With the Ontario election in full swing, some activists in the province have been trying to use the moment to advance their issues.
Organizers with Justice for Workers, a campaign oriented around a simple phrase—”decent work“—have taken to constituency offices and metro stations around the Greater Toronto Area to highlight and advocate for a higher minimum wage, paid sick days, and temp workers’ rights.
Not only have these issues taken center-stage during the COVID-19 pandemic, but a number of political parties have embraced some of the campaign’s demands, incorporating them into their platforms.
The Breach spoke with Pam Frache, provincial coordinator for Justice for Workers, to discuss their campaign and the politics of fighting for decent work—before, during, and after election day. Frache is a long-time organizer with the Workers Action Centre in Toronto, which runs campaigns to build power in workplaces.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
With the June 2 election around the corner, can you reflect on the last four years of Doug Ford in Ontario. How have workers fared? Have they gotten ahead or fallen behind?
They’ve definitely fallen behind. And what’s such a disgrace about this government is that the first thing that they did when they came into office was roll back the $15 minimum wage, cancel paid sick days, and roll back other labour law reforms we’d worked so hard to win under the previous Liberal government. The negative impact of that is just incalculable.
And then on top of that, you have the global pandemic. Doug Ford sent workers into the frontlines of COVID-19 with less money, no paid sick days, and fewer protections under the law. So it’s no wonder that workplaces were hotspots for COVID. Then add to that his attacks on union members, like limiting public sector wage increases to 1 per cent when we have inflation rates that have surpassed 30 year peaks—it’s been a really devastating four years under this government.
In your canvassing, what kind of issues are on workers’ minds?
Definitely wages. I think COVID-19 had the effect of really exposing the inequality and the unfairness in the system. So many people saw for the first time that it wasn’t the corporate CEOs keeping us fed, and clothed, and cleaned. It wasn’t the Bay Street lawyers. It was the frontline workers—often earning minimum wage with no paid sick days—that kept us all functioning. It’s not lost on people that Jeff Bezos made out like a criminal, as did Galen Weston and all the grocery store empires. I think there’s a real outrage around that, not only from workers themselves on the frontlines and in those positions, but I think for other people who maybe have better jobs and could work from home. I think they’re much more open to hearing about these issues. So when we’re out canvassing the response is tremendous. It recharges my batteries every time we step out and talk to people. That makes me feel very hopeful.
What have organizers found effective to talk people through some of the big-picture issues and socialist ideas?
It’s not so much that people don’t know the situation. It’s more a question of what precisely can we do about it? Sometimes progressives think that they just have to inform people about how bad it is, and then people spring into action as if those living it don’t know how bad it is.
I think the real question is, what can be done? That’s where some of the conversations have been a bit longer. Because let’s face it, for poor people and working class people, life doesn’t change all that much depending on who gets elected. People don’t feel like there’s dramatic differences from one government to the next. When you’re a minimum-wage earner, or you’re in precarious employment, or you’re struggling with stringing together multiple jobs, life is generally hard. The idea that elections can bring some change—those are the bigger conversations that we’ve been having.
When we’ve been doing outreach, we’ve been doing blitzes where we’re trying to let people know what’s on the political agenda in this election. People are genuinely surprised to hear what is on the table. The decent work movement is bigger than it was in the last election, but still not big enough to reach all the people who have such an important interest in certainly voting for these kinds of changes—but also to continue to fight for them after elections.
That leads neatly into my next question: what openings and opportunities do elections present to activists and socialists?
Well it’s certainly one of the times when ordinary people pay closer attention to what the political landscape is. There’s people knocking on their doors and calling them. It’s all over the news and the airwaves. I think it’s impossible for people to not be thinking a little bit about politics and the connection between governments and our day-to-day lives. So I think it’s an opportunity. The audience is a little bit bigger than it would be otherwise. It’s a chance to build movements.
So while voting is really important, it’s actually just as important—if not more important—to be using these conversations to organize. We’re not just saying your political activism ends after voting for a $20 minimum wage or paid sick days. We have to have conversations about what we’re up against—even after the elections.
A lot of people remember what happened under the Liberals when we were able to squeeze concessions out of them, like the path to a $15 minimum wage. The corporate backlash was just phenomenal. You had the Chamber of Commerce saying it’s gonna ruin the economy and we’re gonna lose a quarter of a million jobs overnight. It really did scare workers.
And so even in previous elections, it’s been very difficult to get a big vision for decent work into the party platforms. I have to say I’m happy with the NDP platform—that they were first off the mark to support a $20 minimum wage. And of course, on the question of paid sick days, Peggy Sattler tabled the first private member’s bill that set the bar and forced the Liberals and Green Party to come on board and build all-opposition party support for this basic demand.
I think the reason that the NDP had the confidence to put a more bold agenda for decent work in their platform is because of workers themselves building these networks across the province, and especially because frontline workers persevered over the last four years. For the first time in my life, we had to update our election materials not once but twice as political parties responded to public pressure and improved their platforms. The Liberals are promising a “regional living wage,” which sounds good, but it’s actually terribly regressive and will wind up entrenching structural racism and poverty by postal code. The Green Party initially took that same position, but now they’ve agreed that that’s very problematic and they’re supporting the $20 minimum wage.
They’re feeling real pressure from these campaigns.
It tells you that there’s a big appetite for decent work out there. And parties are trying to capitalize on that. Even Doug Ford has been forced to claim the mantle of “working for workers,” even though we know it’s rubbish, and it’s largely rhetoric. Still, he’s had to pivot, instead of campaigning to cancel a $15 minimum wage, which is what he did last time. It shows what movements can do to influence the agenda. But that’s just one step in the equation. We need a much bigger army of people who are having these organizing conversations. And then we have to be bigger as a movement coming out of June 2, because no matter who gets elected, whether it’s friendly politicians or the Tories who get elected, we know there’s going to be a corporate agenda that we’re gonna have to be much stronger to fight.
Especially coming out of the pandemic. In my personal view, I think the real question is going to be who pays for the pandemic? Is it going to be workers through cuts to wages and benefits and social programs? Or is it going to be the corporations that actually have to step up and foot some of the bill? That’s what we’re really up against.
Do you think the political context has changed since the last Liberal government pursued their pro-labour reforms? The onslaught from the corporate lobby and media was intense last time. Should workers expect similar pushback if a decent work agenda is pursued by the next government?
That’s an excellent question. At this moment, the corporations, big business lobbyists, the chambers of commerce, haven’t been able to come out quite as viciously against raising the minimum wage and improving working conditions. Their line is, “Oh, of course, we want that. But you know, now is just not a good time.” So they’ve had to soften their message, precisely because I think the stark reality of the pandemic is so obvious to people that they can’t take the frontline approach. When you think back to the backlash that happened under the Liberals, Tim Hortons was one of the first to come out to discipline workers. They basically said, “So you think you’re getting a higher wage? We are going to cut your paid breaks, we’re going to cancel your free doughnut.” Tim Hortons attempted to discipline our movement by trying to scare workers off of dreaming bigger and fighting for more.
But it really backfired. Almost spontaneously, the hashtag #BoycottTimHortons began trending as soon as that announcement was made public. We don’t generally call for boycotts, because it tends to make workers in those jobs nervous—the only thing worse than a crappy job is no job. But I think what that hashtag represented is the instinct towards solidarity that other working class people have, that instinct that makes them say to themselves, “I don’t want one penny going to that miserable corporation that cuts paid breaks and the free doughnut workers got on a shift.” And Tim Hortons of course is a big Canadian icon. And I think it was ranked third place at the time on a list of the most iconic Canadian brands.Within the next four months after this fiasco, it plummeted to 60th place.
So I think the corporate class learned from that. Here’s an idea: don’t directly attack workers, especially Tim Hortons workers, because other working class people go there a lot. And they like the workers there. You can see how that strategy has informed the shift that Ford made, from attacking unions to rebanding himself as the guy that’s “working for workers.”
Do voters buy Ford’s branding?
Back in 2018, when we were doing our outreach, there was a lot of confusion around whether Doug Ford would stand up for the little guy. All of his rhetoric didn’t hint much at what his real game plan was going to be. He said, “we want jobs, jobs, jobs, and we want to hire more and more nurses.” And so we had the experience of going into his riding with our petitions. And people were saying, “Oh, no, he’s going to totally stand up to those big business lobbyists.” And when he tabled the legislation to roll it all back—the minimum wage hike, paid sick days, pay equity—we went back the next week, and we told people what had happened. They were devastated.
The difference talking to people this time is that there’s no confusion about who Doug Ford really stands for. They felt that they were misled in the last election. But it’s much much different this time. That makes me feel optimistic.
But how will it translate into voting? Do people really believe voting changes things? These are complicated questions to work through. And I think that’s where movement needs to be bigger, so that we can actually have those longer conversations. The challenge of elections is that they’re very quick. Our approach is trying to have quality conversations with people and answer legitimate questions and validate their feelings of anger and frustration. How do we help people to understand why elections feel so ineffective so much of the time? So having those organizing conversations is really fundamental to building our movement. The challenge for progressives is about how we organize workers into a movement that can fight on issues, make demands of their politicians, and help people understand not only who represents their best interest but how we really hold people accountable afterwards.
How do people do that?
One of the strategies we’ve found fairly effective is that we use the petition, not necessarily because we think petitions change the world, but because petitions give you an opportunity to talk to people. That allows you to invite people to join the movement for decent work. And so we do the petitions to show visible support for our demands and indicate to members of provincial parliament that when they ignore our issues there’s a political price to be paid. And I feel like we’ve done that fairly successfully over the last four years. And I think that’s why decent work has such a prominent place in the political platforms.
But I think eventually this all needs to connect with people in their workplaces as well. We can do as much as we possibly can to change the structural sources of precarious employment, and that’s changing the Employment Standards Act. But when the rubber starts hitting the road, and the stakes start really going up, I think we need to start thinking about how we get workers organized. One of our demands, for example, is broader-based bargaining on a sectoral level, where workers can start to exercise their own power in the workplace.
Because at the end of the day, many feel powerless at work. But the truth is, we have the most power in the workplace, because we produce everything we produce, we create the billions that Jeff Bezos uses to send people into outer space. He even admits that! That’s not just me saying that.
That’s a basic premise in your organizing: those that generate wealth can wield enormous power.
Ultimately, that’s where our power lies. So how do we get that organized? We have to try lots of strategies. And so at the Workers Action Center, lots of workers come in with common complaints about wage theft, misclassification, and so forth. If there’s more than one person or workplace, we try to identify them and help them develop collective strategies to begin to take on the bosses. And if people are interested in forming a union, we try to help people figure out strategies along those lines as well. If we have different workers from different workplaces with similar problems, we try to bring them together wherever possible. That way they themselves can see that they’re experiencing these awful situations not because there’s anything wrong with themselves, or that they’ve done something wrong, or the boss doesn’t like them—but because it’s a systemic problem.
Sometimes it’s a tall order to ask people who are just starting to feel politically confident to go up against their own boss. But the beautiful thing about our strategy of petitioning and outreach and having these conversations is giving people a chance to build up their muscles. It’s very legitimate to ask your elected representative to do something to rectify your situation, especially when it comes to employment law. So it’s a chance to build people’s confidence so that they’re going to be better positioned to take on the boss when the opportunity arises.
What message does Justice for Workers hope to get through to voters ahead of June 2nd?
Let’s vote for decent work. We’ve fought very hard to get these issues on the political agenda. And we need to vote for candidates who will champion those issues. That’s our number one message. If enough working people vote for those issues, we should be able to elect people committed to implementing those policies. We are nonpartisan, precisely because we know that workers vote in many different ways. We want to make sure that we’re not inadvertently excluding anyone from our movement.
I think we’re doing as well as we possibly can. We’ve got only two weeks left. But I’m very confident that we’re going to be bigger coming out of June 2. And that’s going to mean that we have a lot of work to do in the next few years. If activists can be strong enough, there’s been lots of times where workers don’t even have to wait for the next election. Because when movements become big and powerful enough, sometimes they change the entire context. We saw that ten years ago in Quebec during the Maple Spring. The student strikes were so powerful that they created a crisis of government. The government called an election, trying to get a mandate, and were turfed out of office. It’s all about building our power and building on our class interests. Dreaming big. Seeing where we land.