Getting to $15 and Fairness

How large numbers of society’s most vulnerable organized and won a historic victory
July 1, 2018

Protesters demand $15 minimum wageMarch for a $15/hr minimum wage at the University of Minnesota, April 2015 (Photo by Fibonacci Blue ,Flickr Creative Commons).

Ontario is in the middle of a labour organizing renaissance. On November 22, 2017, the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign celebrated the provincial legislature's passing of Bill 148, the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act. The campaign's feisty, creative struggle to raise the minimum wage and establish a series of worker protections for those toiling in precarious jobs achieved a remarkable triumph that changed the lives of millions of Ontarians. What makes these legislated gains even more impressive is the fact that it was workers employed in precarious jobs who, through their organizing efforts, made this possible.

But the crucial role played by workers in this story has garnered surprisingly scant attention. Big media outlets focused on chronicling the mounting anxiety among Canadian businesses, with some additional commentary centring on the significance of these changes in relation to the machinations of the embattled (and since vanquished) Liberal Party of Ontario. If some commentators were ready to attribute the new law to the force of former premier Kathleen Wynne's moral convictions, others saw in it no more than craven political opportunism heading into the 2018 provincial election.

For their part, the labour and left media portrayed the passing of Bill 148 as a long-fought victory and, given the worker-hostile climate in the province, an extremely surprising one. But stories tended to move too quickly from the campaign itself to the tremendous gains it extracted: the unprecedented timeline for raising the minimum wage to $15; the introduction of equal pay for part-time workers and some paid sick time; the reigning in of the abuses of misclassification, zero-hour contracts and on-call scheduling; the re-introduction of card-based certification in some sectors where precarious work dominates; and the adoption of more stringent enforcement mechanisms.

It is hard to disagree that these gains are well worth reporting. For the millions of workers who will benefit directly and indirectly, the new legislation means not only an increase in wages but also an increase in workers’ control over their working conditions. But it is to the detriment of the left that we have failed to pay more attention to the on-the-ground organizing efforts represented by the $15 and Fairness campaign, especially since workers in precarious jobs are often seen as paragons of the growing ranks of the unorganized.

A difficult sector to organize

Scholars who study the rise of precarious jobs over the last two decades don't always see eye to eye, but they generally agree on how difficult precarious workplaces are to organize. Precarity makes workers reluctant to protest their condition, they argue; pervasive fear and vulnerability achieve the same results for business as Pinkerton guards used to with bats and bullets.

Temp worker pools and the fast-food, retail and building services sectors present other big challenges for organizers. The jobs they offer tend to be massively dispersed, and workers may not even know who their employer is. The construction crews erecting Toronto's highrise condos or laying out Ottawa's new light rail transit line are often contracted by an array of employers and subcontractors. Outsourced building janitors can find their employer has changed overnight because the contract was flipped to another firm. Temp agency workers move constantly from workplace to workplace, rarely knowing where they will be from week to week.

Such a challenging organizing landscape may help explain why some unions and progressives initially thought the demands of the campaign were unrealistic. It seemed reasonable to assume that the Liberal government of the day would not support such a high wage demand; after all, even the NDP's minimum wage promises were capped at $14 an hour. Given this context, it is more than pertinent to ask: how did some of society's most vulnerable workers manage to execute a winning campaign yielding a range of unprecedented legislative gains that many in the labour movement believed were impossible?

How the victories were won

In seeking an answer to this question, we may be tempted to draw comparisons to the Fight for $15 campaign currently being fought across the United States. Not only has this struggle garnered a huge amount of publicity, but it has also seen some significant if more uneven (compared to Ontario) gains. The City of Seattle passed a $15-an-hour wage ordinance, for example, and other cities have achieved victories around non-wage demands such as scheduling rules. In New York City, workers must know at least two weeks in advance when they will be working.

The Ontario and U.S. campaigns share a few other things in common, including the wage demand for $15 an hour, the devotion to improving working conditions beyond income, and an emphasis on legislative reform rather than seeking change at the level of individual employers. It is also just as difficult to access precarious workplaces in Ontario as in the U.S. For this reason, both campaigns have deployed tactics based on creative action, including targeting corporate brands, lobbying government officials, and mobilizing in the streets outside workplaces and government offices.

But there are also important differences between the campaigns. Two main distinguishing features are the distributed and grassroots character of the movement in Ontario, and the scale of the struggle on each side of the border. In the U.S., the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of the country’s largest unions, led the Fight for $15 campaign for many years, pouring millions of dollars into it and helping 400 New York City fast-food workers stage (in 2012) the sector's biggest strike action in U.S. history.

In Ontario, by contrast, the $15 and Fairness campaign has been run out of the Toronto-based Worker's Action Centre (WAC), a small, spunky outfit with a skeletal staff of full-time organizers. Its limited resources betray the fact that $15 and Fairness has received nowhere near the level of support from labour that the Fight for $15 once did in the U.S.

The second distinguishing feature is that in many states in the U.S., wages and working conditions are legislated at the municipal level, whereas in Ontario minimum wages and most workplace protections are provincially regulated. For this reason, the $15 and Fairness campaign had to encompass the whole province rather than targeting individual cities.

In 2014, when WAC set out to reignite an earlier effort to raise the minimum wage, its staff and activist base began by building up campaign groups in scores of cities all around Ontario.

"The organizing infrastructure in the province still hasn't recovered from the Harris days," argues Fight for $15 and Fairness organizer Karen Cocq (pictured, right, at a 2015 rally in Toronto). "As time goes by, more and more people lack the experience, resources and capacity to be able to creatively mobilize on labour issues in and outside of unions." This frayed organizing infrastructure meant that workers needed to be given the tools and the experience of organizing if the campaign was to go anywhere.

Karen Cocq speaks at rally for $15 min wageToronto rally for Fifteen and Fairness, April 2015 (Photo by Ontario Federation of Labour).

I met with Cocq recently to discuss what made $15 and Fairness so successful. Out of this conversation emerged three key organizing priorities that drove the campaign and enabled it to build the kind of grassroots power necessary to bring about structural change.

1) Echoing workers' complex and urgent issues

When I ask Cocq how the campaign's issues, concerns and priorities were identified, she says they came directly from the communities where the organizing was taking place, “by starting with asking questions.” It was through this process of talking and listening to workers in precarious jobs that organizers grasped the importance of expanding the parameters of the original campaign to increase the minimum wage.

Cocq recounts how, through a constant cycle of focus groups, sidewalk discussions and kitchen table encounters, it became abundantly clear that workers were concerned about a range of problems. A higher minimum wage, organizers were told, would only address one aspect of multifaceted challenges, like having to send a sick child to school because they can't take a day off work, trying to juggle more than one part-time, casual, or on-call gig, and navigating child care or school given erratic schedules.

Many of the "beyond the wage" issues raised through the Ontario campaign relate to the need to attend to the often invisible background conditions that make life possible and bearable—from having time to buy and prepare food for oneself or one's family to taking care of aging parents. This kind of unpaid work has an obvious gender component, as women still shoulder disproportionate responsibility for managing the complex demands of domestic and social life. And a disproportionate number of workers in precarious work are women, especially newcomer and racialized women. It is not surprising, then, that women made up a significant share of the campaign's activist base. 

The incorporation of demands beyond the minimum wage into the $15 and Fairness campaign reflected the priorities and desires expressed by the workers. WAC was able to recognize these demands and bring them to the forefront thanks to a pre-existing and on-going commitment to building relationships with them.

2) Mobilizing through relationship building

$15 and Fairness benefitted from WAC's years of building a membership base in ways that reflect this commitment to creating and strengthening relationships, to build power from the ground up. Cocq relates this approach to a model of worker-centred organizing that seeks to build workers’ confidence and leadership through campaigns that can win concrete gains. "The $15 and Fairness campaign took that model [and] just kind of massified it." 

It all begins with a solid understanding that the model is "really about relationship building,” says Cocq. "And that's everything from building relationships with workers to building alliances. It's that deep relationship building that creates the infrastructures you can then tap into to be able to mobilize people. Relationships instil trust and encourage a willingness to get involved. Relationships are social power."

As straightforward as this sounds, it is something that Cocq believes many of us have forgotten: "[If] you think meetings are the way things happen then you're not seeing three-quarters of the things people are doing, things that are happening, the networks people have, the relationships people have and how you turn all that into social power. It is a latent social power that people use in all kinds of ways, whether it’s a community feast at the Gurdwara or a protest in front of the Ministry of Labour."

Key to the relationship-centred form of organizing pursued by the $15 and Fairness campaign is figuring out how to nurture those people in the movement that are best positioned to tap into relationship networks and build their leadership.

"It's not me who should be going to Rexdale (in Toronto) to talk to newcomer Somali youth working in temp agencies," says Cocq. "But we have workers who have relationships in—and are part of—those communities." She recounts how it wouldn't be unusual to see, at WAC meetings, "workers who range in age from 21 to 64, who are from all parts of the city, who speak Punjabi, Somali, Spanish, Mandarin or Tamil, who are white Anglo working class folks, all in a room together strategizing, making decisions together, learning from each other."

3) Building workers’ leadership

This relationship-building approach differs markedly from established top-down political campaigns, which tend to focus on activating the already mobilized. "If we can invest in [workers] so we can actualize those relationships, [we can] convert the fire that they have into something bigger," Cocq adds. "That builds a kind of resilience and responsiveness, a diversity of people power and experience that is invaluable."

For this reason, a third priority of the campaign to invest heavily in “building up a diverse and broad group of worker organizers who could lead the campaign’s efforts in their workplaces, communities, schools and places of worship." Cocq points to the example of a woman who became a $15 and Fairness organizer in Toronto's Regent Park. "Her social skills were her organizing skills," Cocq says, explaining how this woman met regularly with other women in the neighbourhood. "She used their existing social networks and relationships to organize with them in a way that that worked for them."

Developing this deep level of recognition and trust among workers and their communities helped the campaign to cultivate a spirit of courage and audacity, but also a sense of ownership over its ultimate success.

A few days after the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act went into effect on January 1, 2018, a few Tim Hortons workers in Cobourg, Ontario used social media to declare their boss was punishing them in response to the new legislation. Their postings went viral, triggering online calls for a boycott of the beloved brand. $15 and Fairness organizers held press rallies and staged demonstrations outside Tim Hortons franchises.

"Workers know that the government didn't just hand down this victory," says Cocq. "They know they won this." For many, she adds, this feeling translated into a long-term commitment to struggling for better working and living conditions within and beyond the workplace.

Instilling such a long-term commitment to struggle matters even more now that the Progressive Conservatives are back in power in Ontario. When we met in May, Cocq told me she saw ceaseless organizing as "the key to dealing with the inevitable corporate backlash to increased worker power and protections."

These were prescient words: the day after Ontario's provincial election, an op-ed in the Financial Post wasted no time calling on Premier-designate Doug Ford to repeal Bill 148. In this new political landscape, there is a clear need to continue organizing in order to defend the movement's important gains.

Fiona Jeffries is a scholar and activist working in the autonomist tradition. An organizer with the Ottawa Sanctuary City Network, her work broadly focuses on how people struggle against the differential vulnerabilities produced by capitalist society.