Workers strike back: Ontario’s minimum wage

Photo by Kevin Taghabon

On January 1st 2018, the Ontario government introduced a 14 dollar minimum wage, with a promise to increase to 15 dollars by Janurary of 2019. And while 62% of Ontarians support the policy according to Forum Research, within the restaurant and franchised fast food sector multiple instances branches have tried to balance the increases on the backs of their own employees. While these actions have been coming from many sources, the lion’s share of coverage has been on Tim Hortons, both because they have had multiple franchisees implicated, but also because their status as an ‘all-Canadian’ brand makes them highly recognizable, and holds them in some people’s minds to a higher standard compared to other fast-food chains.

The first wave hit when a Coburg, Ontario branch owned by children of Tim Hortons founders attacked the minimum wage increase, using it to justify cutting staff benefits and paid breaks. This generated an immediate social media firestorm, which intensified after additional Tim Hortons franchisees were caught in similar acts. One location told workers tips had to go into the till, and another took away the one free Timbit per shift they gave to a 15-year old employee.

The response from Tim Hortons headquarters was that they do not control franchises’ labour policies. But Tim Hortons exercises high levels of control over their branches, meaning that they could implore their franchisees to enact better labour policies. Or as I said in an interview with the Toronto Star: “If Tim Hortons can tell franchisees what napkins to use … they could tell them paid breaks are a company policy.” It’s clear that Tim Hortons and similar companies don’t dictate labour policies to franchisees precisely because their business model is predicated on a precarious and poorly-paid workforce with few if any workplace benefits.

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One thing this story has done, if only in a small way, is shift the media’s lens on the minimum wage. In the run up to the increase, the vast majority of the coverage was centred on the small businessperson being crushed under the weight of a job-killing wage hike. This coverage still persists, but events like those at Tim Hortons have put greater emphasis on how higher minimum wages can help workers, how better jobs can stimulate local economies, how vindictive some employers are to labour reforms, and just how many workplace benefits—like paid breaks—can be autocratically taken from non-unionized workers due to an inadequate and porous labour code.

This has been a mixed bag for the Ontario Liberals. On the one hand, Premier Kathleen Wynne has promoted a policy that is popular with nearly two thirds of Ontarians, and adeptly seized a media moment during the Tim Hortons attacks on workers, calling out the Coburg franchise owners for bullying low-wage employees. Wynne said that if they wanted a fight, the franchise should take it up with her and no one else.

But while much of the early coverage was favourable to the government’s newfound progressivism on labour questions, it obscured much of the situation’s reality. When it comes down to it, many of the reprisals against minimum wage workers have only been possible due to the Ontario Liberals’ failure to substantively improve labour legislation over their 14 year reign. Not only are basic things like paid breaks not legally mandated, but the government has refused to address systemic barriers to organizing workers in branch and franchised workplaces. For more than a year in the run up to the minimum wage increase, the Ontario Government ran the Changing Workplaces Review (CWR), which was tasked with studying a suite of labour reforms for the 21st century. Crucially, the government refused to implement key proposals highlighted by groups like the Fight for 15, the Ontario Federation of Labour, and the Ontario New Democratic Party.

The first such reform is card-based (or card-check) certification, which would mean that once a union had signed up a given percentage of workers in a bargaining unit, the union would be automatically certified. While the Ontario Liberals’ reforms did extend card-based certification, they did not make it universal. As it stands now for most Ontario workplaces, including the restaurant sector, the card-signing process must be followed by an additional voting process, and many argue that the window between the two events invites employer intimidation. The second—and more transformative—proposal relates to how franchise employment is recognized. As it stands now, organizing individual franchises is difficult, because technically each franchisee is seen as a distinct employer from the headquarters and other franchisees. Therefore, the OFL’s CWR submission suggested that Ontario labour law match the reality of the franchisor-franchisee economic relationship: “for collective bargaining to be effective, both the real economic players and those that exert indirect or direct control over the operations must be required to bargain with employees. It is important to note that this joint accountability structure can extend beyond the franchisor relationship to also include subcontracting and supply chain interactions.” Similarly, the OFL demanded that “all franchisor…should be held liable for all employment standard violations of their franchises.” Finally, and as concisely put by the OFL in their response to the Liberals’ Bill 148 that covers the labour reforms, “for collective bargaining purposes, franchisees of a common franchisor should be treated like a single large employer with multiple locations.”

In denying such reforms, the Ontario Liberals have effectively endorsed the continued difficulties of organizing those very same workers Wynne accuses employers of bullying. This leaves a crucial window of opportunity for Andrea Horwath and the ONDP. While the party was slow to react to the Tim Hortons franchisee reprisals, it has the far better suite of labour proposals, and can point to their suggestions as tools that can help Ontario’s most vulnerable workers. And with Patrick Brown’s Progressive-Conservatives pledging to cancel the jump to 15 dollars in 2019 should they be elected, it’s likely that the debate around labour conditions will be a prominent one in the provincial election later this year.

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The biggest angle to this story, however, is the way in which vindictive employers have raised the ire of the Ontario labour movement, especially at the grassroots level. In the days after the Coburg reprisals came to light, there was a large protest at that Tim Hortons branch, attended by hundreds of people, including ONDP politicians, as well as leaders on the provincial and national labour scene. This was followed by additional protests in places like Toronto, Hamilton, and Ottawa. Most importantly, however, was a 19 January national day of action in support of Tim Hortons workers, where activists at more than 40 events across Canada protested the treatment of workers by the company.

More than at any time in recent history, the business backlash to the minimum wage increase has sparked a desire to broadly organize those in low-wage, precarious work, and to reform legislation so as to make that process more feasible. And while the developing news around UNIFOR’s disaffiliation from the Canadian Labour Congress could stymie the collaborate efforts of local activists to push back against the bosses, there is hope that a new era of organization might be just beginning that can bring unions into the service and retail sector like never before. If one thing’s certain, this will have a far better chance of success if labour, at both the local and national scales, as well as at the provincial polls, approaches this challenge with a spirt of unity rather than conflict.

Christo Aivalis is an Editor of Active History, and a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Toronto. His dissertation examined Pierre Trudeau’s relationship with organized labour and the CCF-NDP, and is being published with UBC Press in March 2018. His work has appeared in the Canadian Historical Review, Labour/le Travail, This Magazine Our Times Magazine, Ricochet, and Canadian Dimension. He has also served as a contributor to the Canadian Press, Toronto Star, CTV and CBC. His current project is a biography of Canadian labour leader A.R. Mosher.

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