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The Fight for 15 in Ontario and Nova Scotia — a study in contrast

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – How come real gains are made in the Fight for 15 elsewhere in Canada, but not in Nova Scotia? Does it have to be that way, and are there lessons to be learned both from earlier false starts here and successes elsewhere in Canada?

The idea that people should be paid at least $15 per hour is gaining momentum. Alberta, Ontario, and most recently British Columbia have committed to it. There have been major victories for the Fight for 15 movement in the USA as well.

Meanwhile it’s crickets in Nova Scotia, even though 130,000 Nova Scotians struggle to make ends meet on less than $15 an hour.

Rally on Spring Garden Road in Halifax in 2016. Photo Robert Devet

It’s not like there is no support for the idea in Nova Scotia. The provincial NDP is in favour, and the NS Federation of Labour considers it a priority. Meanwhile Premier Stephen McNeil wants nothing of it, saying tax exemptions are the way to go (but only when the economy is healthy again).  

Not that long ago Ontario’s Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne was just as reluctant to consider a $15 minimum wage as our own Stephen McNeil. What changed?

Dave Bush, labour activist and writer for the excellent Rankand File.ca, has worked for the Ontario Fight for 15 and Fairness movement pretty much since its beginning. He credits its grassroots activism for much of the win.

“The campaign launched in the spring of 2015, on the heels of the Liberal promising to do a Changing Workplace Review, which in itself was a product of activism by what were often the same people,” says Bush. “We were able to create political pressure on the ground to include the minimum wage in that review, much against the intentions of the Liberals.”

That’s a win in Ontario. But what about Nova Scotia?

Federation of Labour wants to revive Nova Scotia efforts

In Nova Scotia earlier efforts to build a grassroots movement went nowhere. A successful town hall in North End Halifax in early 2015, organized by the Nova Scotia Needs a Raise coalition, generated plenty of enthusiasm, but lacked in follow up. There were a couple of small rallies, most recently in the spring of 2016, and that’s it, as far as I can tell.

Danny Cavanagh, president of the NS Federation of Labour, is well aware of the need to revive the efforts. The Federation is working with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives to provide fact-based arguments and impact studies in support, and Cavanagh also would like to breathe new life into the Nova Scotia Needs a Raise coalition.

“We need to do some groundwork, and we want to build this movement from the grassroots up. We want to take more of a leadership role, and help build this coalition. After all, we have the resources and the links into the different communities,” Cavanagh tells the Nova Scotia Advocate.

Maybe a new start is a blessing in disguise. There are lessons to be learned from successes elsewhere.

The Ontario experience

We put our differences aside and focused on petitioning on the issues around precarious work, says Alia Karim, a Fight for 15 and Fairness organizer at Toronto’s York University. Earlier this year food workers on the York University campus won a $15 hourly wage victory and made other workplace gains after a three week strike.

“Overall, what really helped is that the campaign was anchored at the Workers Action Centres, who had experience with minimum wage issues from before and had many connections with non-unionized workers,” Karim says.

Workers Action Centres are membership-based organizations that offer support in the fight for better wages and working conditions through activism and education. Their focus is on non-unionized precarious workers, many of whom are racialized and/or women. There are no Workers Action Centres in Nova Scotia.

It’s those connections with the Workers Action Centre that allowed the movement to organically grow a truly grassroots agenda, Bush adds, an agenda ambitious enough to inspire people while remaining feasible. While the call for a decent wage is the anchor, paid sick leave and other demands are equally prominent.  

That agenda then also became a way for the various groups involved to remain focused, rather than argue to the point of becoming dysfunctional.

“There are a lot of different groups involved, unions students groups, legal clinics, healthcare advocates, anti poverty groups, faith based groups. How these groups came to the table and interacted was a product of making sure that workers’ voices remained front and centre. There were fractures and disagreements, but because workers were at the centre it allowed the various groups to work through these differences of opinion,” says Bush.

“It is a matter of building on the momentum in the US, Seattle, in Alberta, in Ontario. There is a lot of momentum raising the confidence of workers everywhere. But it takes a long time, and it is hard work,” says Karim.

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