On Wednesday, May 14, Ontario’s Campaign to Raise the Minimum Wage used the provincial election to re-assert the demand for a $14 minimum wage for all workers. Although the general minimum wage is set to increase to $11 on June 1 thanks to pressure from across the province, this 75 cent hike will still leave full-time minimum wage earners more than 16 per cent below the poverty line. This helps explain why the call for a $14 minimum wage continues to resonate across the province.
The May 14 action highlighted the challenges faced by young workers in today’s labour market. Importantly, the Ontario Federation of Labour and the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario, along with the Campaign to Raise the Minimum Wage, sponsored the action. Young workers — those under 25 years of age — comprise the majority of minimum wage earners; since 2008, the proportion of young people in minimum wage jobs has increased dramatically.
But a decent minimum wage is not just a youth issue. According to the Wellesley Institute, in Ontario today, about one million workers earn less than $14.25 an hour and more than 60 per cent of them are adults over the age of 25. Racialized workers are almost 50 per cent more likely to be in low-income work and women comprise a higher proportion of low-income workers in every demographic category. These workers face all the same challenges as young workers.
Alongside concerns about growing inequality, public opinion polls have consistently shown high support for raising the minimum wage. Indeed, the suggestion that any person working full-time ought not to live in poverty seems like a no-brainer for people of all political stripes. Yet it is clear that it will take a significant mobilization from below to push decision-makers to act.
This is precisely the lesson being learned in the United States where, on May 15, the largest strike to date of fast food and retail workers took place in 150 cities (and in more than 30 countries around the world) to back their demand for a $15 minimum wage.
In a referendum last fall, voters in the Seattle suburb of SeaTac adopted Proposition 1. This historic victory establishes a $15 minimum wage, annual cost of living increases and — for the first time — a modest number of paid sick days for minimum wage earners within the jurisdiction. At the same time, Seattle voters elected to council Kshama Sawant, an openly socialist candidate who put the $15 minimum wage issue at the heart of her campaign platform. So popular was her campaign that she defeated an incumbent councilor and known Democrat.
In fact, Seattle’s widespread support for a $15 minimum wage pushed both leading mayoral candidates to declare their support for the wage hike. These electoral victories were preceded by a wave of organizing that included mass walkouts at fast food stores across Seattle.
This month, the Seattle council is debating a proposal that would phase-in an indexed $15 minimum wage over the next three to seven years. Meanwhile, under the banner of “The Rent Won’t Wait,” Seattle’s Fight for $15 continues to demand an immediate increase to $15 and joined the May 15 strike action. They want a November ballot similar to SeaTac’s Proposition 1.
Service work is the fastest growing sector of the economy. It is significant that over the past two years, fast food, retail and grocery store walkouts have taken place in multiple cities across the United States — an incredible accomplishment for non-union workers who are helping to remind all of us that that, with or without a formal union, economic power resides with workers in every workplace.
But the use of strike action is only the most visible part of an ongoing and painstaking effort to build grassroots campaigns that are shaped and led by low-income workers themselves. Community-labour alliances in Chicago, New York, Seattle, Minneapolis, Austin and elsewhere have put the question of wages and self-activity at the heart of the campaigns.
Crucially, the fight to raise the minimum wage has been linked directly to the right to form unions; indeed, many activists see the fight for $15 as an extension of the struggle to protect and extend trade union rights in the face of anti-union attacks.
This latter point is a critical one. The fight to raise the minimum wage here — or anywhere else — is not a fight solely for non-union workers. As the labour movement knows all too well, low wages anywhere mean downward pressure on wages everywhere. Raising the wage floor means challenging deep-seated assumptions many of us hold about how work is valued and who is deserving (or undeserving) of higher wages. And indeed, to defend a wage hike for any worker — unionized or not — means confronting the myth that raising workers’ wages necessarily means expensive coffee, high priced automobiles or a ballooning public deficit.
Neither is the fight to raise the minimum wage an act of charity or an effective public relations strategy to improve the public’s attitude toward unions (though this might be a happy side-effect of such work).
In Ontario, there are, quite literally, thousands of unionized workers in the public and private sectors who earn less than $14 an hour. The $14 minimum wage campaign offers a unique opportunity for union and non-union workers to come together as equals to engage in a common cause. It is a campaign that unites older and younger workers, that links workers across sectors, that generates solidarity with and among women and racialized workers, and that has the potential to lift all boats. In short, the $14 minimum wage campaign is about rebuilding working-class solidarity.
This is precisely why the fight for a $14 minimum wage is a key plank in the fight against Tim Hudak and the general austerity agenda in all its forms — an agenda that seeks to drive down workers’ wages here and everywhere else. By attacking union structures, restricting collective bargaining, curtailing the right to strike, undermining workers’ ability to pool their financial resources through dues collection and restricting union expenditures, the world’s 1% seeks to fragment and disarm workers’ ability to resist collectively.
Hudak’s promise to cut 100,000 public sector jobs is as much about dismantling the social safety net, dividing workers and weakening public sector unions as it is about handing over yet another windfall to already profitable corporations.
Unfortunately, in the Ontario election, no political party has yet raised the banner of the $14 minimum wage. And although the ONDP has the best position with a $12 minimum wage phased in over two years, this wage would still leave full-time workers 12 per cent below the poverty line, even if it were indexed to the cost of living. Nevertheless, the Ontario election provides progressives with an opportunity to reassert the urgency and necessity of a $14 minimum wage.
By seizing this opportunity to build the confidence of our friends and allies — including NDP candidates — to stand up and speak out, we can lay the foundation for what lies ahead after the election. Indeed, the most crucial weapon in our fight against Hudak is not at the ballot box, but rather in the strength of the movements on the streets and ultimately, in the workplaces.
For information on Ontario’s Raise the Minimum Wage Campaign, visit www.raisetheminimumwage.ca.
Pam Frache is the former Research and Education Director for the Ontario Federation of Labour. She is currently a contract instructor at Brock University’s Centre for Labour Studies and a member of CUPE 4207.
Check out the rest of the UP! Canadian labour rising series here.