A step in the left direction

Victories for working people spark backlash from business

Illustration

On July 10, 2017, I spent an hour in front of the City of Hamilton’s General Issues Committee answering questions from Hamilton City Councilors about a motion I was proposing to have the Council send a letter to the Ontario government in support of Ontario’s Bill 148 (Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act). To be clearer, I spent an hour responding to concerns about how certain councilors had been assured that a raise in the minimum wage would spell certain doom for small businesses and franchisees in the province. Indeed, question after question referenced anecdotal assurances from the business community about the proposed $14 and $15/hour minimum wage jumps.

No more than two minutes of that hour were spent on paid leave days or wage equity for temporary workers. No discussion on any of the advancements for the labour movement as a whole. Very little consideration, other than a response from me, as to how such a Bill was a step out of poverty for over 70,000 Hamiltonians who not only made less than the proposed new increase but could avail themselves of a whole host of new protections under the Employment Standards Act and the Labour Relations Act.

Instead, almost the entire hour was expended on concerns about how Tim Hortons’ franchisees were seething and how their employees apparently wanted to continue to make lower wages.

In the end, after a few months of staff reports, a low-turnout tie vote to defeat the recommendation, and a saving reconsideration between the General Issues Committee and the following Council meeting, Hamilton’s City Council did endorse Bill 148 by a vote of 11–5.

Symbolic? Yes. Important for a city with some of the highest pockets of urban poverty in the province and the country? Most definitely.

While Bill 148 can certainly be seen as a hefty (albeit risky) piece of electioneering by an unpopular Ontario Liberal Party during the lead up to the June 2018 election, let us not pretend that the wins contained in this Bill for working class Ontarians were the result of magnanimous underpinnings on behalf of Kathleen Wynne and Kevin Flynn. Every single concession from the Ontario government was wrangled over agonizing years by the $15 and Fairness movement and the affiliates of the Ontario Federation Labour during their Make It Fair campaign. These victories were the result of unionized and non-unionized workers coming together as a unified working class to put incredible pressure on the provincial government.

That said, Bill 148 (in its final form) was far from perfect legislation, and there will still be much work to do in reversing decades of dwindling worker/labour rights if we’re going to properly address the current job market’s challenges regarding precarity and the constant threats of globalization to our economy.

But how about that Tim Hortons thing?

I suppose I should have been more prescient in listening to the one Hamilton City Councilor who pressed insistently about the complaints of Tim Hortons’ franchisees. Who would’ve guessed that the venerable purveyor of deep fried, flash frozen sugar cakes and weak bean juice would play such an integral part in the immediate fallout of a $14/hour minimum wage increase on January 1, 2018?

While Chambers of Commerce and Boards of Trade warned of impending doom at the thought of having to pay an employee something close to a living wage, it was Timmy’s that quickly stole the limelight with examples of how not to treat employees who just started making the higher minimum wage. Reports began to roll up from all rims of the province about nixing a standard “free” take home coffee or cruller at the end of shifts. In an even crueler twist, paid breaks had been converted to unpaid breaks, or two (previously paid) 15-minute breaks were being combined into one half hour unpaid “lunch.” Franchisees were blaming the Brazilian parent company, Restaurant Brands International (RBI), and claimed that the controls on menu pricing were not allowing them to adjust for the new legislation. RBI publicly condemned franchisees for employing anti-worker tactics. In the end, Tim Hortons slipped from Canada’s 4th most trusted brand in 2017 to 50th in April of this year.

Tim Hortons wasn’t alone, however. Reports started coming in through activist tip lines and websites of other employers who were exercising a host of “workarounds” intended to recover the cost of their new obligations directly from the wallets of their workers. Some examples, mostly (but not exclusively) from the food services sector, included:

  • Increasing the clawback on tip pooling by 20% for servers and illegally including some management team members in the tip pool.
  • Clawing back tips completely.
  • Cutting hours and shifts to make jobs more precarious.
  • Immediate cuts to benefits, pensions or unilateral worker contribution increases to maintain current benefits.

What followed the eventual passage and royal assent of Bill 148 was an onslaught of radio talk show hosts inviting small business owners on-air to wring their hands over the demise of their businesses and lament that they would never be able to survive this increase to $14/hour, much less the 2019 bump to $15/hour. In the time since the implementation of the Bill however, jobs numbers have gone up. Let us not fool ourselves that the nature of precarity inherent to those jobs has changed. Just as many jobs are still shift-to-shift and week-to-week, but at least the workers in those jobs are able to pay a few more bills, buy a few more groceries, and maybe, just maybe, work two jobs instead of three, or three instead of four.

The hope is that precarious work will eventually evolve into more secure employment. Inherent in the nature of an increased wage is a reduced need to create a low-waged “temp” culture in a workplace, because the temporary workers will be making the same money as permanent staff. In fact, it becomes far more sensible and efficient, for the purposes of employee retention and reducing orientations and training, to hold onto the employees you have and start to treat them better.

Over the course of several months, many politicians, the Chamber of Commerce, and several Tim Hortons’ franchise owners challenged my support of Bill 148’s labour advances and the minimum wage increases. I developed a common answer to anyone who came to me and said, “this is going to cost jobs,” “this will ruin the economy” or “We’re barely scraping by as it is—we’ll have to close this franchise within the year.” Quite simply, if a corporation has been exploiting workers for below poverty wages up until Bill 148, shame on them, and if anyone’s business plan relies on profiteering from workers living in poverty, it is an unethical business plan.

About Anthony Marco
Anthony Marco is a teacher in District 21, Hamilton-Wentworth and is the President of the Hamilton and District Labour Council.

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