The Campaign for $14: First Steps Towards a Better Labour Movement?

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Op-Ed by Peter Bazarov

An image from the Workers Action Centre website of the August 14, 2013 street party held in Kathleen Wynne’s riding.

On February 15, on a bone-chilling Saturday afternoon, almost five hundred people flooded Dundas Square calling on the government of Ontario to raise the minimum wage to $14 / hour.  It was the latest (and largest) of a series of once-monthly street mobilizations by the “Raise the Minimum Wage Campaign”.

This campaign, which pushes for broad class based demands, and uses mass protest as one of its primary tactics should be understood as a chance for a positive reorientation of labour politics in Ontario; a chance to start making a labour movement that is at home not with the stuffy politics of parliament but with the militant politics of the street.

The possibility of such a re-orientation, though still at a stage of infancy in Anglo-Canada, comes hot on the heels of major labour mobilizations in the United States, with successful strikes carried out by fast-food and other minimum wage workers all over the country; and with the successful struggle in Washington state, where the workers of SeaTac won a 15$ minimum wage in their city.  There are also precedents here in Canada, with the Quebec student protests and Idle No More bravely blazing a trail that relies on grassroots people power instead of relying solely on lobbying corrupt and over-paid politicians.

An image from RaiseTheMinimumWage.ca website.

In addition to a greater focus on militant street politics, the 14$ minimum wage campaign is also significant in that its focus goes beyond the usually narrow demands of organized labour.  Instead of focusing on simply defending the rights and privileges of better paid unionized workers, it is a campaign that calls for a wage increase for millions of un-unionized Ontarians, including those who currently earn below the 10.25$ minimum wage such as agricultural and migrant workers. Furthermore, this is rare in the labour movement in that this is not just a defense of existing gains by the working class, but is a counter-offensive against the interests of big business.

All this in mind, the demand for a 14$ minimum wage is essentially a modest one, at a time when the majority employers of minimum wage workers, such as McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, are raking in hundreds of billions of dollars in profits every single year, a push for a wage which sits at only 10% above the poverty line is not asking for much.  Nevertheless, all of the large parliamentary parties, including the so-called “worker’s party” that is the NDP, have rejected a 14$ minimum wage as too extreme with the NDP Ontario leader Andrea Horwath instead proposing a more “balanced” wage increase to 12$ by 2016. Such blatant opportunism has even caused even some close labour allies of the NDP to take pause, with Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan criticizing Horwath’s position as “unacceptable”.

Given the NDP’s track record of prostrating themselves before big business and attacking the interests of workers, students, and first nations peoples every single time they have been elected (we need only remember Bob Rae, or look to the recent Nova Scotia electoral loss for proof), this more recent betrayal is not surprising. However, the lack of any truly representative parliamentary party at the moment does bring into sharp relief both the current need for organizing in the streets, and the absolute necessity for organized labour to not only vocalize a criticism of the NDP but to do something concrete.

The on-going monthly protests for a higher minimum wage are a positive development. Yet, if they are to lead to any real changes, they must evolve into something more than simply the demand for people to be paid just enough to afford both paying rent and buying food for their family. For the 14$ minimum wage to have any lasting effect it must be approached not as an end goal, but as a stepping stone for building a peoples’ movement in the streets. Uniting middle and low income workers, students, and First Nations—demanding not just a higher minimum wage but also improvements in housing, migrant worker rights, healthcare, education, and environmental policy. The only way the modest gains of winning a 14$ minimum wage can be consolidated is if these gains lead to a movement which doesn’t just improve upon our society, but completely transforms it.

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