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$15 and Fairness challenges higher education participation in Ontario Chamber of Commerce

By: 
Kevin Taghabon and Alia Karim

November 22, 2017

Why are colleges and universities members of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, and what does this mean in our fight for a $15 minimum wage and decent work? On November 15, $15 and Fairness campus chapters across Ontario held actions to confront post-secondary institutions’ cozy relationship with the Chamber—the foremost business lobby group against Bill 148 and its positive reforms that the $15 and Fairness campaign is on the brink of winning.

Despite being founded on the premise of benefiting the public through education and research, Ontario’s colleges and universities are complicit in the Chamber’s campaigns. Since last year the Chamber has promoted their dubious “Keep Ontario Working” campaign which aims to maintain existing barriers to forming a union, scrap the $15 minimum wage and measures that would bring stability to workers’ schedules, and block any attempts to regulate exploitative temp agencies.

“Challenge the Chambers” actions took place at Windsor, Ryerson, York, University of Toronto, Carleton, McMaster, and Brock. At the $15 and Fairness – York U action, student organizers made signs asked passersby to sign a collective letter to York President Rhonda Lenton to ask university administration to distance the community from the Chamber. “We must hold York accountable and question their role in big business”, said Mina Rajabi, an organizer of the York chapter and President of the York University Graduate Students’ Association.

York students were surprised to find out that their university is a member of the Chamber. Just the week before, Lenton spoke at the Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Summit, which was also sponsored by the university. York appeared to celebrate this event and Lenton spoke about inclusive economies and importance of public research, but she failed to call attention to the Chamber’s slander against Bill 148. The bill will be of particular importance to marginalized students and workers of colour, immigrants, women, and young people currently trapped in a vicious cycle of precarious work.

$15 and Fairness – York U student organizers argued that if York truly wants to support inclusive economies then the university must start by distancing themselves from the Chamber. York organizer, Alia Karim, asked, “Why should universities and colleges allow corporate lobbyists to speak in their name against a $15 minimum wage and decent work?” She explained that as publicly funded institutions accountable to members of the communities they serve, and the public at large, Ontario colleges and universities must particularly reject the Chamber’s misleading “economic impact reports”. Their reports fly in the face of past and current research showing the positive economic benefits of a higher minimum wage.

Unfortunately, the Chamber and its member organizations are not the only ones acting against Bill 148. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business meanwhile is peddling fantasies about job flight from an increase in minimum wage, and they operate the barely-disguised Progressive Conservative front “Ontario Proud” which has also spoke against Bill 148. Contract faculty member, Frankie Cachon, of the University of Windsor argued that we must see through their lies. Cachon pointed out that publicly-funded research is driven more and more by precariously employed students and instructors—so these institutions must act now to support positive reforms in Bill 148. Other $15 and Fairness activists have rightly pointed out that business lobbyists have used the excuse that a $15 minimum wage in 2019 is “too much, too soon”—yet this is simply regurgitated propaganda from the anti-minimum wage restaurant lobby that they’ve used since the 1960s. The Chamber’s own “Vote Prosperity” campaign site includes calls for corporate and business taxes to be lowered and delayed. This is accompanied by a call for the Chamber to “work with... post-secondary institutions” to help decide what to teach and research—hence the pressure on post-secondary institutions to work together and to fund and present at their events.

Moneyed opposition to Bill 148 is significant, but by no means invincible. Activists recently rallied in support of on-strike college faculty in downtown Toronto while students carried out $15 and Fairness actions in conjunction. The alliance of workers, students, and community activists has been proven successful in winning $15/hr minimum wage legislation across North America. For example, Jonathan Rosenblum discussed on Political Eh-conomy (July 20, 2017) that the victory by Fight for $15 activists at Seattle’s SeaTac airport was founded on worker-community relationships to fight for shared goals of better working conditions for all.

Bill 148 passed 3rd reading on November 22. We need to protect — and extend — our wins in 2018. Patrick Brown, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party has already promised to delay implementing the $15 minimum wage if he wins the election in June 2018. Let’s be sure to make decent work the defining issue in the next election and keep fighting for $15 and Fairness, until every worker has at least $15 an hour, 7 paid emergency leave days, equal pay, fairer scheduling — and a union.

Momentum is growing in Ontario through $15 and Fairness, but it will be a long battle to dismantle the complex web of big business, post-secondary institutions, and their cronies working against the fight for higher wages, better scheduling, pay equity, time off work, and more. You can call on Ontario’s post-secondary institutions to stand up for decent work at Fairnessnow.ca.

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