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What does it mean to keep Ontario working?

Evan Johnston

April 27, 2017

With only a matter of weeks until the Ontario government releases the recommendations from the Changing Workplaces Review, all eyes are on Ontario Minister of Labour Kevin Flynn. Word on the street is that the recommendations from the Review’s Special Advisors, Michael Mitchell and former Justice John Murray, have been delivered to the Minister, so now it’s time for the Liberals to reveal the result of their two-year review process.

While the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign — along with the Ontario Federation of Labour — have led the organizing efforts to pressure the government on a wide range of reforms that would raise the floor for all workers in Ontario, employers have been pretty quiet. We know they didn’t participate much in the first round of public consultations for the Changing Workplaces Review, but we also know that the strength of the employer class doesn’t reside in their numbers.

So what have they been up to, and what will they be looking for in the final recommendations? In short, what will success look like to Ontario’s employer lobby?

Keep Ontario Working

In September 2015, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce (OCC) published its submission to the Changing Workplaces Review. Titled “Maintaining Ontario’s Competitive Edge: The Business Perspective on Labour Reform,” it contained 14 recommendations that addressed both the Ontario Labour Relations Act (OLRA) and the Employment Standards Act (ESA). As the title of their submission makes clear, their recommendations aim to have any concerns about working people and alleviating the impact of precarious work sacrificed on the altar of market competition.

In July 2016, a campaign was launched based on their demands called ‘Keep Ontario Working,’ led by the OCC and supported by major employer associations such as Food and Beverage Ontario, Randstad, the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario, the Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association, and perhaps the most amusing of them all: Adecco, the largest temp staffing agency in the world. For these stalwarts of workers’ rights, what does it mean to keep Ontario working?

First and foremost, employers wants to keep Ontario working by ensuring that workers don’t have the protection of a union. When it comes to the OLRA, success for employers means maintaining the status quo on unionization rates and opposing all reforms (such as card-based certification) that would make it easier for workers to join a union. They are keen to maintain the two-step “secret ballot” process of union certification brought in by Mike Harris in 1995, presumably because it gives employers the opportunity to wage a campaign of intimidation and harassment against any worker perceived to be involved in the union drive.

The OCC and its partners certainly aren’t alone on this front. Their friends at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) identify card-based certification as a key reform to block in their 2016 report on eliminating “red tape”. The CFIB supplies several paper-thin arguments as to why the Ontario government should reject card-based certification, some of the standouts being that it will introduce “union bullying and intimidation”,” will threaten the “safety and well-being” of employees, and will introduce an era of “planned instability.”

If nothing else, it’s clarifying to see employer groups reveal their contempt for workers’ rights so openly.

Embrace the job churn

If unions are off the table, what sort of vision do employers have for their non-unionized workplaces? A quick glance at their ESA recommendations may lead one to use the word “Dickensian,” and you wouldn’t be far off.

The ESA, sometimes referred to as the collective agreement of the unorganized, sets the floor for all workers in Ontario, and the primary aim of employers is to maintain sectoral exemptions, unpredictable scheduling, and the proliferation of precarious (and often misclassified) contract work.

For Keep Ontario Working, the only area where they see room for improvement is in employer education — which, while a convenient excuse for lack of compliance, can also be said to vindicate workers everywhere who have long observed that their bosses don’t seem to know much about anything.

They supplement their non-existent ESA reforms with their support for the Ontario government’s Basic Income pilot, which they see as providing a more “efficient and realistic means” of addressing the issue of precarious work. While that may sound counterintuitive at first, employers support the Liberal Basic Income pilot because it provides an argument for delaying any meaningful action on the ESA. Why create more ‘red tape’ when the Basic Income will be the magic fix to poverty? And of course, the costs associated with the Basic Income pilot will come out of the pockets of the public rather than individual employers.

A common theme running through each of their ESA recommendations is their concern that raising employment standards will hurt employer ‘flexibility’. What flexibility means, and how workplace protections put flexibility at risk, is never explained. We are just supposed to understand that it’s something employers need, and that it will be a bad thing if they lose it.

Take, as an example, exemptions in the agricultural sector. Keep Ontario Working correctly points out in their submission that the labour movement wants to eliminate exemptions and introduce greater protections for workers in the agricultural sector. This is particularly urgent when it comes to the working conditions of migrant workers. However, the document goes on to decry that “many agricultural companies also operate in the global marketplace, where goods command the lowest price.” That’s why, they argue, the agricultural sector needs to remain “sufficiently flexible” to balance the needs of the market and “the needs of farm workers.”

In other words, employers in the agricultural sector want the flexibility to pay workers below the minimum wage, the flexibility to not give them for overtime pay, and the flexibility to block any attempts at unionization. Later in their submission, they note that legislated reforms regarding scheduling would limit “manufacturer’s flexibility” and “will hurt their competitiveness.” Flexibility in this light looks a lot like unrestrained power and coercion, and the battle for flexibility between workers and bosses appears to be a zero-sum game.

Evidence-based reform?

If all of those reforms threaten employer flexibility, what sorts of reforms are permitted by our bosses? This brings us to another theme running through Keep Ontario Working’s materials: a concern for an “evidence-based” approach to employment standards and labour law reform.

On the surface, this sounds like a perfectly reasonable approach. But just like with flexibility, “evidence-based” is an intentionally slippery word that is used to prioritize certain types of evidence and suppress others.

If a worker explains that more paid sick days will enable them to live a happier, healthier life, does this count as evidence? Or how about a worker explaining that getting at least two-weeks notice for their schedule will improve their ability to plan their childcare? Are these the type of evidence-based questions that employers are asking? Well, not exactly.

In “Reform that Works: A Call for Evidence-Based Workplace Law Modernization in Ontario,” Keep Ontario Working calls for the collection of evidence through an “economic impact analysis” for each recommendation put forward by the Special Advisors, an annual “cumulative cost-of-doing-business in Ontario” report, and an analysis of the “fiscal implications of Review recommendations” by the Ministry of Finance.

To the surprise of no one, these tests are designed to show that improving the standard of living for workers in Ontario will cost employers money. And since the profits of employers have to take priority over the needs of people, the intent of these measurements is to scare governments with an abstract price tag that will be used to counterpose improved working standards to the health of the economy.

The “cost-of-doing-business in Ontario” report is especially deceptive. Keep Ontario Working wants this report to include not only the average cost of labour (as if this would actually be a useful measure for individual employers), but also inputs such as corporate tax rates, energy costs, and real estate prices. This report will measure an abstract idea of “doing business,” and will almost certainly be used as a club to beat back workers on wages, pensions, vacation, and other benefits in both the public and private sectors.

Get ready to fight

Employers in Ontario, under the umbrella of Keep Ontario Working, want to defend and extend the worst aspects of the contemporary labour market. Precarious work is not an issue to be solved, but a condition to normalize across all sectors of work.

They want a system of voluntary compliance and extreme flexibility, where everything that stands in the way of profit is labelled “red tape” to be slashed and eliminated.  They conjure up the bogeyman of a dangerous “one-size-fits-all” approach in order to distract us from the fact that every worker in Ontario deserves decent wages and fairness at work.

To those workers struggling for time to heal when they are sick, for fair and reasonable notice of their work schedules, for a minimum wage that no longer forces them to choose between food and rent, and for the right to join a union, Keep Ontario Working has nothing to offer. Employers are out to create an economy that works for them, not for us.

But we have an important opening with the Changing Workplaces Review, and the Fight for $15 and Fairness has created the conditions for us to win a series of reforms that could help improve the lives of millions of people.

Employers may have the money, but we have the people, and as long as we continue to build the momentum for decent work in our workplaces, in our communities, and on our campuses, we will have the means to ensure that politicians from all parties feel the pressure to act on our demands. The only way to beat back the employer’s agenda is to act united as a class, and the vision presented by Keep Ontario Working reminds us why we can’t stop fighting.

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