chen is a third-year student at York University in Toronto. She works two minimum wage jobs in the service industry, so she has a very personal stake in raising the minimum wage and in improving basic employment standards. Jermaul Newell is a seond-year student at York. He also works for a wage, but in his case it's in a unionized position in the auto sector. This means the issues of the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign don't impact him directly, but he participates because he believes that solidarity among workers in different situations is crucial to making advances for all working people.

Chen and Newell tell me about the broader Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign and about how it is playing out at York University. In particular, they illustrate very clearly how the campaign as it is happening at York may have begun from the strong hook of the $15/hr wage demand, but has quickly built to a broader vision of better lives for low-wage workers. Yes, like most Fight for $15 and Fairness groups across the province, they are mobilizing to put pressure on the provincial government as we draw closer to the expected summer release of the final report from the employment standards review. But the York group goes even farther: they are part of broader efforts to build alliances between students and workers on the campus. They played a role in supporting the recent strike by food service workers on campus employed by private-sector giant Aramark, who demanded and won a raise to $15/hr. And they see it as essential to talk about how racial justice and economic justice are tied together, and to name and challenge racism as an integral part of building the solidarity necessary to win dignity and better lives for all workers.

You can learn more about the provincial Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign and about the chapter at York University.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada. We give you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow us on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

The image modified for use in this post is used by permission of Fight for $15 and Fairness - York University.

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