“Wow!” our daughter said, pointing to the orange on the laptop screen. “The NDP just won!” My husband sighed, scrolling to the real results. Blue all the way. “What do we do now?” our daughter groaned.
It was our last morning in Barcelona and checking news updates on the Ontario election was the last thing we did before the final pack and heading to the airport.
We’d witnessed something historic in our two weeks in Spain: a conservative prime minister ousted with a vote of no-confidence, thanks to runaway government corruption. His replacement was a handsome (think a younger George Clooney) 37-year-old socialist, an economics professor now charged to form a new government.
Our home province of Ontario, with Doug Ford at the helm, was at the same juncture. But how different the politics, the promises, the leaders.
I’d experienced a similar, if far more acute, shock when Donald Trump won the U.S. election in 2016. How could someone so obviously unfit for public office bamboozle voters? How could the politics of greed and lies, ego and ignorance win the day… again? Those things did win, however, and here we were facing another reactionary wave of fear and loathing.
But a meeting I attended recently gave hopes and spirits a lift. I’d participated in a workshop last January by a group called 'Fight for $15 & Fairness and been impressed by their energy, clear mandate, and unflagging dedication to changing the work lives of Ontarians.
This past winter they defied the cold weather and cold glares of Tim Horton’s management as they picketed a franchise, that—a week into minimum wage receiving a province-wide boost to $14 an hour—was clawing back on paid breaks for employees.
Another franchise, actually owned by the son and daughter of the chain’s founder, Ron Joyce, was charging employees for their $100 uniforms. You want a higher salary? Great—we’ll make you pay for the privilege.
But that was already old news when Fight for $15 & Fairness Hamilton regrouped recently to take on the next possible assault. It was not yet clear how Ford and company were going to hurt the working poor, but as one member put it, “We can expect a general rollback of just about everything.”
And while Bill 148, the Fair Wages, Better Jobs Act—enacted in November 2017—legislates that minimum wage in Ontario will get a further boost to $15 an hour in January 2019 – no one around that conference table was feeling certain the PC government would follow through.
Feminism and the Fight for $15
What does this have to do with women’s rights? Everything. Across Canada, women account for 70 per cent of part-time employees and 60 per cent of minimum-wage earners, writes Etana Cain, senior advocacy and communications officer for YWCA Toronto.
“There is a lot at stake for women—and gender equity—in the movement to end precarious employment. [These] women are stuck in neutral while an affluent country prospers and advances around them.”
The obstacles are all too real for women earning minimum wage. No safety net if you’re laid off or need to take care of a loved one. No affordable daycare (except in Quebec, a subject for another blog). No stability to put together any kind of financial plan.
What makes this especially unjust is that flexibility is required by employers—“We need you to come in for another shift tonight”— but flexibility is rarely granted to minimum-wage employees. Racialized women feel the sting even deeper, as they are over-represented in the lowest of low-paying jobs: food-counter servers, cashiers, child-care workers.
A Spreading Movement
On the upside, my province isn’t alone in the fight for $15. The Fair Wages Commission in British Columbia; New Brunswick’s NDP leader, Jennifer McKenzie, among others; and the Federation des femmes du Quebec are pushing hard on behalf of low-income workers in their provinces.
Back in Hamilton, my gritty city with its long labour history, the mood around the conference table was sober, but galvanized. Someone volunteered to get in touch with Andrea Horwath, leader of the Ontario NDP. A little pressure wouldn’t hurt. Someone else committed to investigating a possible “window” in Bill 148 that could make it untouchable for the incoming PCs. There were plans set up to organize in Conservative ridings—40 per cent of Ford supporters actually favour an increased minimum wage—and suggestions for liaising with other Hamilton justice groups.
Fifteen dollars an hour will not eradicate poverty. But it will help the most vulnerable among us. “Let naysayers know that this move is good for women and it is good for the economy, too,” Cain wrote in her Huffington Post piece.
“A $15 minimum wage is a progressive step towards ending precarious work, a feminist issue that we should all champion. When women thrive, children, families and communities are stronger.”
Pedro Sanchez, Spain’s new socialist prime minister, must also believe in the power of women’s voices and what it will take to make his country thrive: Within a week of being elected, he appointed 11 women and six men to his new cabinet.
What Can I Do?
Learn more about Fight for $15 & Fairness
Learn about living wage, which is not the same thing as minimum wage, but reflects what earners in a family need to bring home based on the actual costs of living in a specific community.
Lastly, educate yourself on the objections to raising the minimum wage (a great help when arguing your points).