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Ontario leaders’ debate: why the silence on $15 and Fairness?

By: 
Jesse McLaren

May 30, 2018

The legislated raise in the minimum wage has been a huge victory for workers across Ontario, but none of the party leaders want to talk about it. This represents a weakness for Ford, the true colours of the Liberals and contradictions within the NDP.

This year the minimum wage increased to $14/hr, and is scheduled to increase to $15/hr next year. This was a major victory for non-unionized and unionized workers, alongside other gains of Bill 148—from paid emergency leave to equal pay for equal work. We know it’s a major victory because of the retaliation it provoked in the 1%—from right-wing economists and corporate media pundits saying it will destroy the economy, to corporations like Tim Hortons clawing back wages, to Doug Ford promising to stop the $15/hr minimum wage. With the minimum wage such a high profile issue, it’s surprising that no party leader wanted to touch it during any of the leaders debates—but all for different reasons

Ford’s weakness

To win the nomination of the Tories and their corporate backers, Doug Ford took the most reactionary stance towards the minimum wage. Rather than using typical rhetoric from other candidates and former leader Patrick Brown—claiming to support the increase but only wanting a longer phase in—Ford flatly stated he would oppose the increase to $15/hr. Because it’s enshrined in legislation, this was a sign to Bay Street that he would open the recent legislation and gut all the gains, as Mike Harris had done the last time the Tories were in power. When he dressed up this attack as populism, saying he would support the “little guy” by cutting taxes instead, this was quickly debunked as costing low-wage workers more than it would help them.

Ford has clearly emerged as the candidate of the 1%, but the more the 99% learn about him the more his poll numbers fall. During the last election Tory leader Tim Hudak confidently promised 100,000 job cuts and went down in flames, so Ford is taking the opposite approach: hiding his plan to stop the $15/hr wage while making the absurd promise that not one single worker would lose their job if he were elected—a promise that no politician can possibly keep in a capitalist economy. While Ford may have emerged as the candidate of the 1%, a section of his support includes low-wage workers angry at Liberal austerity, and this support can shift. Ford’s silence on his opposition to the $15 minimum wage is a sign of weakness, knowing that workers are tired of austerity and support the raise in the minimum wage.

Liberal true colours

Ford was able to hide his plan to scrap $15/hr because Kathleen Wynne didn’t challenge him on it. While it was the Liberals who brought in the legislation, the Premier barely mentioned it during the debates. In the final debate she said she “we’re no longer asking single moms to raise a family on $11.40 an hour,” but she didn’t mention $15/hr. This is because under loopholes maintained by the Liberals, single moms still won’t get $15/hr if they are students or liquor servers (who have a lower minimum wage), and still won’t access any minimum wage if they are farm workers (who are exempt from the minimum wage).

The Liberals froze the minimum wage and maintained these exemptions for years and only recently increased the wage under pressure from the Fight for $15 and Fairness. This has been widely popular but has not made up for 15 years of Liberal austerity, and the usual Liberal tactic of tacking left during and election so they can rule from the right afterwards is failing. While Wynne told Tim Hortons in January “it’s past time we put people ahead of profits,” she revealed her true colour in the debate: attacking Andrea Horwath for not forcing striking workers back to work (as Wynne had done with college faculty), and for not supporting for-profit child care. The Liberals are projected to be decimated at the polls, and are struggling to retain their real base: corporations. So Wynne was silent about the wage increase she conceded to the workers movement, and instead spent the debate attacking unions.

NDP contradictions

This was a great opportunity for Andrea Horwath to show the collusion between the corporate Tories and Liberals, and to differentiate the NDP as the party of workers. But Horwath did not mention Ford’s opposition to the minimum wage, did not mention the Liberal loopholes, and did not mention her own platform that is clearly better than the Liberals—from increasing the number of paid sick days, to making unionization easier, to closing the loopholes for student and liquor servers.  

Horwath opposed the $14/hr minimum wage last election and the NDP were late to supporting the minimum wage increase this time. Instead of campaigning to defend and extend the gains of $15 and Fairness, the NDP ceded ground to the Liberals and have been timid to speak out for fear it will benefit the Liberals.

Now with some polls projecting the NDP with a chance of winning, Horwath has another reason not to be campaigning to extend $15 and Fairness. If elected, the NDP will want to “govern responsibly,” appeasing the corporate anger that would explode should the NDP be elected. Like the BC NDP who were elected to raise the minimum wage to $15 and who delayed the raise until 2021, an Ontario NDP in power will be subject to the same market pressures to which every social democratic government cedes.

Vote NDP on June 7, and mobilize for June 16

That’s why it’s so important to both vote for the NDP on June 7, and to mobilize for the June 16 rally for decent work, regardless of who is elected. There is widespread and justified anger the Liberals, and it’s crucial that the Tories don’t capitalize on this to deliver even more austerity. A vote for the NDP is a vote against both parties of corporate Canada, who have taken turns freezing the minimum wage, cutting corporate taxes and destroying the planet.

It’s important to complement the rejection of the corporate parties at the ballot box with mobilizations in the streets regardless of who wins. This follows the lessons of the Fight for $15 in the US, who planned a demonstration following the election regardless who won. While assuming they would be demonstrating to push the Democrats to deliver reforms, the day became a key date to mobilize mass actions right after Trump’s election.

If Ford wins the election, June 16 will be crucial to show that he has no mandate for austerity. He refused to release his platform, his candidates refused to attend debates, and when he attended debates he hid his plan to oppose the minimum wage increase behind populist rhetoric. This weakness means that if he is elected, a majority of people will still have voted for parties that supported $15/hr, and a majority of people still support $15/hr—including many who voted for Ford. If Ford wins we will need to rapidly mobilize this sentiment in the streets to push back against Ford’s austerity.

If the NDP is elected, it will also be important to mobilize. The 1% will go on an offensive against every NDP reform, and historically the NDP have followed the dictates of the market—like the last time the NDP was elected in Ontario. If the NDP wins on June 7 then June 16 will be a time to celebrate the defeat of both corporate parties at the ballot box, to support the NDP government in delivering its platform—but also to build the movements outside the legislature to push it to deliver more, and to challenge it if it doesn’t.

Join a $15 and Fairness event in your community in the lead up to the election. And on June 16 join the Rally for Decent Work, at 1pm outside the Ministry of Labour (400 University Ave, Toronto), organized by the Fight for $15 and Fairness and the Ontario Federation of Labour

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