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                                                      $15 Minimum Wage An Improvement

                         But Ontario Lost Opportunities in Workplace Review

 

 

By Brad James

When the Ontario government recently announced a suite of workplace law changes, the $15 minimum wage got the big headlines.

Other good moves got a lot less attention, like improvements to standards for scheduling, leaves of absence and vacations, as well as some new rules to better support those who want to join unions.

Another item that didn’t get much scrutiny is something that the government actually didn’t do.

It chose not to deliver a new way for many "precariously employed" people to take part in effective collective bargaining.  And this is despite the government’s claim that the rapid growth of insecure, lower wage jobs was what inspired its two-year review of the province’s labour and employment laws.

The special advisors who steered Ontario’s review had recommended that the government take a step toward what’s called “broader based bargaining” rights for employees of franchises.  The goal?  To make it easier for employees in small, scattered workplaces – specifically, different franchisees of a common franchisor - to build common, regional collective agreements to cover their workplace wages, benefits and conditions. 

Our current laws mean that bargaining in this very large sector, if it exists at all, usually takes place with each separate franchisee. Broader-based bargaining could combine different franchisees in a region for bargaining purposes, though the outlets might actually be owned by different proprietors.

This would have been an innovative, modest step up from the workplace-by-workplace bargaining model that has prevailed in North America since the 1935 Wagner Act in the U.S. and similar collective bargaining laws in Canada in the 1940s and 1950s.

The advisors’ report to the government said Ontario’s current Labour Relations Act (LRA) “was not designed for the current realities of the modern economy that has seen massive growth in the service sector, a significant increase of multiple small locations of a single, and often large, corporate employer and the development of large-scale franchising as a business model. There is no sound labour relations reason to allow for certification of bargaining units in single locations and not permit them to grow. Indeed, as the (provincial Labour Board) has found in many cases, larger units and the avoidance of fragmentation generally best serve the interests of the employees and the employers. The current LRA offers no effective or meaningful access to collective bargaining for thousands of workers in multiple location enterprises or franchise operations.”

In other words, instead of helping these employees, our laws consign large swathes of the economy to remain low-wage, less secure and union free.  But with no explanation, the government chose not to follow the recommendation that Ontario begin to align our collective bargaining structures with the modern economy. 

It is a missed opportunity. It would have given workers better leverage to improve their terms and conditions of employment.  As well, employers would get a more even playing field on which their regional rivals would be less likely to gain competitive advantage by simply paying lower wages. 

Improved province-wide standards, including the higher minimum wage, are certainly important. But so too are freely chosen, democratic unions, independent of employer influence and in possession of the legal foundation and the resources needed for effective bargaining.  That collective voice can help ensure employers obey those better standards.

To be fair, traditions die hard.  It took much too long for unions to get into common harness and make a truly determined pull in favour of broadening the base for collective bargaining. The issue would have benefited from getting just a portion of the love that unions show to other longstanding policy goals, such as anti-scab laws.

As well, broader based bargaining has the disadvantage of being complicated.  It lacks the distilled urgency that is available for advocates of a livable minimum wage.

The government’s workplace law announcements continue a trend in Canada that has seen slow but mostly upward movement in employment standards laws instead of fundamental power rebalances in collective bargaining legislation.

There are examples of other progressive jurisdictions that rely less on changes in employment standards regulations and get better outcomes for working people.  Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark have no minimum wage laws.

Wait, what?

These nations don’t have minimum wage laws because employees don’t need them.  The stronger rates of Nordic union membership (compared with the Canada) mean that agreements between unions and employers set a high wage base.  Nordic union membership is higher for a few reasons, but one is that their collective bargaining structures are much broader than ours, traversing regions and entire sectors. 

Employers that are not part of broader bargaining agreements would have an incentive to pay the same in order to attract and keep employees.

Future Ontario governments might freeze the minimum wage or even roll back other labour standards. Broader bargaining rights could give employees more clout to protect their interests no matter what governments do.

As the legislative process unfolds this summer and fall (and as Ontario’s next election draws closer), unions and their allies should push for a newly amended LRA to provide for broader based bargaining. 


Brad James is the Organizing Department Leader for the United Steelworkers Canadian National Office. Follow him on Twitter @jamesbrad263. Opinions expressed are his own. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted date : June 19, 2017
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