Discussions of working conditions have echoed through all of our minds and been the topic at dinner tables throughout the pandemic. Whether talking about requirements for accessing CERB (Canadian Emergency Response Benefit), workers’ access to PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment), or the ways we can support local businesses and create structures of mutual aid, one way or another, everyone is talking about the role of workers in our communities. However, discussions of labour standards in the region are far from new for those who have been on the front lines of the push for higher wages and better protection. Brock University, as one of Niagara’s largest employers, remains at the centre of one of these ongoing and longstanding discussions.
Throughout the past year, the Fight for $15 & Fairness – Niagara chapter has been working with students, professors, and campus groups to demand/ask/advocate Brock University to establish policies and procedures that ensure a minimal standard of $15 minimum wage for all workers, as well as a series of equitable working conditions. Following a public awareness campaign, this call for action was presented to President Gervin Fearon and Brock University in April 2020 through the Make Brock a $15 & Fairness Campus Proposal. At this time, this proposal was presented to and endorsed by the President’s Advisory Committee on Human Rights, Equity, and Decolonization (PACHRED) at Brock. With PACHRED’s endorsement, the proposal was presented to President Fearon for consideration in April, where it remains unaddressed.
This proposal is aligned with the Bill 148 legislation, and calls for standards such as a $15 minimum wage tied to inflation; equal pay for equal work for temporary, casual, and part-time workers; and 10 emergency leave days per year. Additional demands within this proposal include that Brock University fund research on employment discrimination and barriers to employment and retention on its campus, and that all standards implemented at Brock also be in place for those employed by third-party contractors with which the University does business.
Hamnah Shahid, a graduate student at Brock and one of the campaign organizers and leads on the proposal, explains that “it’s incredibly telling that, during a pandemic, those with capital have only gained more power and money, while the majority struggles with issues like paying rent and being forced to work in unsafe conditions. The Fight for $15 & Fairness campaign exists to put an end to this kind of system”.
Launched in 2015, the Fight for $15 & Fairness Campaign calls not only for increases in minimum wage, but the implementation of standards such as ‘equal pay for equal work’ (pointing to the gendered inequity in pay across different sectors), increased access to paid sick days and emergency leave days, easier access to unionize, and fairer scheduling practices. Through continued advocacy and mobilization, this campaign proved successful in 2017 when the Ontario government passed Bill 148, the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act. This legislation was set to increase the minimum wage to $15 over a two year period (the deadline was January 1, 2019) and implement necessary work standards to improve conditions for many workers across the province. In this time, like all employers in the region, Brock was legally mandated to develop and implement these standards.
In October of 2018, after the Ontario Conservatives were elected, Bill 47, the Making Ontario Open For Business Act, was passed. This legislation directly repealed many of the protections for workers passed the year prior. As such, employers, like Brock University, were no longer required to establish these standards for equitable and fair wages and working conditions.
Brock’s relationship with the labour movement in the region is longstanding. Austin Gooder, a Labour Studies student at Brock and organizer with Fight for $15 & Fairness – Niagara explained that Brock’s origins are directly tied to the efforts of labourers in the region: “key labour groups raised over 1 million dollars toward the school’s founding”. In showcasing this history, Gooder went on to note a key discrepancy in the distinction between Brock’s origins and current issues at the university. “Since then, however, Brock has been resistant toward labour, seen as recently as the 2020 contract negotiations between Brock and CUPE 4207,” Gooder said, “Despite the school’s importance to the working community in Niagara, Brock has done little to alleviate its anti-worker, colonial past”.
In addressing these concerns, Gooder explained the fundamental principle that “all workers deserve the dignity of a living wage. Whether or not $15 an hour constitutes a living wage is another question, but it certainly represents a strong step in the right direction. The campaign’s focus on other pro-worker initiatives such as the implementation of stronger scheduling rights is key in improving work-life balance in Niagara, in Ontario, and across Canada”.
The call for employers in Niagara to implement a living wage, which in Niagara is $18.12 per hour for part-time work, as reported by Living Wage Niagara, is calculated not as a province wide standard, but dependent on the living costs of your region. The call for increased Living Wage employers has been a longstanding campaign of the Niagara Poverty Action Network.
Support for varying forms of labour initiatives continues to grow across the region. Gooder highlighted the impactful work of Caremongering Niagara, a group that is “comprised of everyday people finding ways to assist those in need in their community. As COVID-19’s impacts led to joblessness and housing insecurity for many, it is refreshing to see people coming together to support one another outside the formal architecture of a labour union”. Shahid pointed to similar efforts by the local chapter of the Migrant Worker’s Alliance for Change who have continually called for increased labour rights for migrant workers, through their #StatusForAll campaign, and the work of the local chapter of the Rapid Response Network, supported by the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL).
One means of solidarity we have already seen take place for the Fight for $15 & Fairness – Niagara campaign has been through endorsements for the proposal from CUPE 4207, Brock University’s OSSTF District 35, SEIU Healthcare, the Brock University Faculty Association (BUFA), Niagara District CUPE Council (NDCC), OPIRG Brock, and St. Catharines City Councillor Greg Miller, in addition to PACHRED.
Because Brock University has yet to address the proposal and the unfair labour practices taking place on campus, the Fight for $15 & Fairness – Niagara chapter is hosting an online teach-in on Wednesday September 30, 2020 from 1-2:30pm. Shahid explains that this event “will be contextualizing Brock’s history with the labour movement and how that informs the current state of workers’ rights at the University, including the proposal currently under review by President Fearon”. Shahid highlighted that “there are a significant number of precariously employed workers at Brock, including students, faculty, and staff. This issue is not contained to a small portion of people, but reaches across campus. Choosing to reject the proposal would only ensure that workers continue to experience a lack of job security.” Shahid noted that this event will be interactive as “participants will also be given opportunities to take active steps to supporting the campaign and the activism happening in the region. During the webinar, we will have action items for participants to help them plug in to organizing in the Niagara region. We will recommend other organizations to follow and get in touch with, as well as petitions and fundraisers to contribute to”.
Whether you are a student, staff, or faculty Brock, or not affiliated with Brock at all, Shahid is encouraging ”anyone and everyone interested in labour or decent work to attend the webinar … It is open to all, regardless of whether you’re affiliated with Brock University or not. To do so, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and we will give you all the information you need!” You can also find more information about the campaign at www.15andfairness.org.